Mystical experiences—good for biology

People’s spiritual experiences of nature confer evolutionary advantages.

The idea might be startling to those who think science and spirituality have little to do with each other. But recently I had the pleasure of hearing environmental scientist Terry Terhaar, a forestry policy expert, give a talk at Prescott College on the science of nature spirituality.

Terry explained how her research came about.

As a scientist I may be skeptical of spiritual experiences, but I cannot assume an experience of oneness lacks material evidence.

So, using the tools of science–careful and systematic observation—she began amassing the material evidence, talking to people about what they experienced while in nature. She interviewed three sets of people: environmental activists, people in the logging industry, and foresters. (She herself has graduate degrees from Yale in forest science and social ecology.)

Terry assumed at the start of her study that environmental activists as a group were having more spiritual experiences in nature. I mean, that’s why people go out and try to save nature, right—because they’ve had some grand mystical experience?

Not so fast. Environmentalists might indeed work to preserve nature because of a mystical experience, but it turns out foresters and loggers, who also are spending a lot of time in nature, have experiences that are just as emotionally powerful as those of environmentalists. Terry had to revise her assumptions.

All three groups of people—environmental activists, loggers, and foresters—were having intense experiences in nature, experiences that I would call spiritual.

From interviewing people from all three groups, Terry developed a set of seven criteria for defining an “intense spiritual experience.”

First on her list is a feeling of oneness or unity. Many people have experienced this at one time or another—a sudden feeling that comes over you while you’re hiking across red rocks, maybe thinking about how hot the sun is, but in the next moment you’re not thinking, you’re just there, and everything makes sense, you and the rocks and the sun and the crow wheeling overhead, all part of the same dance.

Or maybe it happens as you kneel in your garden, placing a seedling into the earth, and suddenly you’re part of something larger. Not just you anymore, you’re the seedling too, you’re the soil, you’re even the earthworm inching by.

Terry says this feeling of oneness can serve some very good evolutionary purposes. A feeling of fusion with your surroundings can promote reciprocity, a reminder that everyone depends on everyone else in the grand system of mutual aid that is this planet Earth.

Or take another of Terry’s ingredients of an intense spiritual experience, a feeling of timelessness or spacelessness. We all know what it’s like to “space out,” or lose track of time. We might be daydreaming about something that happened yesterday or a decade ago. We come back to the present with a start: twenty minutes went by! In its more intense forms, the feeling of spacelessness might involve losing sensory awareness or a sense of individual self altogether. Just as in a daydream, mental activity might be sharp and memory vivid while sensory awareness diminishes.

What evolutionary advantage might loss of awareness of our surroundings serve? I mean, if you have to hunt down your food or run from predators, or if you need to recognize every twitch of the weather in order to grow your food, wouldn’t losing sensory awareness be the opposite of what you need to survive?

Terry suggests that a feeling of timelessness or spacelessness might actually serve some very good evolutionary purposes.  For one thing, it might be adaptive in harsh conditions or bad weather. If you know how to minimize sensory input through spacing out, can’t you more easily dampen any feelings of pain or discomfort when doing so will help you survive?

Terry’s idea that spiritual experiences are valuable to survival—and that they can be studied with the tools of science—will make sense to people familiar with the work of E. O. Wilson and Stephen Kellert, who argue that biophilia, the human need to affiliate with nature, is biologically based. Not only is it biologically based, says Terry, it has helped us physically survive for hundreds of thousands of years.

Mystical experiences—they’re good for biology too.

For more information:

  • Twenty-five years ago E. O. Wilson suggested in his book Biophilia that humans need to connect with nature and that this need is biologically based.
  • Stephen Kellert uses the biophilia hypothesis to highlight the importance of biodiversity in Value of Life and applies the theory to architecture and design in Building for Life.

One Response to Mystical experiences—good for biology

  1. Crafty Green poet says:October 30, 2009 at 7:39 am

    that’s a very interesting piece of research, thanks for sharing it