Religious beliefs and mystical experiences can be found in human societies across the globe and throughout history. Self-transcendence (ST)—a state characterized by the loss of boundaries between self and others and a feeling of connectedness to everything—is a primary feature of such spiritual experiences. However, little is known about the brain’s role in this uniquely human and often profound state. One possibility is that self-transcendence emerges, in part, from altered body awareness caused by reduced activity in the brain areas that integrate sensory information to create a singular sense of self. This grounding of self-transcendence in the body is also suggested by Buddhist texts and the reports of meditators, as both report a falling away of the physical sense of the body in intense states of concentration. We tested this possibility in a study of externally-induced ST (via magnetic stimulation of the brain) and internally-induced ST (via focused-attention practice in expert meditators). Preliminary analyses proved inconclusive with respect to our primary hypothesis, as neither the brain stimulation nor the meditation were of sufficient intensity/duration to induce substantive shifts in ST. However, we did find evidence that a focused-attention practice can induce changes in body awareness. Further, whether meditators showed improved or impaired awareness appears related to the quality of their practice, as indexed by physiological and self-report measures. Our data suggest that although awareness of the physical self may be diminished during meditation, the act of having recently meditated may enhance this perceptual acuity afterward.

Eileen Cardillo, PhD

University of Pennsylvania