We’re joined by Harvard trained social scientist Dr. Jeffery Martin to discuss some of the incredible research that he’s doing into the further reaches of human potential. He speaks about his initial research, done during his first PhD program, wherein he extensively studied the self-help and positive psychology literature. He explains how this research led him to see that where the further reaches of that literature–and the practices therein–left off was where non-symbolic consciousness begins. Jeffery then goes on to describe the extensive research that he’s done, while completing his PhD at Harvard, on the nature of awakened, or non-dual consciousness.
This is part 1 of a two-part series. Listen to part 2, The End of Self-Referencing.
- The Fourth Awakening
- Center for the Study of Non-Symbolic Consciousness
- The God Formula
- The Intention Experiment
Vincent: Hello, Buddhist Geeks. This is Vincent Horn and I’m joined today with Jeffery Martin. Jeffery is a scholar and writer. He’s graduate student right now in psychology at Harvard University. He’s the director of the Center for the Study of Non-Symbolic Consciousness, and he is also an author. He co-wrote with Rod Pennington, The Fourth Awakening, which is an interesting work of spiritual fiction.
Jeffery thanks so much again for taking the time again to speak with the Buddhist Geeks. I mean you’re not into so much the Buddhist realm, but I’d say for sure you’re pushing it on the geek side of things.
Jeffery: I don’t know. I think I’m into every realm on this side of the fence.
Vincent: You definitely are. That’s one of the interesting things about your work is that it pulls from a lot of different areas. You’re just telling me before the interview started that at that Harvard where you’re doing your research and doing your studies, you’re kind of pulling from all different departments.
Vincent: Yeah. So tell me a little bit about that actually. That’s kind of interesting the sort of transdisciplinary approach. It’s not super common from what I understand.
Jeffery: No, not at all. It’s actually what I did in my PhD in another institution at CIS, in Southern California. I went out there to learn how to do transdisciplinary scholarship because I just really believe strongly that knowledge is locked up in these very very narrow disciplines. And that the key to really advancing things was to figure out how to pull knowledge out of the various academic silos in ways that were credible to each of those silos, or at least as many of those silos as you could get them credible for, and then combining them in ways that just took everything to a whole other level.
So that’s what I try to do everywhere I go whether I’m at Harvard or getting to go to Hong Kong for a year to Hong Kong Polytechnic University as a visiting professor. So I’ll try to do that there as well and I also try to do it across institutions. You know I have collaborators that are really all around the world that’s on very large number of universities and private foundations and you name it.
Vincent: So one PhD wasn’t enough then, huh?
Jeffery: Yeah. You don’t want to know how many masters’ degrees I had before that.
Vincent: That’s awesome. It’s an interesting path for sure. It’s one that’s not taken, I imagine, by very many people. So I’m sure as we go through the interview people will kind of get a sense for your approach and how it informs the work with both your writing and then non-symbolic consciousness work. First with the writing piece, you co-wrote this book with a guy named Rod Pennington and he’s a professional writer?
Jeffery: He is. He’s a long time business partner of mine but he’s really really a talented ghost writer. And he has just ghost written so much amazing stuff. He’s done a lot of ghost writing for top fiction authors. He’s done a lot of ghost writing for Hollywood. He’s the guy who gets paid enormous amounts of money to fix scripts.
Vincent: And this book that you co-wrote with Rod, The Fourth Awakening, tell me a little bit about that piece of work and kind of what the general storyline is.
Jeffery: The general storyline has actually got a lot of nonfiction work through it. It came about in sort of a fun way. Rod knew about my research. I was really at the time trying to figure out how to reach more deeply into the general population to find research participants. So I’ll be happy to talk about it just for your audience.
We research who are in what we called persistent non-symbolic consciousness. So what that means to us is persistent non-dual awareness, enlightenment, persistent mystical state, unitive states, transcendental consciousness. You know we have 100 of different labels that people use for this. In our research, we have a database of over a thousand participants at this point. We’ve got a very very broad longitudinal set of research experiments that we worked on. We do 6 to 12 hours of interviewing in depth of each person on cognitive psychology topics. We give them all sorts of psychological assessments. We’re just beginning our phase of brain imaging with fMRI. We’ve done a lot of other types of physiological measurement and imaging like EEG, and heart rate and breath rate and even some breath gas exchange stuff. All sort of stuff.
So we really try to take this very holistic view of this population and this population we view as being across all sorts of different disciplines. You and I met of course because of the Buddhist aspects of our studies. So obviously Buddhist play a large on this as do people in every religion. There’s mystical component in every major and minor religion and spiritual system, and we tried to be as broad as we possibly can.
So this book was actually written to help us try to find people. Because what we learned very early on is that we contacted sort of the major teachers in the space, often times it was difficult to get them to participate. It was difficult to get them to be open with us. You know they have a vested interest. Lots of time it’s what they do for a living. And so, it became really clear early on that we need to find the person who is sitting around a kitchen table in the Midwest going to work everyday, not really talking to everybody about the fact that this have happened to them and how it integrated in their life over time.
But that’s very very difficult to do because these folks don’t like to stand up and wave their hands and say “oh it’s me, it’s me.” Because when they have tried to talk to people, usually they get push back, when the people around them are telling them that they’re crazy or whatever. So whether it’s their wife or their kids or their friends at work or whatever, they learned not to talk about it fairly quickly. So it was actually a big challenge for us in the early days of trying to find these types of subjects. And one of the ideas that Rod had was, “hey let’s write a book to do this, maybe if we create a fiction book, fiction is something that’s read very broadly across the population. And if we weave enough stuff into that fiction book that resonates with people, these people will probably come out and contact us.” And that’s in fact what happened. The book wound up actually pretty successful. It sort of surprised us because it was really just design to sort of reel this folks in. But it resonated with a lot of people but it became a pretty popular book, which was kind of cool.
Vincent: That’s fascinating. It’s a really interesting approach to getting research subjects. And then the research itself, this is something we connected probably close to a year ago now when I was living in North Carolina. And you’re telling me a bit about the research at that point and I know a lot has progressed since then. But you’re sharing some pretty fascinating kind of tentative findings from your research. Like you said you have something like a thousand or more research participants at this point. What type of things are you going to be looking for in that piece of your research? What types of things are you already looking for?
Jeffery: Initially the goal of this… well let me actually back up and give you a little history.
Jeffery: Because I think it’s easier to answer sort of within the context of history. So how this started off was I went into PhD program and I wanted to look at personal growth, self-help type of concepts. I wanted to see if there was anything to personal growth ideas, self help ideas. It doesn’t matter to me if it’s law of attraction or if it’s positive psychology, whatever. I knew there was a huge disconnect at that point in the literature between empirical positive psychology literature and what people walked into a bookstore and could buy.
So there are you know three or four books by Tal Ben-Shahar or Sonya Lyubomirsky or Martin Seligman or people like that. But they’re academics and they’re not really rewarded in any way for promoting their books. You know those three or four volumes are sort of jammed in between all these other books. And when you read this stuff and all of the other books for the most part it goes against the empirical stuff. And often times, it goes against in a way that it’s bad for you. So I really just sort of want to pick through that and nobody ever really done research on that. And I’d started to do research on that many years before that PhD program.
When I went to that PhD program, I thought to myself look I’m going to codify. I’m going to do this sort of this official transdisciplinary sort of way or whatever. And almost immediately what happened was the data that accumulate to that point which was a lot of data sorted itself out. I was working a lot with groups. I was having a group test this idea. When I had a research group test an idea, I noticed something very interesting. And that is if it was an idea that was an effective idea, that they could work for people psychologically, generally what would happen is it would work for a very small number of people in the group. And then another percentage of the people in the group would not have any effect from it. And another percentage of the group would have seemingly very negative effects. And actually after the third research group, after the third thing that I explore those negative effects were so significant that I had to stop that research on ethical ground because I just couldn’t deny it anymore that there is this pattern. And it took me a while to figure out how to go around that. Eventually, I realized that if I just did the group for a shorter period of time, I was doing it for months of research at that point, but if I just had to use this stuff for shorter periods of time, you could catch those negative consequences in the early phases before they really manifested and you could have them stop them doing it. And then you could sort of continue on with the other people that were having the beneficial effects from it.
And so what check out from that basically was this awareness that people in a certain spot psychologically, you can call it psychologically, you can call it the state of consciousness, you can a call it whatever you want. But people in a certain spot and when you’re in a certain spot, there’s a certain technique that works for you or certain type of techniques, a certain set of techniques that will work for you. And that’s fine. If you use something else while you’re in that spot either nothing is going to happen or it’s going to have a pretty negative impact on you. And so the research had really took out to a point where people were able to sort of transition down this continuum and eventually they all hit this wall and I couldn’t find any techniques that were past that. And so what happened is people grow when they a technique that works for them and as I just mentioned when you’re mismatch from your techniques at best case nothing happens and at worst case thing started going worst for you. And so I was able to sort of successful get people up to this wall but I didn’t have any idea what the wall was.
I felt I sort of ran out of like the types of techniques that you would have in positive psychology or in sort of self help type things. And I really have no idea. I felt like I sort of led people into a brick wall in a way. Like I could increase their wellbeing enormously through just this process of understanding that you need this matching and that you need to find the right technique at the right time. But eventually they would get to this point where I didn’t know the next technique. I didn’t know what the next set of technique was. And then all they could do is either stop using everything or usually what they did is they hold on tight to the last technique that was working for them and then they just spiral down or sometimes they stay at the same spot and just wasn’t as effective. It was kind of a disastrous period. And as I was looking at the data, I realized that what was happening is that people seemed to be increasing as they went through this progression of techniques, there seemed to be a progression towards increased cognitive and emotional thinking sort of thoughts and emotion based release.
So it’s like you started off deeply embedded in your thoughts with techniques that help you sort of to get a glimpse of that. And then by the end of this, you’re really really good at releasing from sort of your repetitive negative thinking pattern or even repetitive positive thinking patterns, and you’re negative emotional patterns whatever. And I just thought to myself okay what would logically be kind of the next piece there. Well parallel to that I was looking into my mind matter interaction stuff. Because there was The Secret and all of that and I couldn’t ignore the fact it was part of the self help stuff. And so I trace the history back of the new thought movement and then I started traveling around the world interviewing and talking to researchers who are doing parapsychology type stuff or advanced physic stuff that seems to relate to that. There’s a book called The Intention Experiment from Lynne McTaggart which shows a pretty good job of covering this. One issue with her book is that she covers it from a journalist perspective. And so she sort of buys all of this individual researcher’s statement about their research in kind of a non-critical way cause she doesn’t really have a way to evaluate it.
And I was a little different than that in that I had a way to evaluate the research. So I was able to sort of distill it down and what I noticed was that what seemed to work for people, when people seemed to get these effects with some sort of mind matter interaction. Where they were testing tunneling electrons or random mechanical systems or whatever they were looking at, the subjects that were able to produce those effects were feeling far between. But the one thing that those subjects seem to represent consistently regardless of whose experiment I was talking to and these people for the most part weren’t talking to each other. So I was the only way that was kind of going between these different experiments and collecting this and then noticed this pattern. But it was that there was this boundary, disillusion of their self between them and the experiment or apparatus. And so they really felt like more at one you would say with this experiment or apparatus and that was one sort of these bizarre effects which shows up statistically. And so that sort of snap in for me in about the same time that was really sort of puzzling over what would be the next thing and what would the next type of release.
And I thought maybe it’s like this idea of this release of these boundaries. And so that led me into researching the non-symbolic stuff and trying to find people that really had dissolved a sense of self and had dissolved a sense of boundary and what not. So this whole project sort of came out of that thing. I didn’t start of wanting to look enlightenment. I didn’t start of as some sort of fascination about. I actually started of trying to figure out if it was possible to fix the self help book movement and get it sort of more in line with empirical positive psychology research. So coming sort of from that perspective, to me it was all one big huge psychological project whether it was the early stuff, whether it was the current stuff. So we start talking about these types of subjects and we start talking about this continuum, it’s really just an extension of that other continuum to me. You know I’m just working on the other side of that wall. I’m trying to now figure out how is it that you get people past that wall.
So I related that story simply because the larger context of this project is about it’s not just about can you find the place in people’s brains where this is going on. Can we use fMRI or some other type of technology, some other type of imaging technology to figure out what’s going on, but it’s actually about trying to figure out, what can we used, what can we learn from those technologist to actually help people make a reliable and safe and even reversible transition into this other states of consciousness if you want to call them that or sort of other developmental levels involving their sense of self-hood. So our project operates on a lot of different levels. I spend a lot of time interfacing with basic researchers around the world and spent a lot of time obviously doing a lot of basic research. But there’s a whole other level that’s about trying to figure out how you take that basic research and make it very reliably implemented for the population.
And then there’s a whole other level above that that’s about how do you then interest the broader population in that once you have sort of those successful technologies. And so it’s just an enormous project that deals with everything from toy companies and media companies and video game companies and stuff like that. People who are basically responsible for creating culture and sort of figuring out can we get the webs out there to sort of embed this in culture. Obviously if you can just have people doing as a function of playing, have people sort of get to this extraordinary state of wellbeing from just playing the same shot them up video game that the would otherwise played, that’s very helpful. So we have research works on that. We have artificial intelligence research that works on can you match people’s consciousness and figure out how to have their virtual environments. By virtual environments, I simply mean using a computer even. Interface with them in ways that can advance them along. Can we come up with neurofeedback systems that are capable of doing this?
A neurofeedback systems that’s great if you’re into neurofeedback, that’s great if you have software science and engineering event. But if you’re an extreme right-wing Christian, these concepts can be really really terrifying for you. So we’re trying to work for people in those communities, trying to reach out to people in all the different religious communities to begin the dialogue, in the conversation of hey you know these technologies are coming down the road. We’re making progress on them. There’s advancement going on here. They are really really beneficial. How is that we can make sure that we can come up with things that can benefit from your population in a way that doesn’t turn you off. So there’s all sort of layers going on here. It’s really an enormous undertaking.
Vincent: Cool. Thank you. That’s really fascinating. And then could you share a little bit about some of the things that you’re looking for in this research and also some of the things that you’re finding.
Jeffery: That’s a really good question as well. We have a completely psychologically based investigation into this going on. We’re really looking for what’s going on with the brain, what’s going on with the nervous system. Regardless of whether you belief that consciousness is in the brain or there’s a field of the brain somehow like an antenna whatever your particular belief is surrounding this. The bottom-line is that the nervous system is really what does mediate our experience. And so it seemed a logical place for us and look and try to investigate this. We’ve had an incredibly sophisticated, very expensive, very large effort to essentially just cross things off the biggest possible list that we can think of. So we threw for instance all sorts of psychological measure at people just to see what would shake out, the kind of things that you normally can’t do in the academic research world. Ordinarily in the academic research world what happen is you got a grant and you follow a sort of a very narrow structure of that grant and you can’t really investigate more broadly. You’re really just sort of looking for that investigation to be successful, so that you can get another grant and that one can be successful so you can publish it and then get another grant.
And we’ve been completely under the radar. We really haven’t published anything. Our talks have been very very sparing here and there. It’s sort of a major academic psychology and consciousness type conferences but not really to speak up at all with the public. This is really I would say the first major public interview that we’re doing on this. And we’re really just doing it because we’re at the point where you know the research is very mature and now we’re headed into the brain imaging and what not. So initially we would look at things like we would get people personality, psychology measures to take. We would give them emotional measure. We give them developmental measures. We would give them all sort of specific things, you know, looking at anxiety, depression. You name it. I mean we were just really trying to think of as big as list as we possibly could. We were tying to find what’s different about this group of people. And I think the most astonishing thing to us was that in fact almost nothing was different with this group of people.
In those early days that we were doing those sorts of paper and pencil measures, people were basically normal. So, on the one hand they were representing various types of awakening experiences or spiritual experiences that were very persistent that stuck with them, that transformed who they were, that transformed their sense of identity completely in most cases. And on the other hand, they were showing up exactly like the rest of the population except in a few areas. They weren’t depressed which is certainly not like the normal population. They didn’t have anxiety. Again not at all like the normal population and they had extraordinary states of wellbeing. So whenever we gave them those types of measures they showed up differently than what a normal sample of sort of an equivalently matched sample of people that’s randomly selected from the population, which show up best. But everything else, I mean their personality, their emotional stuff, their developmental levels. Everything else was normal.
The developmental one especially was a surprise. I think a lot of people are familiar with a lot of the theorizing that’s going on from Ken Wilber, the Integral Institute and others where they’re really trying to sort of look at this composite developmental measure and say well you know if you’re enlighten or if you’re awake or you’re non-dual whatever term we want to use today. You must have higher levels of development across X, Y and Z especially something like ego development, Loevinger’s ego development facets, that’s the one that gets reference sort of in that world. But in fact they were normal. They were higher than most people but our sample is also often more educated. And so, if you look at [MAS] controls for that, educated people basically scored in the same range as the sample. So literally just to cross everything, they wound up normal but happy and not depressed and not anxious people.
So we have to move on to sort of the next stage and the next stage is to go out and just really deeply interview them for many many hours at a time and try to see if we could dig into things and get hints of places to look and start scratching things off the list that way. And I would say that’s one thing that’s really really got interesting for us. You know we’re asking cognitive type psychology type question. So we’re asking about the nature of their thinking. We’re asking about the nature of their emotions. We’re asking about memory. We’re asking about perception. We’re asking about changes across those types of things. And what happened is that over a period of years basically a progression began to appear. Now I’m not saying that you have to, it’s not sort of like this developmental continuum where you begin at point A and you end at point Z. You can jump from point M and stay at point M for the rest of your life. But if you move on from point M to point N pretty consistent changes seemed to occur across one or more of those things that I just mentioned so thinking, emotion stuff like that. And so it was really sort of interesting over time, for a long time.
For years I resisted any notion of trying to put those in some sort of developmental continuum or path. But eventually, I just had to give that up. The data was just too overwhelming.