New brain science discoveries are providing an intriguing window into alternate realities.

by John McManamy


ON A BLOG, I posed this question to my readers:

This happened to me back in the mid-70s: I had a vivid dream about an earthquake, so vivid that upon awakening I mentioned it to my then wife. Next morning the ground shook, my first earthquake experience.   

Question: Anything psychic or paranormal or bordering on such ever happen to you? Maybe it wasn't out of the ordinary. Maybe it was simply a zillion-to-one coincidence. Call it what you want. Tell us all about it and don't be shy.

"We're called nut jobs for recounting these experiences", Liza replied, "and don't you dare mention them to your psychiatrist unless you want a stay in a psych ward complete with an ECT session or two."

Nevertheless, Liza felt sufficiently safe to reveal this:

I was in a small group in my high school English class. The group was discussing the debate we were preparing, and I said, why are we going over this again? We said all this at our last small-group meeting. Nope. It was the first time we'd met in group. My classmates already thought I was weird, and I'd just confirmed it.

Liza ventured that mania helps bring on intuitive insight, but that two memorable prescient dreams she experienced had nothing to do with mania. Another reader volunteered that most of her psychic and paranormal experiences are enhanced by mania. But another cautioned that: “When I have been psychotic I have thought I was having lots of paranormal experiences, so this is one I just can't touch. I’d be in to see my doctor if I thought I was having a psychic experience. Sorry guys.”

There is no sugar-coating breaks with reality, no romanticizing florid mania or psychosis. But when is a delusion not a delusion? Suppose, for instance, you recall as a kid distinctly having seen a faint luminous figure, head detached, floating out of your mother’s room? Even if you are convinced of the veracity of your recollection, chances are you will be very careful who you disclose this to. Certainly not your psychiatrist. Certainly not the entire world.

Believe it or not, none other than a psychiatrist had this vision. Not only that, he revealed it to the entire world. In addition, he fully documented his own mental breakdown as an adult, together with the lengthy period of emotional anguish that followed.

If you are guessing this had to be Carl Jung, founder of analytic psychiatry, you are correct. Jung felt that the human psyche is "by nature religious," and he spent much of his life investigating eastern and related philosophies, which influenced his take on personal healing - individuation - as the reconciliation of opposites, the yin with the yang.

None of this, of course, sat well with his mentor Freud, who described the Catholic faith as "the enemy" and who expressed his fear of psychiatry descending into a "black tide of mud of occultism." Jung, in the meantime, had serious misgivings about science as the new dogma, divorced from inner spiritual experience.

In 1913, following an acrimonious split with Freud, Jung suffered a breakdown in which he expressed fear that he was “doing a schizophrenia,” which he also referred to as “a confrontation with the unconscious.” He recalled, “I often had to cling to the table, so as not to fall apart.” On the lake shore in Zurich he collected stones and built a miniature village, including a castle, cottages, and a church.

In 1914, sufficiently recovered, he set aside time to deliberately cultivate that state of mind when things fell apart on him. This involved settling into a meditative rest state and having conversations with the beings who entered his inner awareness.

If you are thinking that Jung may have accessed a type of deep trance state we associate with Christian and Eastern mystics and shamanic practitioners, you definitely have a point. To understand this, we need to take a look at the brain’s default mode network (DMN).

The DMN refers to discrete but linked cortical regions that are most active when we are experiencing wakeful rest. When engaged in performing a task, though, a different network becomes dominant, the task positive network (TPN). Believe it or not, until the publication of a 2001 study by Marcus Raischle of Washington University (St Louis), hardly anyone even suspected the brain was organized this way.



In the past, standard operating procedure was to perform a scan while engaging the subject in some sort of cognitive task (such as trying to decipher a simple visual puzzle), then seeing which circuits lit up. When Dr Raischle noted that certain areas of the brain seemed to come on line as his subjects were resting between tasks, he decided to take a closer look.

According to Dr Raischle: “It hadn’t occurred to anyone that the brain is actually just as busy when we relax as when we focus on difficult tasks.”

We start with the proposition that this network is most active during our resting state. But here’s the catch. The circuitry is far more dense than those parts of the brain we associate with performing tasks and is metabolically far more active. This means a lot more is going on than simply the brain idling in neutral. As more studies get published, we are discovering that the DMN is associated with our own internal dialogues, that these dialogues are vital to our sense of self, and that without this sense of self, the tasks we perform have no reference point.




We are also discovering the DMN is heavily implicated in depression. This has to do with the proposition that our own internal dialogues may give rise to unhealthy ruminating, self-criticism, and incessant worries over the past and future.

New insights are coming from research into psychedelic drugs. One drug of interest includes psilocybin, which occurs naturally from “magic” mushrooms and which enhances serotonin transmission. One effect of the drug is that both the DMN and TPN get turned down. This represents a stark contrast to business as usual, where one mode is expected to phase in while the other phases out. Intriguingly, the very opposite happened when researchers scanned the brains of Tibetan Buddhist monks as they meditated. In this case, the DMN and TPN simultaneously got turned up.

Not surprisingly, when something as out of the ordinary as this happens, the brain is going to have a different experience with reality. Those who have used psilocybin or engaged in deep meditation or, for that matter, simply been struck out of the blue by a sudden shift in awareness talk about arriving at inner knowing, experiencing a disintegration of the ego, and achieving a profound sense of connection.

According to William James in his classic The Varieties of Religious Experience: “In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness.”

The experience is typically short, no longer than about 30 minutes, but the effect may stay with the person the rest of his or her life. Indeed, the event is likely to be recalled decades later as life-changing.



Could our altered states provide insights into the hidden forces that influence our our more mundane behavior? According to Robin Carhart-Harris of Imperial College, who has been using psylocibin to investigate the DMN, in the past our only windows into the unconscious have been via dreams and psychotic states. The use of psychedelics in research, he claims, may shed light on that which is latent in the mind.

In this regard, we hear echoes of Dr Kandel’s call for a new science of the mind, one that would integrate Freud with neuroscience. Essentially, Freud was onto something when he came up with the idea of the unconscious mind. It’s just that for the longest time we had no credible explanation - nothing to point to - to validate its existence.

Now Dr Carhart-Harris and his colleagues feel reasonably confident in proposing “the entropic brain hypothesis,” which imagines our consciousness along a broad spectrum ranging from high disorder flexible states (think of something fluid) to low disorder rigid states (think of something solid), with our normal waking conscious in the middle.

Is there a place in this spectrum for realities existing beyond our normal conscious states? Jung certainly thought this was worth looking into when he induced his own meditative trances. His Red Book offers clear physical evidence of what we can achieve when we leave ourselves open to whatever our own inner awareness may reveal.

But we also need to be mindful of the fact that many of us already seem to live inside a much wider mental and sensory and emotional bandwidth than what may be good for us. In this regard, one can be forgiven for simply wanting to turn down the volume. Heaven knows, last thing I need is vivid earthquake dreams, especially living in California.

Being forced to eat out of dumpsters should not be the price we pay for deep awareness.

See also:

Non-linear Thinking

Intuition and Creativity

Madly Creative

Revised June 29, 2016



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