Experiences vs. Events

I dreamt years ago that I was flying through space like Superman. Millions of tiny stars were all I could see in every direction, and it was utterly silent, as if someone hit the mute button on the universe. I still remember it vividly as one of the most peaceful moments of my life.

There’s no question as to whether or not I had this experience. No one is in any position to argue that I’m mistaken about my experiences; in this matter I’m the final authority (whether my memory of them is still accurate or not). Experiences don’t require analysis or verification — you simply have them.

Experiences, however, are not necessarily coupled to events. It can’t be argued that I didn’t experience flying through space, but it can be argued very easily that this experience didn’t correspond to an actual, physical occurrence. Sure, many of my neurons were firing much as they would’ve if I’d really been spacebound, but it never happened in any way that someone else could have observed. What distinguishes an event is that it’s accessible to all, and in most discussions about experiences its their underlying events that are really being talked about.

In ancient times, there was little or no distinction between experiences and events. It was just assumed that an experience was the result of something that actually happened because the experience said so. It’s perfectly natural to trust experience since it’s through experience that we come to knowledge about events in the world, but it isn’t infallible by any stretch. Ancient people weren’t aware to what extent our experiences lie to us. They didn’t realize that our perceptual faculties, wonderful as they are, often deliver incomplete or false information. They didn’t know that we internally model the outside world instead of interacting with it directly. Except for scattered philosophers well ahead of the curve, people took everything pretty much at face value. If they experienced it, it happened, and it didn’t occur to them that it could be otherwise.

Unfortunately, with all the knowledge about brains and sensory organs we’ve collected since, much of today’s world still lives this way. A person worked up into a frenzy and flying high on endorphins in the midst of an exuberant televangelist’s sermon insists that the feeling is the result of a connection to a deity. A yogi feels a rush of warmth through his body during a workout and believes that some sort of intangible life force is actively being replenished within him. A ghost hunter, spurred by anticipation and adrenaline, feels an invisible presence when he walks into an old house. Someone suffering from sleep paralysis or night terrors makes claims of alien visitation or abduction. If they experienced it, it happened.

But we now understand that there’s a chemical component to experiences like these that needs to be examined. Supernatural or paranormal events are being assumed from the content of these experiences, but the chemistry tells a different and often much simpler story.

Glitches of perception are commonplace. They happen every day. Just last week I thought I spilled a few drops of juice and instantly a spot on the top of my bare foot felt cold. I knelt down to clean it up and found that I hadn’t spilled any at all. I expected an experience and my brain produced it, independent of an event. Try keeping a tally one day of how many times you feel or perceive something that turns out to be an illusion (even something insignificant) and the result might surprise you. In matters both cosmic and mundane, disparity between reality and perception is a regular occurrence.

Eventless experiences can also be generated artificially. Electrical stimulation has been used to elicit the experience of being detached from the body. Magnetic stimulation can create a sense of communion with the divine. And an assortment of substances can be bought from unsavory characters that will induce these experiences chemically.

What does this say about those times when a transcendent experience happens all by itself? Is there an external event to attribute it to? Or is it just another misfire on the part of marvelous but buggy cognitive machinery? It’s a very important question for us to consider.

When dealing with the supernatural, you should keep all of this in mind. Feelings, sensations, and impressions aren’t always the result of some external influence. The content of an experience doesn’t always correlate with the physical trigger for it. An experience may be extremely convincing, but it’s the job of experience to be convincing, and you have no defense besides your rationality when it tries to lead you astray. And it undoubtedly will.

I’d recommend reading up on neurotheology to find out about other discoveries made in this vein. The better you understand your own electrochemical workings, the better prepared you are to approach the great unknown.

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