Tuesday, January 30, 2007

A startling new research result is rocking the worlds of sociology and psychology. Apparently, when provided with certain artificial stimuli, under controlled conditions, a group of experimental subjects were found to be capable of reliably inducing in themselves an intense, satisfying sexual experience--one that they described afterwards as among the most powerful of their entire lives. These experiences had no apparent ill effects, and may even have improved the subjects' overall well-being, as later reported by themselves and others. Some researchers are speculating that the results of this experiment may radically alter our view of sex--possibly ending sex as we know it.

Not exactly astounded by the news that people can enjoy getting themselves off? Well, I lied a bit--the experiment, as reported by Mark Kleiman (full paper here), actually deals with the artificial induction of religious experiences, using the hallucinogen psilocybin (the active ingredient in so-called "magic mushrooms"). Either way, though, a breathless, apocalyptic tone is quite unnecessary.

Artificially generating intense feelings outside the context which naturally produces them can certainly be useful at times--imagine being able to feel comfortably satiated without actually having to eat a large meal. But religious feelings, like sexual ones (or appetitive ones, for that matter), perform an important role within their normal context--a role that doesn't disappear just because the same feelings are also available on demand. Most people, for example, still need intimacy, trust and partnership in life, and continue to reinforce those things using intense sexual feelings even in this era of technologically advanced sex toys. Likewise, many people need a moral, metaphysical and communal framework into which they can fit their lives, and from which they can draw inspiration and comfort. They will no doubt continue to seek that inspiration and comfort from religion even when artificial varieties of mystical experience are readily available. Magic mushrooms may be good for an occasional religious thrill, after all, but that doesn't mean the age-old story of boy-meets-God is going to go out of fashion anytime soon.