The PNSE Paper

I’ve mentioned this a few times, but it’s worth going over in detail. The full title is Clusters Of Individual Experiences Form A Continuum Of Persistent Non-Symbolic Experiences In Adults by Jeffery Martin, with “persistent non-symbolic experience” (PNSE) as a scientific-sounding culturally-neutral code word for “enlightenment”. Martin is a Reiki practitioner associated with the “Center for the Study of Non-Symbolic Consciousness”, so we’re not getting this from the most sober of skeptics, but I still find the project interesting enough to deserve a look.

Martin searched various religious and spiritual groups for people who both self-reported enlightenment and were affiliated with “a community that provided validity to their claims”. He says he eventually found 1200 such people who were willing to participate in the study, but that “the data reported here comes primarily from the first 50 participants who sat for in-depth interviews…based on the overall research effort these 50 were felt to be a sufficient sample to represent what has been learned from the larger population”. Although Martin says he tried to get as much diversity as possible, the group was mostly white male Americans.

Martin’s research was mostly qualitative, based on in-depth interviews, so we’re mostly going with his impressions. But his impression was that most people who self-described as enlightened had similar experiences, which could be be plotted on:

…a continuum that seemed to progress from ‘normal’ waking consciousness toward a distant location where participants reported no individualized sense of self, no self-related thoughts, no emotion, and no apparent sense of agency or ability to make a choice. Locations prior to this seemed to involve consistent changes toward this direction.

He describes this distant form of consciousness as involving changes in sense-of-self, cognition, emotion, memory, and perception.

Starting with sense-of-self, he says:

Perhaps the most universal change in what PNSE participants reported related to their sense of self. They experienced a fundamental change from a highly individualized sense of self, which is common among the ‘normal’ population, to something else. How that ‘something else’ was reported often related to their religious or spiritual tradition(s), or lack thereof. For example, Buddhists often referred to a sense of spaciousness while Christians frequently spoke of experiencing a union with God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit depending on their sect. However, each experienced a transformation into a sense of self that seemed ‘larger’ and less individuated than the one that was experienced previously. Often participants talked about feeling that they extended beyond their body, sometimes very far beyond it…

This change was dramatic and most participants noticed it immediately, even if initially they could not pinpoint exactly what had occurred. Sense of self changed immediately in approximately 70% of participants. In the other 30% it unfolded gradually, with the unfolding period reported as varying from a few days to four months.

Those who were not involved in a religious or spiritual tradition that contextualized the experience often felt that they might have acquired a mental disorder. This analysis was not based on emotional or mental distress. It was typically arrived at rationally because the way they were experiencing reality was suddenly remarkably different than they had previously, and as far as they could tell different from everyone they knew. Many of these participants sought professional mental health care, which no participant viewed as having been beneficial. Clinicians often told them their descriptions showed similarities to depersonalization and derealization, except for the positive nature of the experience.

There were nuances within how sense of self was experienced at different locations along the continuum. In the earliest locations, the sense of self felt expanded, and often seemed more connected to everything. In the farthest locations on the continuum, an even more pronounced change occurred in sense of self; a ll aspects of having an individualized sense of self had vanished for these participants. Prior to this location some aspects of an individualized sense of self remained, and participants could occasionally be drawn into them.

On cognition:

Another consistent report is a shift in the nature and quantity of thoughts. Virtually all of the participants discussed this as one of the first things they noticed upon entering PNSE. The nature and degree of the change related to a participant’s location on the continuum. On the early part of the continuum, nearly all participants reported a significant reduction in, or even complete absence of, thoughts. Around 5% reported that their thoughts actually increased. Those who reported thoughts, including increased thoughts, stated that they were far less influenced by them. Participants reported that for the most part thoughts just came and went, and were generally either devoid of or contained greatly reduced emotional content.

Almost immediately it became clear that participants were not referring to the disappearance of all thoughts. They remained fully able to use thought for problem solving and living what appeared outwardly to be a ‘normal’ life. The reduction seemed limited to self-related thoughts. Nevertheless, participants were experiencing a reduction in quantity of thoughts that was so significant that when they were asked to quantify the reduction, t hose who could answered within the 80-95% range. This high percentage may suggest why someone would say all thought had fallen away.

There do not appear to be negative cognitive consequences to this reduction in thought. When asked, none said they wanted their self-referential thoughts to return to previous levels or to have the emotional charge returned to them. Participants generally reported that their problem solving abilities, mental capacity, and mental capability in general had increased because it was not being crowded out or influenced by the missing thoughts. They would often express the notion that thinking was now a much more finely tuned tool that had taken its appropriate place within their psychological architecture.

On perception:

Participants in the later part of the middle range of the PNSE continuum often reported seeing the unfolding layers of these perceptual processes in detail. They reported being able to begin to detect the difference between the orientation response and the physical, cognitive, and emotional processes that arose after it. They reported reaching a point where some events were reacted to by one or more of these layers while others were not. This was in contrast to participants on the early end of the continuum who perceived all of these layers as one during an event, or at least as a greatly reduced number of discrete processes.

You can read more, plus the sections on emotion and memory, yourself; they mostly fit with the stereotypes you would expect of enlightened people; a lot of tranquility, joy, and focus on the present moment.

What I like about this paper is the parts where it departs from these stereotypes. It makes clear that most of these people’s external characteristics didn’t change at all. In many cases, their friends and family didn’t even notice anything was different, and could not be convinced that anything about them was different:

Despite an overwhelming change in how it felt to experience both themselves and the world after the onset of PNSE, the outward appearance of the participants changed very little. Generally speaking they retained their previous mannerisms, hobbies, political ideology, food and clothing preferences, and so forth. If someone were an environmentalist prior to PNSE, typically they remained so after it. If they weren’t, they still are not.

Many participants discussed the thought, just after their transition to PNSE, that they would have to go to work and explain the difference in themselves to co-workers. They went on to describe a puzzled drive home after a full day of work when no one seemed to notice anything different about them. Quite a few chose to never discuss the change that had occurred in them with their families and friends and stated that no one seemed to notice much of a difference. In short, although they had experienced radical internal transformation, externally people didn’t seem to take much notice of it, if any.

Similarly, despite people saying that they no longer had any sense of agency, they were behaving as agentically as anyone else:

On the far end of the continuum, participants reported no sense of agency. They reported that they did not feel they could take any action of their own, nor make any decisions. Reality was perceived as just unfolding, with ‘doing’ and ‘deciding’ simply happening. Nevertheless, many of these participants were functioning in a range of demanding environments and performing well. One, for example, was a doctoral level student at a major university. Another was a young college professor who was building a strong career. Still another was a seasoned public and private sector executive who served as a high-level consultant and on various institutional-level boards.

Can you imagine investing in a company whose executive believes he cannot take any action and is just watching reality unfold? But it seems to work out.

Other times the PNSE participants are just outright wrong about their experience. When asked if they were stressed, they would say of course not, they were experiencing inner peace. But their friends and family said they were totally stressed. For example:

Over the course of a week, [one participant’s] father died, followed very rapidly by his sister. He was also going through a significant issue with one of his children. Over dinner I asked him about his internal state, which he reported as deeply peaceful and positive despite everything that was happening. Having known that the participant was bringing his longtime girlfriend, I’d taken an associate researcher with me to the meeting to independently collect the observations from her. My fellow researcher isolated the participant’s girlfriend at the bar and interviewed her about any signs of stress that the participant might be exhibiting. I casually asked the same questions to the participant as we continued our dinner conversation. Their answers couldn’t have been more different. While the participant reported no stress, his partner had been observing many telltale signs: he wasn’t sleeping well, his appetite was off, his mood was noticeably different, his muscles were much tenser than normal, his sex drive was reduced, his health was suffering, and so forth.


It was not uncommon for participants to state that they had gained increased bodily awareness upon their transition into PNSE. I arranged and observed private yoga sessions with a series of participants as part of a larger inquiry into their bodily awareness. During these sessions it became clear that participants believed they were far more aware of their body than they actually were. For example, the instructor would often put her hand on part of the body asking the participant to relax the tense muscles there, only to have the participant insist that s/he was totally relaxed in that area and did not feel any muscle tension.

Or even:

During some interviews participants expressed that they no longer felt it was possible for them to be racist or sexist. I asked these participants to take Harvard University’s Project Implicit tests online. All of these participants were white males and each showed a degree of sexism and/or racism, including participants who were in the later no emotion and agency locations on the continuum. Project Implicit uses physiology to test these responses.

It’s tempting to say these people are just making it up. But I think about some of the people I know with very severe psychiatric issues, people who are constantly miserable – and are similarly externally unaffected. These people are holding down stressful jobs, keeping difficult relationships together, etc – and often the people they haven’t “opened up to” don’t have any inkling of what they’re going through. They may tell me it must seem obvious to everybody that they’re completely falling apart – whereas in fact they are speaking fluently, they’re well-dressed, and they haven’t made a single social misstep during the whole time I’ve known them. If unusually negative mental states don’t affect behavior as strongly as people believe, why not unusually positive mental states?

Also, other times these people under-estimate themselves:

As participants neared the further reaches of the continuum, they frequently reported significant difficulty with recalling memories that related to their life history. They did not feel this way about facts, but rather about the details of the biographical moments surrounding the learning of those facts. They also reported that encoding for these types of memories seemed greatly reduced. A lthough this was their perception it did not appear to be the case when talking to them. They were typically rich sources of personal history information and their degree of recall seemed indistinguishable from participants who were in earlier locations on the continuum.


There was a noticeable exception that seemed to be a genuine deficit. As they neared and entered the farther reaches of the continuum, participants routinely reported that they wereincreasingly unable to remember things such as scheduled appointments, while still being able to remember events that were part of a routine. For example, they might consistently remember to pick their child up at school each day, but forget other types of appointments such as doctor visits. Often they had adapted their routines to adjust for this change. Many would immediately write down scheduled events, items they needed to get at the store, and so forth on prominently displayed lists. When visiting their homes I noticed that these lists could be found on: televisions, computer monitors, near toilets, on and next to doors, and so forth. It was clear that the lists were being placed in locations that the participants would look with at least some degree of regularity. Participants consistently stated that they would prefer to remain in PNSE even if going back to ‘normal’ experience meant that they would no longer have this type of deficit.

Finally, Martin is impressed with the certainty that accompanies all of these experiences. People describe their PNSE as obviously more real and better than past states. They tend to be very effusive about this, saying that having the experience shattered everything they had previously believed in the most obvious and final way. But here too, there are signs that the participants are not well-attuned to what is going on in their own heads. Martin says that participants who moved from one level of his continuum to another (whether forward or back) would always say that the level they were currently at was the most fundamental and obviously real (even if they had said the opposite before). When he would tell participants about the experiences of other participants who were at different points of the continuum or just describing their experiences a slightly different way, both participants would confidently pronounce that the other wasn’t really enlightened.

I like this paper because it provides the basis for a minimalist account of enlightenment, similar to Daniel Ingram’s. Enlightenment hasn’t transformed these people’s personalities. It hasn’t given them infinite willpower or productivity or the ability to shoot qi bolts from their third eyes. It hasn’t even given them that much self-understanding. It’s just given them a different kind of internal experience.

The experience itself is hard to describe, but seems marked by drawing the self-other boundary in a different place. Participants don’t see themselves as making decisions; the decisions get made “under the hood” in a way where the person just feels like their path is laid out before them. They don’t see themselves as having thoughts; computations obviously get done, but they are not in awareness. They don’t feel like they have stress, even if the stress is physiologically present and obvious from their actions. On the other hand, they were more aware of certain low-level perceptual processes that are usually unconscious. It seems to be accompanied by total certainty that this is correct and revelatory and new (…much like the altered states people sometimes get on drugs).

None of this seems wildly outside the realm of possibility. It seems about as surprising as the existence of some new mental disorder. If 50 (or 1200, depending on how you count it) people with no history of lying said they had some kind of weird new mental disorder, I’d be willing to credit that they were describing their experience correctly, and able to give some useful information on the sorts of things that caused this disorder. It just sounds like information processing in the brain switching to some new attractor state if you force it hard enough.

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