Mystical experiences without significance

Ed from Aeon sez, "The Scottish science fiction writer Ken MacLeod, (Intrusion, The Night Sessions) has a short essay in Aeon magazine exploring two strange sensations. Each one sounds like a mystical experience, but 'solves no problem, conveys no insight, and yet leaves me with an impression of significance'. Are they mere glitches in the mechanism by which his brain makes meaning? Are they rare or common? Do they mean anything?

"Aeon is a new online magazine about nature, culture, ideas and experience. One of its themes is finding new ways to grapple with spirituality, whatever it might be."

When I tell people about it they either look blank or say: ‘Oh! You mean you have that too?’ But it isn’t a bond between us, not a secret, just a peculiarity, an anomaly, perhaps as random a feature of our minds as the ability to roll one’s tongue is of our bodies. It solves no problem, conveys no insight, and yet leaves me with an impression of significance. It has an aftertaste, but no taste. That impression, that aftertaste, may be its empty secret: it may be a tiny glitch in the process by which our brains find meaning in sense.

Like someone is there (Thanks, Ed!)


  1. As a youngster I had an enormous will to believe that every unexplained experience in my life was supernatural. Much the same as people who are determined to believe that everything they see in the sky which they can’t easily identify is a flying saucer full of aliens.

    As a certified old fogey now pushing retirement age, a lifetime of personal experience and reading about such things has unfortunately led me to the conclusion that there is nothing mystical in the word except for the cleverness of the human imagination. Those who are desperate to ascribe significance to the unexplained will never lack for bedtime stories.

    1. Yep, I used to have sleep paralysis (“hag” and all) when I was much younger, waking up on the floor violently from a high-up bed.

      Realizing what was happening helped bleed me of any possible interest in “supernatural experiences”, considering all the people who ascribe SP with mystical qualities.

    2. Yeah, I get these a lot. Benadryl triggers them, as does sleeping too much.  I get a creepy old woman who spoons me and whispers creepy things into my ear. 

  2. These experiences sound very much akin to the autoscopic effects of stimulation of a part of the brain called the angular gyrus.

    I quote from an essay I wrote a couple years ago:

    “Stimulation can activate two very different autoscopic effects, depending which side of the brain is stimulated. On the left side, stimulation gave the patient the impression that a shadowy person was lurking behind her; on the right side, it yielded an out-of-body experience, in which the patient was floating below the ceiling and looking down at herself. These effects, which can be demonstrated to take place in the physical brain, could explain how religious or mystical feelings are created, and perhaps why children often have an unshakable belief in having an invisible friend.”

    The essay references books by the German
    philosopher/neurologist Thomas Metzinger, which I highly recommend to anyone linterested in the subject. It’s online, with lots of links to relevant websites, at “Ambling Along the Aqueduct:

    Eileen Gunn

    1. The Temporoparietal junction is a more likely candidate for the location of mystical experiences in the brain:

      “The Out-of-Body Experience: Disturbed Self-Processing at the Temporo-Parietal Junction”
      Olaf Blanke and Shahar Arzy
      The Neuroscientist 11 (1): 16–24, 2005

      Of course, this does not solve the mystery only deepens it:)

  3. “Mystical experiences without significance” reminds me of a George Carlin joke about the discovery of a disease without symptoms.

  4. Since childhood, I’ve been able to induce his second experience at will, by staring at myself in a mirror and thinking “I am [my full name].” It’s a disorienting, dizzying sensation; my whole life seems like a dream or a novel or a movie, not real and not mine at all — but I no longer know who the “I” doing the thinking is. 

    Goes away within a few minutes, as I get distracted by something else. I used to do it for fun when I was a kid.

    1. Yes!   Back when I was five, I’d do it by pretending that my whole life had happened in moments, while I’d also focus on the idea that I’m a son in an American family.   But the trick eventually wore off and lost its effectiveness.

      Today I just imagine that I’m really one bacterium of billions on a contaminated surface  …and we’re all identical.  Hmm!  Drat, that one doesn’t work anymore either.

      Guess I’ll fall back on spinning around outdoors while staring up into the blue sky.  Or run around and around the house while pretending that strange children are running just ahead, but they pass around the next corner just before I catch a glimpse.  RUN FASTER.

  5. Experiences like these prove the existence of God, and also His nonexistence.  They also offer firm evidence that other peoples’ beliefs are false.  The best course of action is to write a book about these experiences and work hard to convince other people.

      1. I, for one, am chastened.  From now on, I shall refer to the Judeo-Christian Deity in pronoun form as a capitalized It.

        1.  Or, how about “It’s Itness”? The capitalization can stand or go depending on where in the Judeo-Christian spectrum one relates to.

      2. Well, unless you’re saying God is a bearded female, the beard God is sporting is pretty convincing evidence God is a ‘he’. 

        (I mean, do the attached pics look _anything_ like a female?)

        1. I bow down to your superior logic. Of course, if God was a woman she couldn’t possibly sport a beard. Good eye!

        2. But, you yourself said “unless…” Perhaps God is a bearded female. Perhaps God works in a circus. Ever thought about that, huh? HUH?

  6. I’ve had one of those in a dream once. I remember meeting Morpheus (yeah, from Matrix), and him showing me something, and this extraordinary impression of enlightenment. Waking up was really frustrating, I spent the whole day trying to remember what exactly it was that he showed me, until I realized it was just a weird brain-chemistry thing.

    1. Of course, if you want weird brain-chemistry things, there are always psychedelics.  It sometimes feels deeply significant even though you know it’s just chemicals tripping your emotions and perceptions and not reality, but sometimes you get useful insights about yourself, and other times it’s just a fun (or not) ride watching the pretty colors inside of all the things. 

      I’ve heard from some neuroscientists who’ve studied them that DMT and some of its relatives in ayahuasca also trigger the circuitry your brain uses to decide what’s real or not, so those giant glowing lizards are Real, unlike LSD and mushrooms which don’t do that, but it’s not a class of substances I’ve tried.

  7. I am quite annoyed if I’m not in that state frequently.Is this supposed to be unusual? 
    If it is I guess that explains a lot of stupidity in the world.

    1.  You don’t have to listen to the world speak, and some people actively avoid it.  I’ve never understood why; most people remind me of medieval flagellants in their insistence on having suboptimal experiences of the world.

  8. It sounds like your experiences may be something akin to deja vu, a brain response that seems like something else. But I find it interesting that so many people here make assumptions about what it’s not, i.e. a “mystical” episode. I’m not saying it was “supernatural,” but it seems to me to be a scientific bias to claim that we already know what is and isn’t possible.

    I’ve had several moments in my life that some might define as psychic, where information just appeared in my brain, information that with some research proved to be true. That we ascribe such things as mystical just means that it’s a phenomenon we don’t understand yet. The human species is still very, very young, and we have lots to learn about the universe we live in and how our systems are wired. 100 years ago, who could have known that there were frequencies we could tap into to send and receive messages instantly around the planet?

    I reject religious explanations for natural phenomena, but I also recognize that there’s a lot I don’t know, and I enjoy having the sense that there are some things that just can’t be explained sometimes. I’m not saying that that’s the case here, but to label some experience as meaningless points to a scientific prejudice about what these experiences might add to a life. It doesn’t have to mean anything, but that isn’t cause to dismiss it. To be briefly, acutely aware of one’s own being might offer cause for reflection, and reflection itself is a valuable use of our brains.

    1. I totally agree about the reflection. And even beyond reflection on the self.  I’m occasionally hit by moments where I’m suddenly aware of how amazing the universe is, even in the smallest things. Like, how weird it is that I might live in a universe hospitable to life, on a planet with all the improbable things it has that have made life possible, and that I am capable of thought and self-awareness and and so on…it’s all very astounding, the fundamentals of our existence that we take for granted. Those moments are very cool.  

  9. Mysticism is not supernatural, it is merely that which is not yet scientifically known. I think that pondering these things when I wake up in the middle of the night is the closest I ever get to being “grown up”, but the middle of the night is the worst time for existential clarity to strike. It makes surrendering your consciousness back to sleep that much harder.

  10. My experience with both sensations actually blend into one: when for some reason you become aware of yourself in perspective with the rest of the universe, big and small – you get that HD perception of everything; from the texture of the ground to the blood pumping through your head, and the real size of mountains and the vastness of the sky.

    I think I experienced it for the first time when I moved from Barcelona (the sky is always half-covered by buildings, noise and pollutino) to the Northern Territory in Australia, when one day driving down the Stuart Highway I became aware of the immense ‘wall of sky’ all around me, the sheer size of the Never-Never and how small my fleshy body was in comparison.  And then, how tiny the grains of sand were in comparison with me.

    So no, not an ‘entity’ or an ‘energy’, but a sudden understanding of the scale of things that are much, much bigger than myself. And smaller.

    I had these experiences enough times (including once, quite intensely, walking around Black Rock City at night), and been in the right frame of mind that I have adopted them into my life and can bring them about at will. Maybe. Maybe they are not as intense as the original feeling; maybe they are the memory of it… but I consciously invoke it every day, and it brings me peace, calmness and a sense of perspective. This is my size; this is me, and this is the size of everything else around me.

  11. All graduates of the school for the easily flumoxed, self important twits for sure. 

    I felt a bit odd, out of sorts, so it must have been an event of universal import!

  12. “It solves no problem, conveys no insight, and yet leaves me with an impression of significance.”

    And yet it seems to give an insight into where we fit in the universe, and solves the problems that living a life removed from ourselves, distracted and busy causes. Maybe it depends on the meaning you ascribe to it…

  13.  The title of the article in comparison with the author’s experiences leaves me thinking that what is being said here is the “insignifigance of a feeling of signifigance”. Are we simply applying a practical attitude towards a unique feeling? Because I ve had thousands upon thousands of those, and never felt any need to justify them. Or is it a feeling of simple signifigance, pure as it were (which I ve felt for a long time is key to mystical-type experiences)? Are we now attacking the sensation of signifigance itself as insignifigant? An interesting but very odd approach.

  14. If you don’t at least occasional think
    The universe exists – what are the odds of that?
    I exist in that universe – what are the odds of that?
    Not only that, but I seem to be able to think it – what are the odds of that?
    Then you have a pretty sad life.
    Of course on other occasions you should keep in mind that if you can think about existing in the universe , then the odds of you and the universe existing are approximately 100%

    Really though, calling these mystical-type experiences is part of the problem. Call them hyper-aware experiences and people wouldnt start wars over them.

  15. I’m surprised this hasn’t been mentioned yet, but his experience of feeling like a wise, cool person inside his own head is either depersonalization ( ) or derealization ( ), I forget which. I think each has elements of the other.

    I get that every once in a while too. He even mentions (and it’s even quoted in the BB article) that other people he talks to say it happens to them as well. This isn’t a spiritual experience. It’s pretty common, according to Wikipedia.

  16. Whether or not “God” is real, the religious urge and experience is as real as other emotions, like anger for instance. Merely because anger is subjective, we do not try to argue that it is imaginary. 

  17. It seems to me that consciousness is tremendously complex and involves a variety of illusions that we must maintain to be able to feel continuous and useful.  It is not surprising to me that these illusions break down every so often.  It is almost surprising how good our illusions are.

    Think about it – we are a collection of chemicals and connections, enormously complex, wired into an almost unbelievably complex set of cells, in an absurdly complex and strange world.  The seamlessness of our experience is miraculous.  

    That apparent seamlessness only comes about by sometimes ignoring the areas where our senses break down, are missing, or are incapable.  It makes sense that we would have, at times, odd relationships to our own manufactured sense of experience.

  18. This guy (and most of the commenters) is like the anti-Carl Sagan. Just because something has a perfectly rational explanation doesn’t mean it lacks meaning or beauty or significance.

    You’ve all heard the standard anti-science bullshit argument, that explaining something destroys its beauty and mystery rather than enhancing it. This is the first time I’ve ever seen someone actually trying to do that, and it’s kind of disturbing.

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