The new science of unusual experience Well, very slowly, there are signs that a Jamesian spirit is returning to academia, and the cross-disciplinary study of ‘unusual’ or ‘altered’ states of consciousness is making a come-back. How and why?
First of all, the rise of neuroscience in the last 20 years is enabling scientists to examine different types of consciousness, including meditative and hypnotic states, and to speak about them without having to use wooly and somewhat discredited terms like ‘the subliminal self’ or ‘the unconscious’.
Secondly, the rise of Positive Psychology has increased interest in peak experiences, and in the study of positive subjective states like happiness, ‘flow’, absorption. It’s also led to an increased interest in ancient spiritual practices like meditation and prayer, and the brain changes they lead to.
Thirdly, consciousness studies has grown up as a strong interdisciplinary field in the last two decades, and has increased interest in altered states of consciousness, whether that be lucid dreaming, hypnotic states, or hallucinations.
Fourth, psychedelic research is finally taking place in academia again, after a thirty year hiatus. The research is being pioneered by two teams, at Imperial and at John Hopkins. Their research is opening the door to explorations of altered states of consciousness. Check out this video by Imperial’s Robin Carhart-Harris for an indication of where psychedelic research is taking us.
Fifth, psychologists and psychiatrists are beginning to explore the widespread prevalence of ‘unusual’ or ‘out-of-the-ordinary’ experiences like hallucinations, hearing voices, trance states and near-death-experiences. And they’re beginning to realise such experiences aren’t necessarily negative, distress-causing or pathological – that they can be meaningful and life-enhancing. I’d mention in particular Dr Emanuelle Peters’ team at KCL, the Hearing Voices project at Durham University, and the work of Dr Peter Fenwick on near-death experiences.
Sixth, many humanities disciplines, including philosophy and history, have taken an ‘emotional turn’ in the last twenty years, and are interested in exploring the history and nature of emotions like awe, wonder and ecstasy. This includes an interest in the emotional and quasi-religious power of the arts, particularly music. There is a renewed interest in what James called ‘religious experience’, but which some scholars now prefer to call ‘special experience’ to show that they can happen in non-religious contexts and to non-theistic people. I’d mention in particular Ann Taves’ 2000 book, Fits, Trances and Visions, which is a fantastic exploration of the history of the study of religious experience, and her 2010 book, Religious Experience Reconsidered, which lays out how inter-disciplinary work could go forward.
The missing piece of the jigsaw is research into extra-sensory perception, which remains pretty fringe, as far as I know, although a few brave souls, like Rupert Sheldrake, continue to research it outside academia. - See more at: http://philosophyforlife.org/the-new-science-of-religious-experiences/#sthash.Qi0iKvHN.dpuf