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Can Neuroscience Explain The Heightened States Of Awareness Of Mysticism?


Far from perpetuating the ancient quarrels between science and religion, this video enables us to perceive them as tools to get to know ourselves.

We often hear about programs, webpages or courses that promise to “augment” or develop “awareness” without carefully defining its terms. At the end of the day, they are words that have been used indiscriminately, sequestered by charlatans and new age prophets but also by the great philosophers and mystics, such as San Juan de la Cruz, Santa Teresa de Ávila, as well as Aleister Crowley and the Gurdjieff family.

This short animated film produced by The School of Life creates a vibrant link between the high questions of philosophy (considerations on ethics, the pain of the other; but also beauty, empathy, and love) and neurology that can offer us a rational explanation on the processing of emotions, without justifying or clarifying the mystical aspect but rather contributing a common starting point in daily experience.

Humans spend a lot of time functioning at low levels of awareness. But what most concerns us is ourselves: our survival and rewards, very broadly defined.

Neurologists talk of the “reptilian mind,” in the sense of the “primitive” mind, which is what provokes the impulses of response to aggression, but also that which needs to validate self-image in the face of others and worry about its own survival. It is the mind of fear of losing one’s job, which makes us carry out blackmail or makes us aggressive; it is also the epicenter of egotistical tendencies.

From a neuronal point of view, a state of heightened awareness can be reached at times of the day or night when the body does not perceive any threat (physical or psychological) in its vicinity; at those moments when the neo-cortex activates, the part of the brain that houses nothing less than the imagination.

The effects of this state are active contemplation but with a perspective of things and of ourselves, not as the center of it. We empathize with others and, thanks to the imagination we are capable of putting ourselves in their place. Not only do we share their problems, but also their hopes.

And even more importantly: in a heightened state of awareness, we can see the other and share their suffering without cataloging it as intrinsically bad. What the video suggests with that point is that the mind is capable of conceiving the other as someone who is hurt, for example, in order to imaginatively (and rationally) explain their conduct. Beyond the rich philosophical discussions, what the video suggests is the possibility of finding a common point of departure to be able to see ourselves and everybody else as we really are.

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