The Science of Emergent Phenomena
Why I'm joining the EPRC
We talk a lot here about non-ordinary states of consciousness: ego death, spiritual grandiosity, jhānas, lucid dreaming, ego modulation, psychedelic trips, multiple personalities, clear light dreams—and we’ve only just gotten started.
There’s a vast range of experiences that could be grouped with these, but very few scientific guidelines for recognizing or classifying them. Worse, they’re often ignored, misunderstood, or pathologized by contemporary medicine.
The Emergent Phenomena Research Consortium (EPRC) is trying to change this.
The Emergent Phenomena Research Consortium (EPRC) is a collective of researchers, engineers, and other folks interested in scientifically studying emergent phenomena—the esoteric states of mind that arise during deep meditation, big dreams, and psychedelic trips. Its unofficial origin story begins with Psychology Ph.D. Julieta Galante inviting Daniel Ingram—an MD and expert-level meditator—to spend the Summer collaborating with her at the University of Cambridge. (You might remember Daniel from this book review by Scott Alexander.)
Sadly, there’s still an academic taboo against studying emergent phenomena. Researchers brave enough to broach the topic often confine themselves to studying the most narrow, medicalizable aspects, like measuring how LSD might help with alcohol recovery or how mindfulness meditation might alleviate anxiety. But privately, they’ll often share grander theories and observations.
So when Drs. Galante and Ingram started talking about these things in the open, a crowd began to gather. People who had been studying or thinking about emergent phenomena, both publicly and privately, began to orbit around them. Eventually a critical mass formed, and the EPRC was born in 2020, with the goal of “bringing together clinical, scientific and spiritual paradigms to improve clinical outcomes”. The list of early members is impressive:
Dr. Julieta Galante, MD PhD—Senior Research Associate at the Department of Psychiatry, University of Cambridge
Dr. Daniel Ingram, MD MSPH—co-founder of Dharma Overground and author of Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha
Dr. Matthew Sacchet, PhD—Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School and the Director of Meditation Research at McLean Hospital
Dr. Chris Timmerman, PhD—Researcher at Imperial College London, where he led the first neuroimaging research on the effects of DMT
Dr. Kati Devaney, PhD—Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Harvard Medical School, and President & CEO of the San Francisco Dharma Collective
Dr. Clemens C.C. Bauer—Associate Research Scientist at Northeastern University and Research Affiliate at MIT
Dr. Andrea Grabovac, MD, FRCPC—Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at University of British Columbia
Dr. Emma Bragdon—a Transpersonal Psychologist and founder of Integrative Mental Health University
Jules Evans—Honorary Fellow at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London, and author of several books on philosophy and spirituality
Anna Lutkajtis—a PhD candidate in Religion at The University of Sydney studying psilocybin, mysticism, and altered states of consciousness
Since then, hundreds of MDs, neuroscientists, psychologists, and other brilliant folks—many from institutions like Harvard and Google—have signed onto the project. It’s become a gathering point for some of the most talented people studying meditation, psychedelics, and similar topics.
Sadly, more than half the members have chosen to remain anonymous due to persistent taboos around the intersection of science and spirituality. I count myself among these—I’m not sure how my employees or my CEO would react to the fact that I use psychedelics, or to my interest in dream work.
The recent surge of interest in non-ordinary states—particularly those induced by meditation and psychedelics—has many of us torn between excitement and worry.
On the other hand, like any powerful technology, both meditation and psychedelics can be remarkably dangerous.
Meditation is typically assumed to be safe, even laughably so—you’re just sitting there doing nothing! But in truth, it can lead to severe psychological issues, including depersonalization/derealization and potentially psychosis. Daniel told me the story of a colleague who, upon meditating for the first time, experienced a spontaneous surge of energy, and spent several days in an altered state of consciousness that sounded quite a bit like kundalini syndrome. (Fortunately Daniel and the community were able to bring him back down to earth.)
At least psychedelics are treated with a bit more caution. It’s well-known that psychedelic use can lead to HPPD1 , where hallucinations continue after the trip is over—sometimes for years. They can also trigger psychotic episodes (e.g. the cliche of an acidhead running naked through the streets, claiming to be Jesus). And there is some indication that they can cause long-term psychosis in people predisposed to schizotypy. I’ve written before about my own experience with long-term LSD-induced psychosis.
When I told Daniel about that experience—it’s a core part of why I’m interested in emergent phenomena—he told me the EPRC’s goal is to prevent that from happening to other people. I couldn’t be more on board.
But it’s not just about harm-reduction. These states of consciousness are proving themselves to be incredibly valuable for the “betterment of well people“. The EPRC will work to find methods for safely and reliably cultivating them.
Given my own experiences, I’d say the EPRC stands a good chance of raising the high water mark for human well-being—not to mention rescuing some of us from the depths.
I can’t speak to all the work being done across the EPRC—it includes a lot of different people with different skills and different goals. Daniel describes the EPRC as a self-organizing, grass-roots organization. (This is in contrast with its buttoned-up sister organization, Emergence Benefactors, a 501(c)(3) non-profit that funds promising EPRC projects.) I’ve been slowly meeting folks and learning about their work, but have a long way to go.
Fortunately the EPRC has published a lengthy white paper describing its goals, roadmap, and projects. As I see it, the work breaks down into four categories:
Phenomenology and Physiology
Phenomenology and Physiology
The hardest aspect of studying emergent phenomena is their ineffability. After a particularly intense meditation or dream experience, often the best I can come up with is “whoa, that was weird.”
Different traditions have culturally-specific descriptors they use to denote emergent phenomena—terms like “the void”, “dark night”, “state of grace”, “satori”, or “pīti” all have sharp technical meanings within their traditions. But getting modern medicine to accept the phraseology of Zen Buddhism or Christian Mysticism is probably a non-starter (can you imagine being diagnosed with a “state of grace”?)
The EPRC is working to build an ontologically-neutral system of classification for emergent phenomena. This will include specific references to emotional content (ecstasy, despair, love), proprioceptive changes (feeling big, small, heavy, or differently shaped), audiovisual phenomena (geometric patterns, ringing), and other qualia. We’ll then be able to map ontologically-specific terminology like “satori” to the ontologically-neutral system, allowing a doctor or therapist to communicate effectively with, for example, a Zen Buddhist.
There are also projects underway to study how these different qualitative states map to different physiological states. There are clear, quantitative markers that appear in expert-level meditators, and those markers can differ depending on the style and tradition of meditation. By studying how neurological measurements (like EEG and fMRI) correlate with different experiences, the EPRC hopes to help with the diagnosis and cultivation of emergent phenomena.
EPRC projects here include:
One of the first questions on the mind of a new practitioner is “how do I get there?”
Finding ways to safely and reliably cultivate emergent phenomena is hugely important. There’s a natural, human urge to seek transcendence, and too often people push themselves to dangerous extremes (e.g. taking too large a dose, or diving straight into an intensive meditation retreat without preparation).
The EPRC is taking a wide, multi-disciplinary approach to studying how people cultivate these experiences today. They’ll try to piece apart what’s working from what isn’t, and where the dangers lie.
There’s also strong evidence that different methods work for different people—figuring out how to craft the right path for each individual would be a huge step forward for practitioners.
Projects here include:
“Improving clinical outcomes” is the EPRC’s core mission. Many of the projects above can be seen as groundwork for the EPRC’s medical research and advocacy.
Emergent phenomena have a huge impact on mental health—both positively and negatively. A large number of Psychiatrists and other MDs have joined on to help the EPRC study how we can leverage emergent phenomena to alleviate suffering, and what we can do to minimize the risks.
On the treatment side, there are folks studying the positive effects of meditation and psychedelics for people who suffer from depression, anxiety, addiction, and other mental disorders. These interventions have shown a great deal of promise in clinical trials, but there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done to understand the best way to administer them.
On the harm-reduction side, the EPRC hopes to minimize the impact of challenging trips and meditation-induced mental illness. Finding methods that avoid or reduce the danger will be crucial. We’ll also need to figure out how to help people through these states when they do fall into them.
Projects here include:
Finally, once we have a solid understanding of emergent phenomena and how they affect individuals, the EPRC will need to work with existing institutions to spread this knowledge and bring it into daily practice.
Much of this will involve working with bureaucratic structures like insurance companies, hospital boards, and medical schools to ensure that the healthcare system as a whole is aware of and prepared for patients experiencing emergent phenomena. Many of these institutions are conservative and slow-moving—it will take a good deal of advocacy to turn things like psychedelic therapy or meditation classes into mainstream treatments.
There are also some safety and security implications for emergent phenomena in high-risk professions, like in military personnel or astronauts. Understanding how these people and their work might be affected by a sudden emergent experience is crucial to keeping them and others safe.
Projects here include:
How I’m Helping
My hope is that I can advocate for the EPRC through writing—stay tuned for an official EPRC Substack!
I’ve also been using my programming and data science skills to help with two particularly fascinating projects.
The first looks at EEG data from meditation sessions to discern (a) what biomarkers we might find for meditative experiences like jhānas, and (b) if we can differentiate between meditation styles and experiences. The team has combined great off-the-shelf hardware (the Muse S2 headband) with custom-built software, and is compiling a database of annotated EEG recordings.
Finding explicit biomarkers for these states would be a tremendous help for meditation students. It’s confusing trying to figure out if you’ve really reached a particular stage, some subtle prelude to it, or if you’re nowhere close. Even if you have a great teacher, you can only get so far describing the ineffable, and it’s easy to trick yourself.
I’ve already gotten my headband and recorded a few sessions, complete with annotations (captured by pressing buttons on a Nintendo Switch controller). The team was able to show how my data lines up against Daniel’s and other highly-experienced meditators’. While I can’t exactly quantify how close I am to them in meditation-space, you can see my EEG signals drifting towards theirs as the session goes on.
So far I’ve just been contributing my data. But on the side, I’ve also hacked together an app for live-streaming data from the Muse headband, mainly to educate myself on how raw EEG signals are processed and transformed into frequency bands2. I’m looking forward to digging in more.
Another team is leveraging huge natural language datasets to learn more about meditative journeys. Given my background in NLP, I’m super excited for this one.
To start, we’ve collected anonymized posts from the Dharma Overground forum, which includes daily practice logs stretching back years. There are also dozens of popular subreddits dedicated to spirituality, meditation, psychedelics, and related topics.
Properly analyzed, this data could be immensely valuable in understanding the varieties and commonalities of emergent phenomena across people and practices.
By looking at how language changes during common stages of spiritual journeys, we can better understand the dynamics involved. Of particular interest is how we might help folks navigate and escape the so-called “dark night”—a spiritual black hole that can lead to clinical depression and suicide.
We can also analyze users with different subreddit memberships—e.g. users who belong to r/Christianity versus those who belong to r/LSD—to understand how different practices, beliefs, and chemicals affect outcomes. For example, I’d hypothesize that psychedelics expedite the journey, but often deepen or extend the dark night. This is something we could test empirically.
The team is planning to start fine-tuning a language model based on text from Dharma Overground. I’ve also been experimenting with asking ChatGPT to rate practice log posts on a number of different dimensions, like concentration level, presence of visual or tactile hallucinations, fear, and insight (using the same method described in my post on the shapes of stories).
I’m excited to quantify and hopefully validate my intuitions here, and maybe discover some new patterns in the process.
If you’re as excited as I am about the EPRC’s work, you’re probably wondering how you can help.
Funding is a limiting factor on what the EPRC can accomplish—it will cost a lot of money to keep a full-time research team employed, and to supply them with the necessary space and equipment. You can help by donating to Emergence Benefactors.
If you’re a researcher, healthcare worker, or have experience with emergent phenomena, and you’d like to get involved, you can contact firstname.lastname@example.org to see if there’s a fit.
I’m excited and honored to play even a small part in the EPRC’s mission. Stay tuned for updates!
Daniel points out that some people deliberately cultivate HPPD. And here I thought I was the only one.
Turns out, this is a lot more complicated than a simple Fourier transform! Real world data is noisy.