Evaluating the authenticity of technology-assisted spirituality

One of the first questions that comes up when talking about new spiritual services like deep brain stimulation or hallucinogenic experiences is: are they the real deal? Are these experiences authentic? Isn’t there some important difference between a nun who has an intense spiritual experience in the midst of a month long meditation retreat and a guy who eats mushrooms at a music festival?

Yes. There are undeniably important differences, but actually pinning down what they are can be difficult. We’ll try and get to the core of that distinction here.

Before we do that, it’s worth pointing out at the very beginning that concerns about authenticity are almost always a form of boundary maintenance. Calling one thing authentic and another fake makes you the border patrol, guarding the line between the real and the false. That’s not always a bad thing – I want to know the difference between true scientific research and misinformation.

When it comes to judging spiritual experiences, however, I think we should be very clear about our intentions when drawing these boundaries. Is it because we’re trying to preserve our religious tradition’s exclusive claim to spiritual terrain? Is it because we’re uncomfortable with the idea of neural stimulation being as effective as meditative techniques that have been developed over thousands of years? Do we have some idea about what is natural and what is not? Or is it because we’re curious, but want to know what we’re getting into?

I’m not dismissing these concerns. Questions about authenticity are real. But they’re also value laden. What we need is a way to get some clarity here. What are our real concerns and how do we assess emerging spirit tech with a critical but open mind?

In Spirit Tech, Wildman and Stockly argue that most concerns surrounding the authenticity of technologically induced spiritual experiences can be parsed into three parts: origins, qualities, and effects. Let’s take each up in turn.

Causal concerns

This concern tends to draw the line between real and false spiritual experiences on the basis of how they came about.

One way that people try  to authenticate origins is by the spontaneity of the experience. Like the story of Saul converting to Christianity after being struck blind – those spiritual experiences that come unexpected seem to be especially real. Wildman and Stockly note that spontaneity is often used to flag these experiences as having supernatural origins. If supernatural origins (e.g., it came from God) are your main criteria for an authentic spiritual experience, then you’ll likely dismiss all forms of spirit tech as fool’s good.

But, I think there’s more to spontaneity than the inference about supernatural origins. If we shift domains away from spiritual experiences, it’s telling that we’re still enamored with the strike of insight, the flash of inspiration, the eureka moment.

Part of the appeal of spontaneity is that it side-steps questions of motivation. If the experience or insight was out of my control, then my own interests are no longer a concern. Within the process of social learning, this can be incredibly powerful. It marks the speaker as chosen while also helping to shield accusations that they’re doing it because they want power/money/etc.

That may be overly cynical. Inspiration does indeed strike. But when James Watson claims to have spontaneously dreamt of the spiral staircase that revealed the double-helix nature of DNA doesn’t that story enamor? Doesn’t it simultaneously pull our attention away from Rosalind Franklin’s picture of the double-helix?

Origins matter. But in the case of spirit tech it seems like a false start for separating the true from the false. As I noted last time, religious traditions have always been interested in spaces and rituals that facilitate certain types of experiences. At what point did those techniques change from being new and untrusted to being the authentic path towards spiritual experiences?

Maybe you just want to trust techniques that have been tested over a long period of time. If so, I hear you and completely understand. I’m not rushing out to get my deep brain stimulated. But let’s just own our carefulness instead of using it to judge these new methods as false.

The nature of the experience itself

What about the experience itself? Rather than worrying about the way the experience came about, this concern focuses on the content of the experience. Is it as vivid, intense, meaningful, deep, as other spiritual experiences?

Since spirit tech is a nascent field, this is a completely warranted concern. What type of experiences do you really have by receiving neurostimulation?

One good test of authenticity in this case is to see if the experience matches that of the experts.

In the first case study of Spirit Tech, Wildman and Stockly introduce us to Shinzen, a researcher in this field who has been a practitioner of meditation for over 50 years. He also, boldly, volunteered as the guinea pig for a neurostimulation technique he developed with Jay Sanguinetti. For those of your curious, this technique uses fMRI to map the brain and then send pulses of transcranial Focused Ultrasound Stimulation (tFUS) into Shinzen’s basal ganglia.

The result? Shinzen described less resistance entering the deep meditative states he was familiar with and after the third week of semiregular tFUS he entered one of the most profound meditative states he’d ever experienced.

In other words, for him the experiences facilitated by spirit tech were the real deal. They match and exceed the experiences he had through traditional meditation. As Wildman and Stockly are careful to remind readers, there’s still a lot to be worked out. But as we gain a better and better understanding of the brain’s structures and the functions of those structures, there’s no reason to think that the quality of technologically induced experiences is any less than those of other methods.

When it comes down to it, any other spiritual experience is also being mediated by the brain, so there’s no good reason to think that gaining some influence in that process would qualitatively change the experience itself. Even if the experience of unity facilitated by VR simulations is radically different from typical spiritual experiences of absorption, does that make it inauthentic? I think that this criterion will ultimately have to be judged by the people who use spirit tech.

The pragmatic concern

As with most things, when it comes to spirit tech, Wildman and Stockly argue that the best judge of the experience is to look at its effects.

As my grandma would’ve put it: the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

Say you have a friend who recently returned from war and has been struggling intensely. Her marriage is suffering, her work stalled out, and she never wants to hang out anymore (not just because of the plague). She finds a therapist and they begin a three-month process that culminates in two sessions where she’ll ingest psilocybin while the therapist monitors her. After another month of debriefing, you meet up at a coffee shop and she is transformed. She’s alert, energized, empathic, engaged, maybe even more so than before she went to war. Was her experience authentic? Does it matter?

In the end, the only real judge of a spiritual experience, technologically induced or not, is the fruit it bears in a person’s life (drawing from the philosophical tradition of pragmatism, I’d argue that this principle extends well beyond spiritual experiences, but that’s for another time). Once we focus on the effects of the experience, the other concerns tend to dissipate. I’ll even go one step further and suggest that looking at the practical outcomes helps to illuminate why we were worried about origins and the quality of the experience in the first place.

When it comes to origins, tech induced spiritual experiences may seem like cheating because they don’t involve the same discipline and dedication necessary with other methods like long meditation retreats. From a pragmatic perspective, however, those long meditation retreats may be important, not because they’re mystical and real and cool, but because they foster the habits necessary for a spiritual experience to bear positive fruits. What if you could get similar changes in behavior from a few sessions of neural stimulation?

What about the quality of the experience itself? It may seem like only those experiences that conform to the expectations of one’s religious tradition are to be trusted. But, that may be because being embedded in that tradition gives someone a community and a set of shared values to guide and structure the experience to be lived out in a fruitful way. What if a tech induced experience leads someone to imagine new values and new horizons? Should it be automatically dismissed?

On this pragmatic front I think the jury is still out. But the initial results are promising. A few well-tuned experiences facilitated by therapy and entheogens may be enough to help people put the pieces of their lives back together after traumatic events. Lowering the barriers to deep meditative states may help people avert existential crises and foster compassion. Joining an online religious community may help those who are isolated or stuck at home fulfill some of their social needs.

There is no reason to think that just because these experiences are facilitated by new technology that the effects won’t be as good as what we’re familiar with. Just like other forms of boundary maintenance around spirituality, dismissing those experiences facilitated by spirit tech as inauthentic seems to be a premature judgment that reveals more about our own desires than about the tech itself.

Written by Jonathan Morgan, Postdoctoral Fellow. February 25, 2021.

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