Toward a Science of Enlightenment — Four Big Ideas from Jeffery Martin


Jeffery Martin is an entrepreneur who became a social scientist. This career change was driven by his growing interest in the subject of happiness.

Who are the happiest people? Martin wanted to know. And what do they have to teach the rest of us?

In a conversation with Jeffrey Mishlove, Martin recalls that his success in business left him with a sense that something was missing in his life. He was still not experiencing “the level of happiness that had been promised to me.”

So he went to graduate school — Harvard University and the California Institute of Integral Studies — to learn both qualitative and quantitative methods of psychology research.

Today Martin is head of the Center for the Study of Non-Symbolic Consciousness and has over a decade’s worth of data from his research team.

I’ve been monitoring Martin’s work for years. Following are the ideas that I find most intriguing.

1. We can describe enlightenment in scientific terms

Martin moved from a focus on happiness to extraordinary states of well being. This, he says, is more consistent with research in cognitive psychology.

More specifically, Martin wants to develop a rigorous way to describe states traditionally known as enlightenment, self-transcendence, nonduality, mystical experience, unity consciousness, God-consciousness, and the peace that passeth understanding.

He replaces those words with non-symbolic experience and related terms that are grounded in cognitive science. His goal is to create a way for anyone who’s had this experience to describe it — atheists, agnostics, religious believers, academics, and non-experts alike.

Martin also distinguishes between two kinds of non-symbolic experience. The first is ongoing non-symbolic experience (ONE), which lasts less than one year. The other is persistent non-symbolic experience (PSNE), which lasts more than one year.

In either case, non-symbolic denotes the core feature of the states that Martin researches: They are ineffable. They cannot be fully captured in language or other symbols.

2. Non-symbolic experience is accessible

Martin’s research includes lengthy interviews (6 to 12 hours) with people who claimed to have either form of non-symbolic experience. During structured interviews, these people described their experience in detail.

In addition, research subjects took psychological assessments and underwent a variety of physiological measurements — EEG, SPV, heart and breath rate monitoring, and more.

Martin admits that he began this research as a skeptic. For one, he’d never had non-symbolic experience. He also suspected that some of his subjects were delusional or downright deceptive.

Today Martin says that non-symbolic experience is real and available to most of us through specific meditation practices. And, the first person to access it based on his research was himself.

According to Martin, about 73 percent of people who go through the Finders Course — an online class based on Martin’s findings — make the transition to non-symbolic experience. (For a detailed summary of the findings, see this video of his presentation at Yale University in 2015.)

3. Non-symbolic experience involves a continuum of psychological states

In an overview of his research, Martin notes that “PNSE is not experienced the same way by everyone”:

There appeared to be a continuum that may involve several distinct locations along which specific changes are seen in self-identity, cognition, emotion, perception, and memory. Some of these underlying changes are independent of spiritual or religious tradition, while others appear to be highly influenced by individual beliefs.

Broadly speaking, as people move across the continuum, they experience more of the following:

  • Non-localized sense of self. ”For example,” he writes, “Buddhists often referred to a sense of spaciousness while Christians spoke of experiencing a union with God, Jesus, or the Holy Spirit depending on their sect…. Often participants talked about feeling that they extended beyond their body, sometimes very far beyond it.”
  • Diminished sense of agency. People on the far end of continuum reported that reality simply unfolds for them without any sense that they are consciously deciding or doing anything. Even so, these people function adequately in daily life and commonly say that “everything is perfect exactly as it is and could not be any other way.”
  • Mental stillness. Subjects consistently reported a quieting of their thought streams. This was particularly true for negative self-referential thoughts, such No one loves me or I am worthless. The result is less mental chatter and a quieter inner critic, Again, this change did not hamper the ability to solve problems or carry out the tasks of daily life.
  • Emotional peace. Subjects also said they were less reactive and increasingly free of negative emotions. Some reported a total absence of emotion. Others described a single enduring emotional state — “a combination of intense, impersonal compassion, joy, and love…. and deep inner peace.” This state is situation-independent. That is, it persists despite changes in health, personal finances, relationships, and other life circumstances.
  • Focus on the present moment. All subjects reported a reduction in thoughts about the past and future, along with the regrets and anxieties that can accompany those thoughts. For some subjects, focus on the present moment occurred along with altered perception — “a feeling of being stationary in the world (even when moving, such as walking) while having the world move through them.”
  • Reduced identification with personal history. In addition, all subjects described a loss of interest in the past events of their lives and the internal narrative that weaves those events into a personal identity. Both painful and pleasant memories simply come to mind less often.

On the website for the Finders Course, Martin describes the transformational effect of all these changes:

Over their time in the class, very happy people get even happier (and realize how different, and incredible, PNSE-style wellbeing is from what is traditionally considered happiness). [Italics added]

In short, Martin says, non-symbolic experience moves you from a sense of scarcity to a sense of completeness. You release the fundamental sense of fear and discontent that drives so much behavior — the belief that you have to constantly acquire new possessions and experiences in order to become whole.

Instead, you sense that everything is fundamentally okay. You are already safe, complete, and whole in the present moment. You stop searching for ways to become whole. And, you still remain functional in daily life.

4. When choosing ways to develop non-symbolic experience, respect individual differences

Martin says that much of what we’ve heard about non-symbolic experience is flat out wrong. If someone tells you that only a few people can achieve non-symbolic experience — or that there’s only one way to reach it — then run away.

Instead, Martin says, be willing to experiment. Discover a specific meditation technique that works for you and seek expert guidance to learn it.

Also remember the following:

  • Relatively few techniques work for anyone. The Finders Course narrows down the list of viable options to 26 specific meditation techniques. During the course, you experiment with these in a specific order.
  • Any technique that you choose can eventually stop working. If you sense that you’re getting no results from a technique after doing it for two weeks, then choose another one.
  • Create a daily practice by combining your current meditation technique with positive psychology practices. Read books such as The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar, and Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman. Stick with books by academic researchers who write for a general audience. Avoid self-help authors with only anecdotal evidence to back their claims. And, be willing to change your positive psychology practices over time as well.
  • There are no shortcuts. Moving toward non-symbolic experience takes time and effort. People who take the Finders Course are told to allow at least two hours for their daily practice.

Two caveats

I’ve not taken the Finders Course, but I gather that it has two purposes — to disseminate Martin’s research findings, and to gather more data from course participants.

There’s a fee for this course, however. So, research subjects are essentially paying to take part in a study. Is this ethical? And, could it skew the results through a form of confirmation bias (I paid for this course, so of course it works for me)?

Also, a reader named Nathan reminded me that enlightenment has an objective dimension — ethical behavior — as well as changes in our subjective experience:

…all the great wisdom traditions (and at least Mahayana Buddhism, in which the idea of enlightenment is very prominent) teach that enlightenment is not just a subjective experience: it is also a way of behaving. A teacher in any tradition who sexually abuses his students, for example, is not expressing enlightenment in his or her behavior.

Enlightenment, in other words, is not only a subjective experience of wellbeing; it is behaving in a way that supports the wellbeing of all others. You can have expansive “non-symbolic experiences” every day, but if you still treat other people like shit (or even still treat yourself like shit), those experiences are very far from enlightenment.

A “science of enlightenment” must be a science of ethical development, not just a science of subjective experiences.

I will keep following Martin’s work. His respect for individual differences, sense of experimentation, and search for objective ways to describe subjective experiences are exciting.

To learn more, start with these sources: