Jack Hitt and TMS
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
Jack Hitt – This is Your Brain on God [Wired Magazine 7:11]
Soon enough, it's time for the good professor to wish me well and lob this last caveat: "If, for whatever reason, you become frightened or want to end the experiment, just speak into your lapel microphone."
When the door closes and I feel nothing but the weight of the helmet on my head and the Ping-Pong balls on my eyes, I start giving serious thought to what it might be like to "see" God, artificially produced or not. Nietzsche's last sane moment occurred when he saw a carter beating a horse. He beat the carter, hugged the horse while sobbing uncontrollably, and was then carried away. I can imagine that. I see myself having a powerful vision of Jesus, and coming out of the booth wet with tears of humility, wailing for mercy from my personal savior.
Instead, after I adjust to the darkness and the cosmic susurrus of absolute silence, I drift almost at once into a warm bath of oblivion.
Something is definitely happening.
During the 35-minute experiment, I feel a distinct sense of being withdrawn from the envelope of my body and set adrift in an infinite existential emptiness, a deep sensation of waking slumber. The machines outside the chamber report an uninterrupted alertness on my part. (If the researchers see the easily recognized EEG pattern of sleep, they wake you over the speakers.)
Occasionally, I surface to an alpha state where I sort of know where I am, but not quite. This feeling is cool - like being reinserted into my body. Then there's a separation again, of body and soul, and - almost by my will - I happily allow myself to drift back to the surprisingly bearable lightness of oblivion.
In this floating state, several ancient childhood memories are jarred loose. Suddenly, I am sitting with Scott Allen on the rug in his Colonial Street house in Charleston, South Carolina, circa 1965, singing along to "Moon River" and clearly hearing, for the first time since then, Scott's infectiously frenzied laughter. I reexperience the time I spent the night with Doug Appleby and the discomfort I felt at being in a house that was so punctiliously clean. (Doug's dad was a doctor.) I also remember seeing Joanna Jacobs' small and perfect breasts, unholstered beneath the linen gauze of her hippie blouse, circa 1971.
Joanna was my girlfriend when I was 14. When I was sent off to boarding school, she and I recorded cassette tapes to one another. As a teenager, Joanna was a spiritual woman and talked a lot about transcendental meditation. Off at boarding school, I signed up and got my mantra from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, right around the time Joanna dropped me to move on to a tougher crowd.
If I had to pin down when I felt this dreamy state before - of being in the presence of something divine - it would be back then, in the euphoric, romantic hope that animated my adolescent efforts at meditation. That soothing feeling of near-sleep has always been associated with what I imagined should have happened between Joanna Jacobs and me. Like the boy in James Joyce's The Dead, Joanna was a perfect memory - all the potential of womanly love distilled into the calming mantra-guided drone of fecund rest.
I'm not sure what it says about me that the neural sensation designed to prompt visions of God set loose my ancient feelings about girls. But then, I'm not the first person to conflate God with late-night thoughts of getting laid - read more about it in Saint Augustine, Saint John of the Cross, or Deepak Chopra.