This anonymous essay was submitted to Open Philanthropy's Cause Exploration Prizes contest and published with the author's permission.
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Effective altruism and its philanthropic efforts are driven by the core motivation to “do the most good”. While this motto sparks lively debates concerning fundamental ethical assumptions and precise definitions of socially beneficial outcomes, the consensus opinion - often, though not always grounded in utilitarian ethics - tends to center around happier and longer lives, as measured by averted disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) and through similar metrics, accompanied with the interventions’ cost-effectiveness estimates. This makes the proper quantification of subjective well-being and affective states a core aspect of such considerations, highlighting the crucial importance of multidisciplinary consciousness studies. The following essay focuses on a broad class of important but neglected mental and physical states - referred to by the umbrella term “emergent phenomena” - that can be rigorously studied in a tractable way. These studies, followed by their skillful integration into global healthcare and education systems, could likely yield outstanding benefits for humanity, including but not limited to improved mental health and “ordinary” human welfare, widely considered as one of the key cause areas in the short-term EA. Furthermore, it is also hypothesized that the global scaling of well-understood and properly managed emergent phenomena may result in the positive downstream effects affecting our civilization’s long-term trajectories.
Defining ((psycho)spiritual) emergence
The word “emergence” has numerous uses in science, art, and philosophy. One of its most well-known meanings refers to the observation that in many organized systems, high-level properties seem to "emerge" spontaneously, without the possibility of explaining said properties from the constituent parts of the system. There may be some overlap with our use of the term, as many emergent practices engage in the observation of the emergence of lived phenomena in real time (meditation) and analysis of the nature of these emergent properties (philosophy).
However, in this essay, “emergent phenomena” is used primarily as a neutral expression encompassing various states and experiences that are popularly referred to as “contemplative”, “spiritual”, “meditative”, “psychedelic”, “mystical”, “energetic”, “enlightening”, and with the use of other related terms. The “(psycho)spiritual” adjective helps to clarify that we refer to the type of emergence that is often investigated through the psychological and spiritual lenses, without directly implying the validity and/or exhaustive character of the psychological and/or spiritual framing.
As for the term "emergence", we also use it to refer to a hypothesized global developmental process that individuals can go through. Emergent development is therefore hypothesized to be a rapid or gradual process, sometimes cyclical in nature, presenting in phases and punctuated by developmental milestones, transitional events, and various threshold effects. Emergent development can entail deep questioning surrounding self and worldviews, and the correlative transformation of one's metaphysical beliefs and motivations in life. Its effects on an individual's life, as well as the degree to which function, representations, and fundamental orientations in life are impacted can be very significant. Its short- and long-term effects involve systemic shifts in an individual's lived-world (Lebenswelt), not only in the variegated dimensions of the field of consciousness such as cognition, perception, and emotion, but also in the domains of action and interpersonal relationships.
In short, all the inherently correlative dimensions of human life such as perception, beliefs, worldviews, felt meaning, values, motivation, behavior, psychology, physiology, and even sensate spheres can be impacted by the emergent development. Most people involved in practices likely to yield emergent phenomena have little idea of the full range of possible experiences and effects, both good and bad, that these practices may produce. These effects can also occur spontaneously (Corneille, 2021). Research into the efficacy of emergent practices and therapies is lacking, as is the knowledge about the applicable skills that may effectively produce beneficial emergent experiences and minimize the risk of deleterious outcomes. There are numerous overlapping reasons for this state of things, including but not limited to difficulty in studying such phenomena embedded in different religious and cultural contexts, general taboo due to the concern about associations with pseudoscience and ontologically specific, supernatural claims, as well as methodological challenges inherent to the multidisciplinary field of consciousness studies.
While many remarkable claims for the possible benefits of emergent phenomena have been made for millennia, the full range of what might be possible in human development from emergent practices has yet to be rigorously studied. We believe that resolving problematic emergent experiences that people may encounter, as well as addressing systemic problems occurring when such individuals interact with the medical and mental health systems, would yield a high return of investment in the form of positive social impact.
Although not strictly equivalent, emergent phenomena are closely related to various classes of so-called altered states of Consciousness (ASCs). Anthropologists estimate that over 3,500 societies have developed complex institutionalized procedures to induce ASCs in ritual contexts (Bourguignon, 1973). This gives us a sense of the universal prevalence of the cultivation of ASCs. The incidence of adverse effects from meditation practice, increasingly popular in secularized and therapeutic contexts, is estimated as comparable to that of pharmacological treatments (Van Dam et al., 2018).
A recent "cross-sectional online survey to investigate the prevalence of a wide range of experiences in 1120 meditators", including but not limited to mystical experiences, a sense of transcendence of space and time, ineffability, extraordinary physical, spatiotemporal, cognitive-psychological relational experiences, "show(s) that the majority of respondents report having had many of these anomalous and extraordinary experiences". Given the relatively scarce and scattered data points collected with the use of methods of varying quality, it is relatively difficult to come up with satisfying estimates of the prevalence and incidence of emergent phenomena in the global population.
In this context, it might be helpful to introduce a simple guesstimate: if we were to conservatively assume that pronounced emergent phenomena occur only in 10% of the global population, and only 10% of the said group struggle(d) with severely distressing experiences that could not be effectively addressed within the current healthcare systems, it would yield an approximately 80 million target population. Given that over 80% of the global population is religious, and that many emergent practices - especially meditation and psychedelic use - scale in the context of secular therapy and self-actualization, the number of people who would directly and substantially benefit from advancing emergence research is likely substantially higher, to the point where it may concern a target population larger by the entire order of magnitude. This would remain in line with observations like the one stating that 49% of people surveyed had a religious or mystical experience, defined as a “moment of sudden religious insight of awakening” (Pew Forum Survey, 2009).
Varieties of emergent phenomena
Emergent phenomena and the effects they produce on individuals with various proclivities exhibit a tremendous range of possible manifestations. These should be thought of in a similar way as we think of medical conditions: a single condition, such as Lyme's disease, can present incredibly broad ranges of symptoms and manifestations, yet we have clearly managed to identify a common cause for all these seemingly unrelated presentations.
Similarly, we hypothesize that under the broad variety of manifestations we have listed, commonly referred to as “contemplative”, “spiritual”, “meditative”, “psychedelic”, “mystical”, and “energetic” phenomena, there are unifying threads and global processes to be discovered. Most of the unusual phenomena, effects, and experiences discussed here fit into at least one of the following categories - though, in practice, there is often significant overlap: sensate, perceptual, arousal-related, time consciousness, sequential, spatial, dimensional, contextual, existential, psychological, emotional, volitional, archetypal, semantic, valence-related, envelope-related, cognitive, physiological, paradigmatic, kinetic, vocational, functional, behavioral, social, collective, cultural, expressive, medical, energetic, meta-emergent, and more.
In some ways then, emergent phenomena can be seen as symptoms of an underlying emergent development, though we avoid using the term “symptoms” as usually reserved for pathological states, while emergence frequently represents a very positive axis of development, as exemplified by the large number of psychedelic, spiritual, and mystical traditions which have thought to foster it.
Emergent development is often accompanied by the experience of novel mental states, yet emergent phenomena should not be equated with ASCs. Firstly, because the paradigm of ASCs is not sufficient to account for some of the manifestations of an emergence process which could hardly be qualified as ASCs or even as "states" of consciousness, such as energy-like somatic experiences (ELSE - Cooper et al., 2021), or shifts in metaphysical beliefs, such as these triggered by psychedelic experiences (Timmermann et al., 2022). Secondly, because not all emergent traditions rely on the cultivation of ASCs - for instance, the nature of mind schools of Tibetan Buddhism, Mahamudra, and Dzogchen is based on maintaining of a natural state of awareness, not an altered state. Conversely, not all ASCs will trigger an emergent process: to illustrate this point, we can mention how not all psychedelic experiences will trigger emergence, and not all emergent development is caused by intense or exotic experiences. Furthermore, different emergent traditions have differing relationships with ASCs, some finding great value in cultivating certain forms of ASCs, such as jhanas in Buddhism, piblokto in Eskimo culture, or possession trance in Vudun people (Locke & Kelly, 1985), whereas others consider any special experiences, be they positive, negative, or ambivalent, correlative with an ongoing, active process of emergence, to be merely side effects or distractions, and discourage spending time chasing particular experiences.
Relevance for human welfare
The frequent incidence of emergent experiences, and the general hesitance of scientific, medical, and mental health disciplines to acknowledge and investigate their reality, constitutes a significant problem. Primary emergency medicine and emergency psychiatry textbooks scarcely mention emergent phenomena. The present DSM-5 and ICD-11 psychiatric diagnostic manuals have no codes adequate reflecting the wide range of challenging emergent phenomena. Thus, there are no mainstream standards of care, no trials comparing management strategies, no standard diagnostic criteria or protocols, and no ways to track the incidence, prevalence, and impact of emergent phenomena on patients, healthcare systems, and societies.
Consequently, medical and therapeutic ethics are being violated by this severe knowledge gap, as it is exceptionally difficult have an ethical conversation about the risks, benefits, and emergent practices and therapies alternatives. There are currently no means to conduct a globally scalable, high-quality education and the implementation of management strategies for challenging emergent experiences, as these are all functionally unknown to mainstream clinical medicine and mental health. One can only imagine the toll of the aforementioned status quo in terms of DALYs and other metrics used in the modern healthcare and economic systems. It is equally important to recognize the overlooked therapeutic potential of many emergent modalities, including but not limited to the psychedelic therapies and meditative absorptions, concerning blissful states much more profound and less known than these usually attained during the popular mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT).
The case for emergence research is thus supported by the extensive literature arguing in favor of recognizing mental health as an effective cause area, and of particular interest to patients suffering from common mental disorders who experienced limited benefits from the popular treatment options, often struggling with substantial treatment resistance.
Past and presence
The field relating to emergent phenomena is as old as the history of humanity, and many mystical, religious, Indigenous, and traditional cultures have developed knowledge and practical techniques for contending with such phenomena and experiences. Unfortunately, much of this knowledge has been either lost, diluted, distorted, or neglected throughout the history, including in the advent of scientific materialism, with some noted exceptions. In 1894, Richard Bucke, the president of the American Medico-Psychological Association (now the APA) proposed that his notion of “cosmic consciousness” be incorporated into psychiatric epistemology and practice. In 1901, the American psychologist and philosopher William James discussed emergent phenomena and identified them as being poorly understood by science. Carl Jung also constituted a prominent trailblazer in this field. Building on the work of these luminaries, the formal establishment of the emergence research began in the 1960s, when the American psychologist Abraham Maslow introduced the term “Being-Psychology” to denote a new field of psychological investigation at the interface between the mainstream psychology and the psychospiritual domain.
Most research into emergent phenomena has been siloed into somewhat artificially distinct fields, based on specific thematic choices (studying some particular set of effects and experiences), or the effects of very specific induction methods which tend to distinguish radically between pharmacological and non-pharmacological techniques as in contemplative studies (based on "meditation") or psychedelic science (based on the ingestion of natural or synthetic psychoactive compounds). This siloing of research into meditation research, psychedelic research, religious studies, phenomenology, psychology, philosophy, and anthropology, related to existing incentive and intellectual structures, as well as values in academic disciplines, clinical research, and emergent traditions, has significant consequences. These divisions may not hold scrutiny for several reasons.
First, in terms of induction methods and their supposed effects, these are not as tightly defined as these labels may suggest. "Meditation" itself covers a broad variety of internal activities and contents, and may impact brain chemistry to a degree where some of its alleged effects could in fact be traced to pharmacological causes, such as the presence of psychedelic compounds in the brain produced by certain activities or themes of meditation. Conversely, some of the effects of psychedelic drugs may well be due to the attentional activity of the user rather than to the effects of the compound per se. Furthermore, various states of consciousness which may arise from a multitude of induction techniques are often strikingly similar from the phenomenological perspective, and uniting the varieties of manifestations into a coherent family of states involves picking up on certain developmental patterns discussed in this essay, requiring comparative studies at the phenomenological, behavioral, and physiological levels which simply do not exist today, thwarted by disciplinary divisions and the related difficulty of coordinating multidisciplinary research for long periods of time.
Thus we should consider the advice of anthropologists Locke & Kelly, who suggested as early as in 1985 that the study of particular states of consciousness and related induction methods have several different levels of analytic and social relevance. They include both “spontaneous and induced forms which may also have intertwined developmental aspects. (...) Characteristically, a multiplicity of factors is involved at different analytical levels, interacting in rich and often subtle ways". Thus we should refrain from hasty categorization lest we commit "category errors and premature empirical and conceptual closure." "In the face of such complexities", they argued, "we need an overall model which at least begins to take account, in a systematic way, of the full range of factors which may be involved in a given case." Only such a pluralistic approach can lead to meaningful cross-cultural comparisons and help develop general taxonomies of ASCs by conducting "thoroughgoing comparative study of these phenomena (...) leading to the clearer delineation of the range of discrete states and mapping of "family resemblances" between them" (Locke & Kelly, 1985).
In terms of meditation research, recent reviews of literature show that: (1) the scope of states of consciousness studied in relation to meditative practices should be radically expanded to include "more challenging domains to measure, such as group and relational, transpersonal and mystical, and difficult aspects of meditation; anomalous or extraordinary phenomena related to meditation; and post-conventional stages of development associated with meditation." According to the same group of researchers, "there are many outcomes, as well as phenomenological states of conscious and non-conscious processing, that have rarely been examined in the scientific literature to date" (Vieten et al., 2018). The authors suggest that "these experiences are important to study. They hold the potential not only to shed light on effects of meditation in those who practice it but may also illuminate new understandings about human potential and the nature of reality"; (2) the scale and rigor of research studies should be equally deepened. "Much work should go toward improving the rigor of methods used", including clarifying what "meditation" and "mindfulness" mean, taking into account the "replication crisis" in medical and psychological science, and developing "pre-registered experiments and open-science". They also argue that better uniformity and control should be adopted in clinical research, and that mobilizing other approaches on top of neuroscientific strategies, for the interpretation of brain imagery in relation to conscious experiences, is much less well understood than many think (Van Dam et al., 2019).
Recent efforts have thus sought to clarify what internal activities meditation actually entails, which may help to clarify aetiological attribution (Sparby, 2022), as well as developing a solid program for a science of consciousness (Sparby, 2017), suggesting that much more time and effort should be spent of describing the phenomena in question without artificially setting boundaries between types of experiences and effects which may be more related that our initial assumptions may suggest. The ALIUS research group has proposed that a variety of mind states linked with philosophical reflection, meditation, psychedelic, hypnosis, and artistic induction method should be studied conjointly from a multi- and transdisciplinary perspective, and suggested thematic, strategic and technological orientations for future research which resembles our suggested cause area in its scope (ARTHEMOC, 2009).
However, we should go much further in the expansion of both scope, quality, and diversity of research methodologies and disciplinary lenses mobilized in our study of these experiences and phenomena. We maintain our hypothesis that although there is much interest in developing "psychedelic", "contemplative", and other forms of the science of experience, no contemporary research as of yet identified with a sufficient degree of theoretical depth and empirical rigor the underlying, unifying thread discussed here, namely the fact that many - but not all - of the induction techniques and effects they produce are in fact manifestations of a specific developmental process which we call emergence, accounts of which are outlined in various spiritual traditions, philosophical schools, clinical reports of different types of psychological literature, and other cultural productions, such as poetry and other art forms.
Sketching the roadmap
The following roadmap is a suggested outline for exploring the emergent research cause area, collectively authored by experts and leaders from a broad variety of disciplines who have come together to outline what they think would be the best strategy to establish this cause area into a solid field of knowledge. Previous guidelines that were very similar to this have been produced by multidisciplinary teams engaged in developing the scope and solidity of the science of consciousness, such as the Alius Research Group's early prospective work for furthering transdisciplinary research on hallucinations and other altered states of consciousness.
There are five main phases. For each phase, we only outline the crucial axes of research. The overall arc begins with a thorough assessment of existing knowledge and evidence, moves on to conduct basic and clinical research, and ends with the successful systemic integration of research findings. Each subsequent phase builds on the previous, hence this can be seen as a chronological unfolding; however, please keep in mind there is a certain degree of non-linearity in the articulation between these phases. In terms of time estimates, the first two phases could probably be completed within five to ten years. It is estimated that all five phases of such an overall project would take more or less four decades to be completed, such estimates being suggested by the timeline of MAPS, which is a very similar project.
Phase I: State of the Art
- Interviewing luminaries in the field;
- Conducting comprehensive multidisciplinary literature reviews;
- Translating any relevant knowledge if not currently available in English, including that contained in traditional sources and oral traditions;
- Establishing theoretical tools that can coherently integrate the axiologies, epistemologies, and norms of clinical research, academic disciplines, and emergent traditions;
Phase II: Basic Research
- Phenomenology and neurophenomenology;
- Physiology and neurophysiology;
- Identifying variants and natural groupings;
- Developing consensual terminologies and extensive taxonomies;
- Formulating contemporary developmental models;
- Crafting diagnostic tools for caregivers;
Phase III: Clinical Research and Applications
- Conducting large longitudinal outcome studies;
- Identifying best diagnostic and management strategies;
- Upgrading the status of emergence in mental health;
- Obtaining sound epidemiological data;
- Dynamically updating and coordinating systemic priorities as the project evolves;
Phase IV: Cultural Translation
- Translating results into all major languages;
- Skilfully adapting findings to various cultural and religious contexts;
- Taking the anthropological dimensions of emergence into account;
- Developing training programs to upgrade spiritual competency;
Phase V: Institutional and Social Integration
- Globally expanding caregiving by getting into major health textbooks and curricula;
- Recommending public health policies at the highest levels;
- Globally communicating findings to all institution types;
- Evaluating the global value and impact of the project.
This roadmap could also be divided into disciplinary projects with various thematic foci and interests. This way of organizing this long-term endeavour should allow an important degree of research-results coordination, interactivity, and a degree of power that isolated teams with less standardized data collection methods, a lack of pooled data, and a lack of an overall coordinated plan would not otherwise be able to accomplish.
The value of ontological neutrality
The field of emergent experiences has given rise to a wide range of often contradictory explanations and interpretations. Obviously, the study of conscious life is a complex topic, and the discussed domain has frequently caused intense debate regarding the true nature of these specific phenomena. This is perhaps not surprising, as emergent experiences are often existentially impactful, can profoundly influence our belief systems and the ways we relate to reality, and often, though not always, contain deep metaphysical components that can be transformative, although these may be perceived as either disturbing or liberating, depending on a number of factors, including the individual experiencer's appraisal of these experiences, or the responses of peers and authorities within the surrounding social context according to the norms of the time and place (Lindahl, 2017).
For instance, when confronted with a person reporting that they are hearing voices, seeing beings that others cannot perceive, or experiencing strange raptures, perceptual effects, mood swings, or visions - all of which are commonly reported effects in traditional emergent literature across the world - medieval mentalities may have considered this person a saint receiving divine or angelic messages or, conversely suspected to be a heretic or witch, possessed by the demon.
Modern psychiatry, by contrast, has tended to discard such manifestations falling outside the scope of what it considered normal states of consciousness as signs of severe psychopathology, and oftentimes linked them with a material problem affecting the brain (Spittles, 2018). Faced with this proliferation of explanatory proposals, one must admit the existence of major and frequently intractable tensions. In fact, one may hypothesize that striving to resolve fundamental ontological debates adds little to clinical outcomes, and is likely to seriously distract from pursuing clinical utility and global scalability. We can strategically avoid taking sides with any of these and similar proposals, and still engage with those who are experiencing said phenomena and their various related effects. Indeed, we can sometimes avoid asking these questions entirely, and instead of looking for and striving to impose a single answer as to the ultimate nature of consciousness, matter, or emergent phenomena, the medical and clinical perspective may offer us a unique path towards bypassing these important debates in favor of a therapeutic, pragmatic and ontologically neutral attitude - which means to avoid, when advisable, currently unprovable assumptions about the true nature of things and their relationships, instead focusing on clinical presentations and adding value to care.
We hope that this essay presented an illustrative and convincing case for recognizing and supporting the domain of emergence research. While we maintain a high degree of confidence in the importance of the described cause area, we simultaneously acknowledge its inherently complex nature, likely constituting one of the primary reasons for its underrepresentation - including the practical absence of relevant thoughtful initiatives - in the space of high-impact biomedical research and philanthropy. Last but not least, the debates surrounding emergence research tend to bring up the examples of past projects that did not account for all the important standards outlined above, essential for any worthwhile endeavors in the domain. Indeed, numerous spirituality-adjacent initiatives, while often well-intentioned, did not adhere to the best practices in multidisciplinary research, leaning on the side of pseudoscience and vague statements about bridging the gap between the science and spirituality. We do hope that the prospective readers will recognize our proposal as advocating for a vastly different approach, emphasizing the need for the highest standards of methodological rigour, the contractual value of ontological neutrality, and the pragmatism of a clinical lens. When these three principles are jointly realized, the emergence research domain may flourish as a high-impact cause area.
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