Mindful Ethics: 4 Questions Raised by a Reverse Exorcism

BL00 - Mindful Ethics

By Mo Edjlali, Mindful Leader Founder & CEO

The episode "Belief" from the series Mind Field explores the profound impact of belief and suggestion on human perception and experience. The central experiment of the episode, described as a "reverse exorcism," is designed not to expel a spirit from an individual but rather to induce the sensation of a spirit entering them. This concept, while fabricated for the purpose of the experiment, serves as a vehicle to investigate the power of belief and the placebo effect. What can we learn from the experiment, and how can we apply it to the field of mindfulness? 

The Reverse Exorcism

Michael Stevens, the driving force behind the captivating experiment in the "Belief" episode, is renowned for his significant contributions to psychological exploration for the masses via the acclaimed web series Mind Field. Produced and released by YouTube originally as part of its YouTube Premium offerings, Mind Field delves deep into the complexities of human psychology through engaging and meticulously crafted experiments. The series has captivated a broad audience by making intricate psychological theories accessible and compelling. Stevens has successfully highlighted psychological phenomena as the creator and host, prompting extensive discussions on their implications for our comprehension of human behavior and beliefs.

Emboldened by those preliminary findings on belief formation, Stevens took the mind-bending experiments a step further with the reverse exorcism ritual. He partnered with Dr. Samuel Veissière, an expert on the power of suggestion and placebos and Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at McGill University.

To prime participants for an extraordinary experience, Stevens and Veissière crafted an environment dripping with scientific and religious iconography - from an EEG skullcap to a priest's vestments. They employed actors to uphold the ruse, including a fake nurse checking vitals and priest guiding an "ancient ritual" Veissière had actually invented himself days earlier.

As participant Jeremiah described it, "It was weird, but I could feel like the presence... I didn't feel anything below."

Another subject, Miriam, reported an extraordinarily vivid vision: "I immediately felt my mother's spirit with me...I could vividly see my mother standing there, smiling at me. She looked beautiful."

Despite being utterly fabricated, the ritual skilfully leveraged the power of belief and suggestion to induce remarkably real sensations and out-of-body experiences for multiple participants. As Veissière explained, "The results can be the same, regardless of the intentions of the facilitators."

The Placebo of Belief

For the researchers, the experiments demonstrated that the human mind is a "belief-making machine" relentlessly generating beliefs to impose order on uncertainty. Even when those beliefs are irrational superstitions wholly disconnected from reality, the study showed they can still shape physical experience profoundly.

"These are still some really difficult philosophical questions," Veissière reflected after Miriam's experience seeing her late mother. "There's no way to prove whether or not God worked in this room today."

It's an insight that raises profound considerations for belief-guided practices like mindfulness and meditation. While potentially powerful tools, the findings indicate their benefits may stem as much from the placebo effect - the simple power of belief itself - as any intrinsic technique.

This prompts questions about such practices' transparency, ethics, and true philosophical underpinnings. How much do they inadvertently leverage the mind's superstitious tendencies rather than cultivating transcendence of them? When guiding participants into deeply suggestible states, how does one avoid unconsciously implanting beliefs or attachments? Where is the line between ethical leadership and manipulation?

Ultimately, while our beliefs may be based on fiction, the Mind Field experiments prove their impacts on our minds and bodies are undeniably real. For mindfulness practitioners, that reality demands a reckoning with our methods and core principles. Remaining grounded in scientific rigor while thoughtfully harnessing the placebo effect's potential may be the path forward.

Key Concepts Explored

The episode delves into several key concepts:

  • The Power of Suggestion: It demonstrates how suggestion can shape perception and experience, especially when bolstered by a conducive environment.
  • Placebo Effect: The experiment is a testament to the placebo effect, where belief in the treatment (in this case, the ritual) produces actual psychological or physiological responses.
  • Interplay of Science and Religion: By blending scientific and religious elements, the experiment explores how both domains can influence belief and experience, regardless of the individual's faith or skepticism.
  • The Nature of Belief: The episode reflects on the human tendency to form beliefs as a way to make sense of the world, suggesting that belief is a fundamental aspect of the human condition.

The "reverse exorcism" experiment from Mind Field reveals the intricate ways in which belief, suggestion, and expectation can shape human experience. It highlights the placebo effect's power, not just in medicine but in every aspect of life where belief plays a role. The experiment raises philosophical questions about the nature of belief, the mechanisms of the human mind, and the thin line between perception and reality. Ultimately, it suggests that while our beliefs may be based on illusions or fabrications, their effects on us are undeniably real and potent.

What does this all mean for the field of Mindfulness? How can we apply some of these concepts to ensure the integrity, safety, and effectiveness of our work?

Essential Questions for Mindfulness Practitioners

  1. Transparency in Mindfulness Mechanisms
    The placebo effect demonstrated in the experiment prompts a reevaluation of the mechanisms proposed behind mindfulness benefits. Are the outcomes of mindfulness practices the result of the techniques themselves, the belief in their effectiveness, or a blend of both? This question challenges mindfulness teachers to consider how transparently they discuss the potential placebo dynamics with participants, ensuring that individuals are fully informed about what influences their experiences.
  1. Navigating the Line Between Guidance and Influence
    The experiment's ability to induce profound experiences through suggestion highlights the delicate balance between guiding participants and unduly influencing their beliefs or perceptions. This raises a crucial ethical dilemma for mindfulness practitioners: ensuring that their guidance fosters genuine self-discovery without crossing into manipulation, especially when participants are in vulnerable states of deep meditation or mindfulness and when there are capitalistic-driven incentives.
  1. Cultivating Awareness Versus Attachment
    Mindfulness aims to cultivate a detached awareness of transient thoughts and feelings. However, the experiment's exploration of belief and suggestion invites mindfulness teachers to reflect on whether their teachings might inadvertently foster a new form of attachment—specifically, to the practices, the teacher, or the experiences they induce. It's vital for teachers to navigate this complex terrain carefully, ensuring mindfulness remains a liberating tool rather than a source of new dependencies.
  1. Ethical Use of Suggestion and Religious & Scientific Symbolism
    The power of suggestion, as evidenced by the placebo effect in the reverse exorcism, holds significant implications for mindfulness practices. This power, especially when combined with religious or scientific iconography, can profoundly impact participants' experiences. Mindfulness practitioners must thus grapple with how to ethically wield this influence, ensuring that any use of suggestion or symbolism genuinely benefits participants without misleading or manipulating them.

A Forward-Thinking Vision for Mindfulness

The mindfulness community is at a pivotal juncture, observed with a blend of interest and skepticism. The unique insights gleaned from experiments like the "reverse exorcism" from Mind Field, combined with a deep dive into the ethical dimensions of mindfulness, highlight the urgent need for a progressive approach. This vision emphasizes the importance of transparency, ethical oversight, and a dedication to the actual well-being of all participants. Despite some efforts, there remains a significant gap in establishing an ethical, inclusive framework for training, and the absence of a reputable governing body to oversee these principles. The case of the "reverse exorcism" experiment serves not only as a demonstration of the profound effects of belief and suggestion on the human psyche but also as a springboard for a deeper ethical exploration within the mindfulness community. By addressing these ethical complexities, practitioners can ensure that mindfulness remains a potent pathway for personal development and transformation, anchored in moral integrity. Moving forward, the aim should be to cultivate a form of ethically informed and deeply transformative mindfulness, guaranteeing that the practices promoted are as authentic as they are beneficial.


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