Wesley J. Wildman

Consciousness Expanded

Review by Jennifer Coleman, 2008

Wildman, Wesley J. “Consciousness expanded.” In Sangeetha Menon, A. Sinha, & B. V. Sreekantan (eds.), Science and Metaphysics: A Discussion on Consciousness and Genetics (125-141). Bangalore: National Institute of Advanced Studies, 2002.

In this book chapter, Wildman articulates the concept of “vivid experience,” thereby introducing the reader to an important foundational concept underlying his subsequent investigation of religious and spiritual experiences as multi-determined phenomena subject to methodological description and evaluation. (See Wildman, Religious and Spiritual Experiences: Nature, Function, and Value (unpublished manuscript, 2008).)

Wildman’s premise is that the brain mediates all states of human consciousness, including those identified as “religious” and “spiritual.” He insists that descriptive phenomenology and interpretive evaluation of religious experience must account for knowledge and advances in the study of neuroscience, evolutionary theory, psycho-social theory, biology and other sciences.

Wildman defines vivid experiences as “relatively unusual, typically colourful states of consciousness that are of enormous spiritual significance to most people.” [126] Eschewing for purposes of this article a comprehensive account of every component of such experiences, Wildman treats just one, the phenomenology of vivid states of consciousness. He places vivid experiences partially within the realm of religious experiences, noting “some religious experiences are vivid and some are not.” [128] There are two major forms of vivid experiences: anomalous experiences, and ultimacy experiences.

Anomalous experiences include such things as hallucinations, out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, ecstatic states, psychiatric disorders and states associated with severe brain trauma, among others. Generally, people who have such experiences regard them as being out of their control, emotionally and cognitively potent, and not usually related to religion. The experiences are nevertheless often perceived as spiritual.

Ultimacy experiences may be discrete/short term, or extended/long term, phenomena. Discrete experiences are potent, often dramatic, and sometimes accompanied by a feeling of presence. Extended experiences are less dramatic and over time serve to orient one to his/her society, its patterns, and ethical and religious norms. In addition, extended ultimacy experiences lead to personal transformation and may allow transcendence over one’s “culturally limited imaginations.”

In addition to anomalous and ultimacy experiences, Wildman identifies meditation experiences as another type of vivid experiences. He also identifies two sub-categories of ultimacy experiences: profound experiences, and mystical experiences. In his soon to be published book, “profound” experiences are renamed “intense” experiences.

Wildman concludes that vivid experiences are relatively normal and commonplace. He argues that research into the nature of religious and spiritual experiences must proceed within the realms of science. Finally, Wildman argues that obtaining reliable descriptions of religious and spiritual experiences is a necessary prerequisite for any attempt too comprehensively evaluate the reliability and consequences of religious experiences.

The article provides a very clear introduction to Wildman’s concept of “vivid experiences.” The text is clear and makes his thesis succinctly available to the reader, whether an academic or not.

In fact the only confounding part of the article is the attempt to diagram the various experiences discussed. This article may be used as a “preface” of sorts to Wildman’s soon to be published book.