It is not uncommon to hear people talking about enlightenment, and particularly in the context of meditation and religion and other related subjects. The concept is no-doubt an alluring one and a fascinating one – that we can reach a higher plane of existence, a greater sense of awareness and a better awareness and understanding of the world around us. And while it is discussed in various different religions and teachings, the central concepts generally remain unchanged.
But what is enlightenment? Is it a real phenomenon? Is it something that we can understand from a scientific perspective? And if so, what are its implications and how can we achieve it? Here we will look in more detail at the science behind enlightenment and whether or not it’s something to pursue.
I of course am not going to claim to be able to definitively state what enlightenment is, nor whether or not it is ‘real’. Of course this would be rather an insult to the many religions that consider this a central part of their teachings, and I’d need to have a rather high opinion of myself to think I was qualified to pass judgment on this matter.
However this is not a subject that has been ignored by science and a little research and reading around can reveal some very interesting and promising explanations. Here we will look at some of those, and see what conclusions we can draw from them. Let’s shed some light on enlightenment…
The path to enlightenment is in many cases said to be meditation. By concentrating the mind and controlling the thoughts it is thought to be possible to attain that higher state of consciousness that grants extra insight and knowledge.
What goes on in the brain during this process has been studied quite heavily as you might imagine and the general belief is that the practitioner is able to control and quieten their inner monologue to enjoy a more tranquil and peaceful state of mind. During this they will also alter their brainwaves to a more relaxed state and generally lessen their brain activity.
What happens next is the interesting part – as parts of the brain that are not in use start to completely shut down. This then in turn results in a state that is similar to being asleep, but where the individual is consciously aware. As each ‘module’ of the brain (the theory supports a modular interpretation of the brain) begins to shut down, so the individual begins to experience their consciousness without particular brain functions.
Experiences of Enlightenment
This then results in many of the experiences that we associate with enlightenment and that are often described in the context of enlightenment. For instance as we lose the ability to perceive edges, we start to find that all material things in our vision start to bleed into one (studies have demonstrated that differentiation between contrasting objects and the space around them is handled by particular parts of the brain and can be individually damaged or shut down). Likewise the practitioner will find the motor cortex shutting down – which could result in a lack of feeling and a lack of sensation that helps to define the individual’s physical boundaries. These experiences could very easily be seen as explaining the feeling of becoming ‘one’ with the universe and of transcending physical form.
Likewise other changes in perception occur (such as perception of time), as do changes in personality and mood state as the individual starts to function with a limited portion of their brain. Support for this theory comes from individual reports from drug addicts and even stroke victims who experience similar things to those described in enlightenment and who also experience the shutting down of particular brain areas. If you watch the TED Talk ‘How it Feels to Have a Stroke’ by Jill Bolte Taylor then you will instantly be able to draw the parallels.
Of course this is only a theory and has not been supported by any studies. At the same time it doesn’t rule out a ‘spiritual plane’ or any of the other paranormal explanations of enlightenment. However what it does do is to offer one very fascinating explanation for enlightenment, for OOBs and for other paranormal phenomena. And personally I don’t think this takes away from the experience at all, in fact you could argue that this is a way to experience the world in a more ‘pure’ manner without the filters that we have developed through evolution, and can help shed new light on ourselves as well, and on the nature of consciousness and what it means to be human. That’s pretty enlightening.