IHC Series Inaugural Lecture: Ecstasy


Zoe Manzanetti

“Ecstasy” is a universal human emotion that is both a prominent theme in art as well as a scientifically fascinating state of mind. It is also the topic of the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center’s inaugural event for their new series: “Humanities and the Brain.” The IHC Series website says the lecture series was developed with the intent that it, “will explore the workings of the brain from perspectives deriving from the humanities and fine arts, as well as from newer interdisciplinary fields such as neuroesthetics and neuroethics.” The inaugural lecture was a good representation of that goal.

Religious Studies Professor Ann Taves opened the series for the year with the topic of “Ecstasy: Linking Humanities and the Brain” which talked about the enigma of ecstasy and it’s elusive nature. The lecture discussed the myriad of definitions of the word ecstasy, as well as how people have failed to decide upon one specific meaning of ecstasy for centuries, mainly due to its subjective nature. One of the more widely accepted ideas of ecstasy is that it can be an alteration of sense of self or ordinary perception; however, this can be further disputed given that the ideas of “self” and “perception” are very complex topics to define themselves.

The speaker discussed the strong historical association of ecstasy with religion and spirituality, and how the act of praising and celebrating the divine can lead to this “beyond self” feeling. Furthermore, this sense of ecstasy can encompass a variety of opposing symptoms. It began to introduce the idea that ecstasy was a balance between five different disciplines: religion, anthropology, psychological/medical, the arts and philosophy.

The main constant in defining ecstasy was a state of change from an individual’s normal state to an altered state. The topic of hallucinations often gets intertwined with this sense of ecstasy, but sometimes wrongly so. While there is a large amount of overlap between the two states of mind that cause hallucinations and highly elevated emotions, they cannot be equated due to the complex nature of perception and the idea of self.

Professor Taves stated the real question experts seek to answer: What counts as an ecstatic experience? She continued on to juxtapose it with a car. A car is something that is easily tangible — one can take it apart to see how all of the parts work and how they fit together, then one can put it all back together, and at the end of the day there is a clear distinction between what counts as a car and what doesn’t. The problem with the ecstatic experience is that one cannot dissect it and make a clear definition that can be made with a car, due to its highly subjective nature.

Another resonating example she used of a possible ecstatic experience was that of a painted picture. Taves stated that an ecstatic experience might be like an illiterate and unstudied person suddenly knowing all the answers and explanations for everything; it’s like the knowledge is given to the person through an unknown being.

These metaphors were the main aspects of the lecture that were not riddled with highly complex scientific jargon; the majority of the lecture was a detailed analysis of the use of ecstasy and the subjective nature of the concept. Professor Taves concluded with an idea of how psychologists should go about redefining the word ecstasy to give it a more conclusive classification, but she acknowledged that the compression of ideas is easier said than done. The state of ecstasy is not something easily defined, yet it continues to perfectly describe an array of experiences ranging from spiritual, religious, philosophical, medical and beyond. Who knows, maybe someday ecstasy will no longer be so elusive, but that’s just something else to ponder about.