Extraordinary Mental Shifts

“Extraordinary Mental Shift” (EMS) is a new phrase and acronym that I am coining that refers to all kinds of significant mental changes that could either be temporary or long-lasting.  I chose “Extraordinary Mental Shift” rather than “altered states of consciousness” because it seems like a neutral way to label an experience.

An Extraordinary Mental Shift can be good, or it could be bad, or it could be a mixture of both good and bad. Not everyone will have the same opinion on particular EMS’s.

A person who has had an EMS may feel wonderful and ecstatic, but friends and family might worry that the person went crazy or is at risk of making unwise decisions. A shift from depression to wellbeing is good, but if the shift also included a grandiose delusion, it would be a mixture of both good and bad.

Some EMS’s have almost universal acceptance as being totally good and healthy such as a runner’s high, a natural high while experiencing nature, being moved by listening to music or performing music, and sexual excitement. Some EMS’s which most people consider to be bad are: being drunk on alcohol, paranoia, mania,

Some examples of EMS’s for which people have different opinions include: awakening shifts, kundalini crises, spiritual emergencies, oceanic feeling, religious conversion, mania, depersonalization, psychedelic trips, and religious ecstasy.

Humans have a natural tendency to want to feel good or to feel great or to feel ecstatic; in software terms this natural tendency could be described both as a feature and as a bug; this natural tendency motivates progress, but also negative actions like impractical decisions and addictive behaviors.

People could purposely have EMS’s (as in religion, drugs, and vision quests) or accidentally have EMS’s (as in trauma, near death experiences, and psychosis).

 Religion-induced EMS

Here are some religious things that people do purposely in order to elicit EMS’s: prayer, group prayer, meditation, group meditation, rituals, dancing, pranayama, hatha yoga, worship, bhakti yoga, shaktipat, darshan, singing, chanting, listening to music, story-telling, religious study, self-inquiry, and ascetic practices.

Sidebar: The followers of religions can be broken down into moderate followers and gung ho followers. The moderate followers are mainly immersed in practical activities of living. The gung ho followers have a proclivity for religious practices and are willing to go to extremes to realize the goals of their religion.

I suspect that the gung ho followers of religions and spiritual movements are aiming for a different set of experiences than the moderate followers of religions and spiritual movements.

I think that the religious scholars who accept the theory of Perennialism are correct in that the foundation for all religions is/was the same (or similar) experience. However, unlike Perennialists, I am skeptical that any religion has correct knowledge about the significance of Pure Consciousness Events, awakenings, and other experiences.

With the passage of time, all religions develop sects which disagree with each other on significant tenets. Dogma, rules, and a huge mishmash of spiritual literature have seemed to overtake the original emphasis on experience. I don’t lament that the original emphasis on experience has been obscured. Rather, I lament that the original understanding of religious experience was probably wrong and that religion leads people down a road of mixed good and bad effects towards a mirage.

Armed with a theology of spiritual goals and having had some EMS’s, some gung ho followers will go to the ends of the earth to reach a spiritual goal. Having an EMS in a group prayer/meditation or in the presence of a guru/luminary further encourages spiritual desires and actions. My suspicion is that there is a radiance effect (or contagious effect) from being around spiritual people, but that radiance has a mixture of good and bad effects.

There are some significant benefits of religious and spiritual experiences that include understanding the nature of life, escape from depression and other bad mental states, experiences of love and wonder, and an optimistic view for the future in that everything will be as it should be.

Despite the benefits of spiritual EMS’s, here are some of my skeptical observations and opinions:

  • There are troubling similarities between spiritual experiences and the experiences of mania, epilepsy, and hallucinogenic drugs.
  • Very few gung ho aspirants reach the “promised land”
  • Some spiritual seekers are harmed in numerous ways
  • The benefits of enlightenment and other spiritual goals are ill-defined
  • Many of those who think they reached the goal(s) report that they had years of virtual hell on the path and that it took years to stabilize and adapt to their ultimate EMS
  • It seems unwise to live life relying on the theories (and supposed experiences) of reincarnation, kundalini, God/gods, angels, devas, and Oneness.
  • The spiritual movements that cause followers to have some EMS’s also furnish followers with a lot of hype, a lot of intellectual gymnastics, and a lot of the “blind leading the blind”.

In the future, there will probably be physiological explanations for those EMS’s that are also described as awakenings. Here is one preliminary attempt to explain some spiritual experiences that comes from Neural Substrates of Religious Experience by Jeffrey L. Saver, M.D. and John Rabin, M.D.:

“The core qualities of religious and mystical experience, assented to by a wide variety of psychologists of religion, are the noetic and the ineffable-the sense of having touched the ultimate ground of reality and the sense of the unutterability or incommunicability of the experience. Frequent additional features are an experience of unity, an experience of timelessness and spacelessness, and a feeling of positive affect, of peace and joy. We suggest that the primary substrate for this experience is the limbic system. Temporolimbic epileptic discharges can produce each of these components in fragmentary or complete form: distancing from apparent reality (depersonalization, derealization), timelessness and spacelessness (autoscopy, time distortion), or positive affect (ecstatic auras).”

Sidebar: One fairly-common symptom of spiritual awakenings is that one feels detached from one’s body and one’s mental processes, and consequently one feels like an outside observer of one’s life. Transpersonal psychologists, (psychologists who have integrated spirituality and psychology), successfully advocated to change the definition of depersonalization in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) so that depersonalization is only considered a psychosis if the symptoms cause significant distress or impairment in life functioning. See the webpage at   http://traumadissociation.com/depersonalization. Elena Bezzubova, Ph.D., who is a psychoanalyst, writes about depersonalization and the complicating factor of having a philosophical bent at  https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-search-self/201610/depersonalization-philosophical-awareness .

Hallucinogens, psychedelics, and drug-induced EMS

Alcohol is probably the most used drug to cause EMS’s. Here are the first 3 sentences on alcohol from Wikipedia:Alcohol, also known by its chemical name ethanol, is a psychoactive substance or drug which is present as the active ingredient in alcoholic beverages such as beer, wine, and distilled spirits (hard liquor). It is one of the oldest and most common recreational substances, causing the characteristic effects of alcohol intoxication or “drunkenness”. Among other effects, alcohol produces mood lift and euphoria, decreased anxiety, increased sociability, sedation, impairment of cognitive, memory, motor, and sensory function, and generalized depression of central nervous system function.”

Wikipedia’s definition of hallucinogen: “A hallucinogen is a psychoactive agent which can cause hallucinations, perceptual anomalies, and other substantial subjective changes in thoughts, emotion, and consciousness.”

Hallucinogens cause seemingly real sensory experiences that don’t exist outside the mind. However, it would be difficult to convince some people that their drug trips were unreal; in fact, some people state that their drug-induced experiences gave them insights into life which were life-transforming.

The first 2 paragraphs from Wikipedia on Psychedelic drug:

“Psychedelics are a class of hallucinogen, and are substances whose primary action is to alter cognition and perception, typically as serotonin receptor agonists, causing thought and visual/auditory changes, and heightened state of consciousness. Major psychedelic drugs include mescaline, LSD, psilocybin, and DMT. Studies show that psychedelics are physiologically safe and do not lead to addiction. In fact, two studies conducted using psilocybin in a psychotherapeutic setting reveal that psychedelic drugs may assist with treating alcohol and nicotine addiction.

Differing with other psychoactive drugs, such as stimulants and opioids, psychedelics tend to qualitatively alter ordinary conscious experience. Whereas stimulants cause energized feelings and opioids produce a relaxed euphoric state, the psychedelic experience is often compared to non-ordinary forms of consciousness such as trance, meditation, yoga, religious ecstasy, dreaming and even near-death experiences. Most psychedelic drugs fall into one of the three families of chemical compounds: tryptamines, phenethylamines, or lysergamides.”

Wikipedia states on dissociatives: Dissociatives are a class of hallucinogen, which distort perceptions of sight and sound and produce feelings of detachment – dissociation – from the environment and self. . . . “Perhaps the most significant subjective differences between dissociatives and the classical hallucinogens (such as LSD and mescaline) are the dissociative effects, including: depersonalization, the feeling of being unreal, disconnected from one’s self, or unable to control one’s actions; and derealization, the feeling that the outside world is unreal or that one is dreaming.”

Dissociative drugs that are used recreationally include phencyclidine (PCP or angel dust), nitrous oxide (laughing gas), and ketamine (an anesthetic drug).

One of the arguments for using hallucinogens is that they provide the same kind of insights and experiences that otherwise would probably take years of dedicated spiritual practice. Recent scientific trials using hallucinogens have shown some promise in helping psychoses such as suicidal ideation.

On the down side, there are mental and physical risks to taking drugs. I would add that even if a drug causes a beneficial EMS, there is a side-effect risk to being influenced by an EMS that is not real/true.

Hallucinogens and psychedelics have been declared illegal in many parts of the world. Some religious authorities and gurus disrespect psychedelic experiences as either being unreal experiences, dangerous experiences, or ill-conceived shortcuts to genuine spirituality. The spiritual master Meher Baba wrote, “If God can be found through the medium of any drug, God is not worthy of being God.”

Other activities done on purpose to cause EMS’s

For an experience to qualify as an EMS, it must be a significant shift from normal mental experience. Here are some other activities that cause EMS’s: massage, heat exposure, cold exposure, exercise, outdoor nature experiences, sexual activity, and ASMR triggers (whispering, personal attention).

Things that cause EMS’s accidentally

  • Near-Death Experiences from Wikipedia: “A near-death experience (NDE) is a personal experience associated with death or impending death. Such experiences may encompass a variety of sensations including detachment from the body, feelings of levitation, total serenity, security, warmth, the experience of absolute dissolution, and the presence of a light. NDEs are a recognized part of some transcendental and religious beliefs in an afterlife.”
  • G-force induced loss of consciousness (G-LOC) have some characteristics that are similar to near-death experiences. G-LOC is described in the Near-Death Experience page on Wikipedia:
    “These episodes are observed with fighter pilots experiencing very rapid and intense acceleration that result in lack of sufficient blood supply to the brain. Whinnery studied almost 1000 cases and noted how the experiences often involved “tunnel vision and bright lights, floating sensations, automatic movement, autoscopy, OBEs, not wanting to be disturbed, paralysis, vivid dreamlets of beautiful places, pleasurable sensations, psychological alterations of euphoria and dissociation, inclusion of friends and family, inclusion of prior memories and thoughts, the experience being very memorable (when it can be remembered), confabulation, and a strong urge to understand the experience. However, hypoxia-induced acceleration’s primary characteristics are “rythmic jerking of the limbs, compromised memory of events just prior to the onset of unconsciousness, tingling of extremities …” that are not observed during NDEs. Also G-LOC episodes do not feature life reviews, mystical experiences and “long-lasting transformational aftereffects”, although this may be due to the fact that subjects have no expectation of dying.”
  • Traumatic experiences are EMS’s that often lead to depression, anxiety, posttraumatic stress syndrome, substance abuse, emotional detachment, and dissociation. Some people claim that trauma has led to awakening experiences; I have a blog post that has my opinion on awakening shifts caused by trauma.
  • High fever delirium and sleep deprivation are other unpleasant EMS’s.


Extraordinary Mental Shifts (EMS) are a part of life. They are often wonderful and have good effects. However, there are differences of opinion on whether some particular EMS’s are good, bad, or a mixture of good and bad.

I feel confident in stating that religion-induced EMS’s have a mixture of good and bad effects. I am skeptical that a state of enlightenment/salvation exists although I cannot completely rule out its possibility.

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