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31 January 2010

Brain Zaps, Mysticism, Depression, SNRI’s

I was tempted to title this something like "Touch the Monolith," "Fall Through the Looking Glass," or "Take the Red Pill."

I always tend to err in saying too much, but for those who are interested…

I also know better, as a writer, to mix just a little of the “deep stuff” with the “neat stuff” or else the reader will lose interest. So don’t read this if you want only neat stuff. Maybe the story will tell itself without my heavy handed asides. Anyway…

I am aware that I have often made decisions which I knew would leave me vulnerable, but which were the only decisions which my own (informed) conscience could tolerate. In many cases, but by no means all, that vulnerability was, as I feared, exploited by others.

My missions in this life and in Mission City always include a sense of naked vulnerability. In this life, I submit it is not a mission but a task if it does not include such vulnerability.

Sometimes, my missions in Mission City include a partner, a helper, a friend or some such person. Sometimes, I am following that other’s lead, sometimes others are following mine. The main difference between missions in this life and those in Mission City, is that in this life, there rarely is one for me to follow—not many seem to be trying to do what I am trying to do.

I told a friend of mine who I am convinced is trying to do the same thing I am trying to do, that I needed him to stay in touch with me and leave breadcrumbs that I can find to know I am not utterly lost.

These are my breadcrumbs.

Very close in time, around age five to twelve, to the onset of these vivid and mysteriously meaningful vision dreams, I experienced what many refer to as “brain zaps.” I think it happened two or three times over a period of months at that age, and maybe two or three times since, stopping sometime when I was a teenager, with one final “zap” when I was in my late thirties or early forties. For me, the brain zaps and the vision dreams are connected – not paired, but connected, in that they both have a mystical and benevolent source and result.

Interesting that I find that almost all searches on the web indicate these as a withdrawal symptom of antidepressants; considering I was not on anti depressants as a child, nor depressed that I knew of, but I was desperate for the spiritual life.

The internet is a terrible way to try and do some statistics, but all of the perceptions I had, save one, of these “brain zaps” can be found online by others describing their experiences. That one exclusion is that, for me, they always occurred at the onset of sleep.

Here is I find that others report that are also in agreement with my own experiences when they are reported without a connection to antidepressants:

  • There is a short electrical discharge sound which seems to come from inside the head, a zapping sound. If you know what a 60 Hz hum is, then you have the idea, although the frequency is not the same.
  • Many, it seems, also report a positive feeling of a sort of awakening, transcendence, or new awareness associated with the zap. In my own case, there was always a sense that my mind was changed and that a result of the zap would be something beneficial—new insight.

One person wrote of a zap occurring while examining her father’s darkroom equipment and commencing with the zap, seeing them in a new and enlightened way. Another reported experiencing the zap and from then on, seeing common objects with a new awareness and appreciation.

In my own case, even at a very young age, I associated the very first zap I experienced with somehow being changed by God so that (emphasis on the “so that”) I would be able to be aware of things others would not notice. From the first, to the last, the zaps had such a meaning to me. Each time a zap occurred, there was the feeling, the sense, of opening me, permanently, to a world of deeper meaning and myself to greater ability regarding that new perceptiveness.

Empirical evidence would obviously be difficult to provide, but I will state that each of the half a dozen or so zap experiences have, indeed, seemed to accompany the onset of a significant spiritual development in my life—as if, without the zap, I could not have transcended, or perhaps that the zap indicated a completion of a previous state—a “leveling up” I suppose.

Need to know about anti-depressants in relation to my Mission City? Read the fine print, else, skip down:

Losing my children—not even knowing where they are for months and sometimes years, at a time, and finding the courts unwilling to enforce my visitation rights nor the clause requiring my ex to receive court permission before moving out of any county—brought about a terrible situational depression.

Given a string of failures to have the courts act upon my many requests and having used all available resources (including thousands of dollars), I sank into despair. Only then did I agree to try a serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (SNRI).

What happens in situational depression (as in, if you are not depressed by your circumstances, there is something wrong with you) which is almost universally experienced by parents who have lost a child or children, is that the mind continues to work on finding a solution to a problem which cannot be resolved, AND which solution is considered vital to the person’s life.

Cited in several places as being the worst form of situational depression is the occurrence in parents who have lost access to children either by divorce or by kidnapping. This type of loss is explained as being worse for the parent than the death of a child or children because the grieving process cannot reach the final and healing stage of grief: acceptance.

So it is that when a circumstance which a person finds intolerable for a worthwhile life exists, the mind cannot stop searching for a solution, bringing on despair, and therefore, presenting the physical reduction in serotonin and norepinephrine available to the body’s chemistry.

The clinical answer, at present, is to artificially increase the available serotonin and norepinephrine by reducing the body’s ability to absorb these neuron transmitters: SNRI’s or antidepressants.

This does not make the “permanent grief” go away, but the medicine does allow one to function.

Okay, enough of the primer.

The Connection?
Here is the reason I explain all of that:

The vast majority of “brain zap” experiences are related to symptoms of withdrawal from anti-depressants.

Also listed as a symptom of SNRI withdrawal is vivid and unusual dreams which are not quickly forgotten after waking as normal dreams are forgotten. These are “usually” reported as being hellish or very disturbing. Not in my case, but then again, I love to be in Mission Mode.

So both the zaps and the vision dreams seem to be related for me in that they both began when I was about five, both have a spiritual association for me, and both seem to have a source or cause outside of my own mind.

I will add one more finding. That is that there is a theory (and heavily debated, I understand) that depressed persons have a statistically significant higher reporting of “religious experiences” (e.g., visions, insight, and the like).

For your consideration, the debate seems to center upon which is cause and which is effect. For example, does depression cause spiritual experiences or do spiritual experiences cause depression?

If a person is not spiritual, but comes to find life lacking in meaning, might both depression and awakened spirituality be expected to commence as a result? If a person is spiritual and then becomes depressed, might it be expected that worldly success becomes unimportant?

Breadcrumbs Ahead of Me
For a friend of mine, I will note that William Blake would say (pretty much did say) that either extreme merely describes a fool to be considered by others as wise. I say William Blake was a lousy poet and worse prophet—should have stuck to printing. Blake seeks chaos, I seek order. I claim no wisdom, I claim to be paying attention.

Smile! Mystery is fun!

And if you are familiar with St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul, than I highly recommend you read the Ascent of Mount Carmel and The Spiritual Canticle. The Dark Night is not the whole story. There are those Nights when the Bridegroom comes and steals away with you to be alone as young lovers desperate for the consummation that will become full at marriage.

The impetus for writing this, previously unintended installment to Mission City is that I don’t feel depressed but excited, and I don’t feel sick, but have slept more than 18 hours each day for the last three days. In that sleep three days ago, I had a prolonged vivid vision dream of Mission City. So I began looking on the Internet for what is wrong with me. It appears to me that I very likely forgot to take my SNRI dose one or two days last week.

Still, I have always thought these mission city vision dreams mean something, unlike any other dreams I have had. My instinct is that persons who seek a spiritual life mimic depressive moods inadvertently (yet, possibly requisite?) causing lowered serotonin and norepinephrine availability because such persons are applying the mind to the non-physical, non-intellectual reality which the soul craves but mind and body cannot attain on their own.

Further Reading

Religious Experience and Psychopathology (a large pdf)
Juan J. Lopez-Ibor Jr. and Mara Ines Lopez-Ibor Alcocer


In this context it is clearly shown how coarse it is to compare delusional ideas of patients suffering from schizophrenia, for example, with mystic or religious revelations, however apocalyptic or innovative they may be. Delusional ideas are individual and therefore frustrated truths. They start and end at the delusional person; they are not oriented towards somebody else. Patients with schizophrenia never share their delusion and hardly ever their worries. Their isolation comprises not only the world of the sane but also of their kind.

Delusions are the replacement of common sense by a very private sense and a way to fulfill the need to communicate of every human being.

Phenomenological and existentialist influenced psychiatry has described how delusional ideas consist of the desire to control one’s own world, idios kosmos, or the common world, koinos kosmos. Each one of us is in two worlds at the same time, the one of common reality and one’s own in which fantasy, dreams or simple longings and hopes reign. The sane person is able to distinguish one from another, and even to pass from one to another even when doubts about that radical ambiguity of our consciousness assault him or her. In delusions everything is different. Not able to live in a koinos kosmos, the patient substitutes and misappropriates the idios kosmos in such a way so as to not be able to distinguish what is what. All this is carried out accompanied by a deep sense of drama hard to perceive during a superficial treat that only states social withdrawal or a state of emotional dullness, but that can be seen in pictorial productions, in some psychological tests or in a deeper relationship. The brilliant, innovative man, creator of new worlds feeds in an idios kosmos, but immediately communicates it, drags others to participate in it and recognize in themselves the creating force. Truth with capital letters, enriching as a contrast to the private truth of the delusional individual that is but the dramatic effort to reach a truth illness denies.

The Dark Side of Mysticism
Mary Jo Meadow

Most people writing about mysticism emphasize mystical exaltation, ecstasy and union with God, divinity, value. Such experiences—the crown of mystical endeavor—are surely important aspects of mysticism. However, mystics also acknowledge periods of dryness, darkness, and religious despair—the keenly felt absence of God. These features seldom receive scholarly consideration hi spite of their importance in virtually all mystics' experience.

Psychologists have studied mystical states simply as altered states of consciousness, and also in relation to drug experience and psychotic episodes. Some writers consider both drugs and mysticism self-chosen ways of diving into the depths of the same inner sea in which the schizophrenic person struggles and drowns (Campbell, 1972). The Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry, in their 1976 report "Mysticism: Spiritual Quest or Psychic Disorder?", concluded that distinguishing between mysticism and certain psychiatric disorders is virtually impossible (Coleman & Davidson, 1979). Most psychological studies, spanning more than three-fourths of a century, emphasize mystical exaltation.

Psychologist William James (1902/1961) considered insanity the opposite side of the coin of mysticism. In both, there is the same sense of importance in small events, the same words having new and exciting meanings that other people do not discern, the same feeling of being controlled by external powers, the same sense of mission, the same exalted emotion. James also pointed out differences: in insanity, the emotion is pessimistic compared to mystical optimism; there are desolations instead of consolations; the meanings are dreadful instead of wonderful; and the powers are enemies rather than friends.

Recognized mystics also report desolation as well as consolation, dryness as well as the dew of mystical grace, yearning as well as fulfillment, entombment in the awful continuing ordinariness of frustrated longing as well as upliftedness to a personal heaven. These aspects of mysticism might more aptly be compared to such

And my Favorite:

Transpersonal Psychology in Psychoanalytic Perspective
Michael Washburn

No Excerpt: but Chapter 8 and Chapter 9 are good drink and food for the thirsting and hungering soul.


J. Merton Walkley said...

The 'brain zaps' seem similiar in a way to the Hindu / Buddhist phenomena called 'Shaktipat.' This can be roughly translated as 'energy manifestation.' The event can represent an emotional release or other effect of mystic work.

cregil said...

Yes, Merton, I believe you are correct. A friend just suggested the same to me a day or two after your comment. I read a bit about "Shaktipat", roughly translated as "spiritual energy descending."

It is particularly interesting to me that most seem to describe the spiritual aspect of such an event in terms and images of their own faith; yet, in the absence of faith, none-the-less, describe a spiritual component.

Thank you for adding some insight.