Enlightenment is a traditionally mystical and slippery concept, but when it is subjected to the rigors of empirical analysis, there is a lot to be learned about our brains and ourselves. Dr. Andrew Newberg, who has put enlightenment through a battery of scientific tests, says there are actually two kinds of enlightenment: lowercase-e enlightenment, which changes our opinions about the world, and Enlightenment, which changes our essence, i.e. how we think of life, death, God, etc.
Capital-e Enlightenment is notable because of how people report the experience anecdotally and how it changes the brain. Whatever sensation accompanies the experience of Enlightenment — whether light, or music, or color — it tends to be the most intense experience a person has had with that element. And this intensity is reflected in the brain’s limbic system, which processes emotion, and its parietal lobe, which organizes our sensory information to create sensations of time, space, and self.
When people experience Enlightenment, they frequently report losing their sense of self, and scientific analysis confirms that brain activity is a driving cause of this sensation. And while Enlightenment is typically associated with religious individuals like Mother Teresa or the Buddha, people from all walks of life experience essence-changing events — sometimes just walking down the street, says Newberg.
What’s more, these experiences can be purposefully induced through the use of pharmacological substances like LSD or hallucinogenic mushrooms. And while these experiences may seem aberrant from so-called real life, Dr. Newberg argues that we come hard-wired ready to have them. Perhaps Enlightenment experiences are like a pair of glasses, he says: we are born into the world with bad vision until we experience corrective lenses. Whether these lenses are applied to our eyes or to our brains may matter little in an epistemological sense.