Roland Fischer

"A Cartography of Ecstatic and Meditative States"

Review by Tim Knepper, 2001

Fischer, Roland. “A Cartography of Understanding Mysticism.” Science 174 (Nov. 26, 1971): 897-904.

Bemoaning the absence of any cartographies of the varieties of human experience, Roland Fischer’s extremely influential 1971 paper “A Cartography of Ecstatic and Meditative States” presents just such a map – one that contains two mutually exclusive continuums of altered states of consciousness.  On one side of this map lies the “perception-hallucination continuum” of states of ergotropic arousal.  As the sympathetic nervous system becomes aroused, normal states of daily routine give way to aroused, creative states, then to hyperaroused, schizophrenic states, and finally to ecstatic, mystical states.  On the other side of this map lies the “perception-mediation continuum” of states of trophotropic arousal, where the normal state of daily routine gives way to relaxation, then to tranquility (zazen), and finally to hypoarousal (samadhi).  Fischer claims that experimental work in the areas of both saccadic movement (small, involuntary, micronystagmoid movements of the eye) and brain wave amplitude and frequency confirm the accuracy of his map.

Five concerns pertinent to Fischer’s cartography of ecstatic and meditative states occupy the latter half of his paper.  First, Fischer proposes that hallucinations (“experiences of intense sensations that cannot be verified through voluntary motor activity”) can be characterized by increasing sensory-to-motor ratios (as one moves along either the perception-hallucination or perception-meditation continuums) and may be measured accordingly (through components of psychomotor performance, e.g., handwriting area and handwriting pressure).  Secondly, Fischer suggests that many “constancies” (sense of space, time, taste, corporeal awareness) of the “I” (the self of normal, daily routine) are distorted as one moves toward the “Self” (states of ecstasy or samadhi).  Constancies of the physical dimension such as container space and chronological time gradually contract and ultimately disappear.  Thirdly, Fischer broaches the issue of cortical interpretation of subcortical activity, stating that an increase in both ergotropic and trophotropic arousal is “paralleled by a restriction in the individual’s repertoire of available perceptual-behavioral interpretations” (901).  During both the extreme ecstatic and meditative (samadhi) states, there is “neither capacity nor necessity for motor verification” (901) as “cortical and subcortical activity are indistinguishably integrated” (902).  Fourthly, Fischer postulates “that man, the self-referential system, exists on two levels: as ‘Self’ in the mental dimension of exalted states; and as ‘I’ in the objective world” (901).  Communication between the “Self” and the “I,” therefore, is only possible at the approximate midpoints of each continuum.  Moreover, because of a phenomenon called “rebound to superactivity” (a rebounding into samadhi from the peak of ergotrophic arousal), Fischer claims that “the ‘Self’ of ecstasy and samadhi are one and the same” (902).  Finally, due to the integration of subcortical and cortical activity (and therefore the disappearance of subject-object distinctions), Aristotelian logic and language are rendered meaningless, and therefore replaced by a symbolic logic and language, during “Self”-states.  Meaning, claims Fischer, “is ‘meaningful’ only at that level of arousal at which it is experienced, and every experience has its state-bound meaning” (902).