This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.
Biology 202, Spring 2005
First Web Papers
What happens in the brain when you experience sublime? What triggers change atmosphere from uncanny to a state of astonishment? If sublime is characterized by our capacity or ability act, feel, understand, perceive, do we sense that change? feeling terror and awe, it perfectly chill harmonious? finally, senses are overwhelmed unable comprehend an object phenomenon its totality, how does regain composure succeed framing information overflowed senses? self doesn't survive vastness event?> For starters, what is the sublime? Situations or locations, like Big Wave surfing, the Grand Canyon, finding out your pregnant, can be sublime in the sense that they provoke an extreme emotional reaction: exhilaration, overwhelming beauty, pain. The sublime, as a feeling or state of mind, differs. If there were a sublime spectrum, ranging from infinite to infinitismal, aesthetic experiences rank with little value besides the immediate. To be "stuck" in, or consumed by the sublime is an entirely different state of awareneness not in this universe, even though the physical state of being is in reality. Philosopher Edmund Burke specifically defines the sublime experience in his essay, "A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful," as the "strongest emotion" due to the element of terror. To be labeled a truly sublime experience, the presentation or object of circumstance must hinge on some modality of terror and pain. For Burke, the key word is astonishment, "that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror (1). Burke's definition relies heavily on the pain component because pain is stronger than pleasure. Human nature is to dwell on loss over the pleasure of gain. Even love, Burke argues, no matter how beautiful, is powerful enough to metamorphosize the mind and fully engross the senses, driving the body to do horrific things.
This definition of the sublime refers to a feeling or a state of mind characterized by internal discord rather than harmony, so what happens when the body encounters the opposite? Meditation often creates a sensation of oneness with the universe (8); the feeling of awe that accompanies revelation, even the sensation of weightlessness or floating in an epsom salt bath can play with the body's ability to perceive natural forces, such as gravity (9). Sublime experiences such as these are provoked by self-induced changes in stimuli, and not necessarily by external influences on the senses.
Thoreau describes boundaries between the self and nature, which when dissolved, help us to understand ourselves and our place in the world. I think the sublime experience lies somewhere in between the "intangible gap between consciousness and the material world" (2). . What if, when we enter the sublime, we are somehow caught in a zone between mental stratospheres? A sort of black hole in the brain. If the range of the sublime experience begins at infinite and extends to infinitismal, when we lose all sense of math and logic, are we somehow lost in the universe, vacillating between levels of strata, floating or vibrating in a space not yet defined in the brain? When the mind and body are unable to overcome a sublime experience, as Burke would define it, can it result in death? Is there on some level, something subliminal about being in a state of shock? Can a person be scared senseless?
What part of the brain is the sublime connected to? There are four different types of brain waves ranging from most activity to least activity: beta, alpha, theta, and delta. A beta brainwave state is characterized by an active mind, responsive to a task, whether in conversation with another person, or singing in a musical. The alpha state is has a slower frequency and tends to be a more relaxed state of mind. Theta waves are even slower than alpha waves, and indicate a deep state of mental relaxation, where the mind in a sense, detaches from the body's movements, and both can act independent of each other. Delta brainwaves have the slowest frequency and the highest amplitude on an EEG machine. Healthy delta brainwaves range from 1.5 cycles to 4 cycles per second, normal range is 2 to 3, but should you drop down to zero, the brain goes dead (3). When you fall asleep at night, you slowly descend from beta to alpha to theta to delta brainwave state. Although only one brainwave is predominant at a time, there are traces of the other three in the mix at any given moment.
The difference between brain waves is necessary in understanding two very different definitions of the sublime. I believe the sublime experience achieved during meditation takes place within the visceral part of the brain, the area where thoughts and ideas are born (8). The mind and body are only capable of achieving the level of astonishment Burke purports when actively, if not overly, stimulated by an object or through circumstance. In particular, the theta state is when the mind/brain is most disengaged, most open to mystical stimuli; whereas in beta state, the brain behaves with rapid-fire output, overly aroused by external stimuli, becoming unstable, and throwing the body into a state of anxiety and stress. In order to be scared senseless or utterly astonished and terrified by a sublime experience, I believe there must be an internal crossing over the mental threshold- to the extent that the brain is literally traumatized.
The theta state is the most elusive, mysterious and enlightening of all the brain wave states. Interestingly enough, when a person is depressed or has brain trauma, they tend to produce excessive theta brain waves. When a person begins to daydream, they are entering a theta brainwave state. In the theta state, the body is in a figurative, if not literal state of darkness. The theta state is one of the most difficult states to study as well because it is difficult to maintain (3), (4), (5). A sublime experience achieved through meditation is due to a self-induced change in brain wave frequency, where the individual actually concentrates intensely on settling down into a silent, yet fully awake state of awareness. When a meditator eclipses the highest strata of the human mind, they remain in possession of their own self-awareness and can control their detachedness from the external world. After a terrifying experience, it may be impossible for the brain, and thus, the body, to recover without the aid of neurotherapy or shock treatment. Although the theta state promotes the free flow of ideas, it is a state where "tasks become so automatic, you can mentally disengage from them", (3), (4), (5). Such as driving on the highway, your mind disengages from the task (although your eyes do not) and the brain permits itself to wander. When you have a "near death" experience, or are in a state of shock, I think your self plays in that black hole/area 51 of the mind, the place in between strata, where the body ceases to exist and the mind is in a trans-human state, unable to "see the light" and guide itself back to cognitive awareness.
In Burkian terms, in order to have a truly authentic sublime experience, the mind and body must be shocked or terrified into a state of total suspension. The problem is, very few people have such control over their mental state to recover from such a sublime experience. The brain is a very delicate, intricate system composed of neurons, axons, nerves, and lots of other stuff; but if you don't exercise your capacity to shift from different modes of sensing and interpreting the external and internal worlds in which you live, the brain cannot function in overwhelming situations. The key is to be aware, play with your brain, test the limits, because I think I've discovered there are none.
1) Edmund Burke Page, Everyone should read Burke's manifesto on the Sublime and the Beautiful, it's delightful and lovely in every way.
2) Thoreau Writings, The Naturalist Revolution! Make sure you read it Thoreaughly.
3) Brain Wave Functions, If you are totally clueless about the function of brain waves, explore these sites.
4) Brain Waves and Biofeedback Science.
5) Brain Waves (EEG).
6) Neurofeedback, What's the composition of thought? Check out this site to find out ways in which mapping the brain and understanding where imbalances occur can help you perform your absolute best.
7) Brain Sync, This site actually has links to other interesting articles regarding the mind/body connection. Wait! so there IS a connection after all!
8) Meditation Handbook, A really cool PDF about the mind, body, meditation, philosophy, and the divine experience with respect to many different religions. Totally enlightening to read.
9) Float Tanks, Ahhhh, the floating experience. After you read this, get in a tub or pool and pay attention to your body's response. Try to remember what it was like to float inside your mother's womb, experience the sublime!
10) Lucid Quest, These sites are kind of surreal, it's weird that there's a whole sect of people on a mission to achieve a sort of paranormal state of consciousness. Or wait, is that weird or scary? Maybe someday we'll shift our paranoia about guns, bombs, and war to the threat of mind terrorists. Make sure you read the disclaimer at the bottom of this site.
11) Lucid Quest Link.
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