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Speaking With One's Self: Autoscopic Phenomena in Writings from the Ecstatic Kabbalah

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  • Hadassah Hebrew University Medical School, Jerusalem, Israel
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Speaking With One's Self: Autoscopic Phenomena in Writings from the Ecstatic Kabbalah

Abstract and Figures

Immediate experience localizes the self within the limits of the physical body. This spatial unity has been challenged by philosophical and mystical traditions aimed to isolate concepts of mind and body. A more direct challenge of the spatial unity comes from a well-defined group of experiences called 'autoscopic phenomena' (AP), in which the subject has the impression of seeing a second own body in an extrapersonal space. AP are known to occur in many human cultures and have been described in healthy, as well as neurological and psychiatric populations. In this article we investigate the phenomenology of AP as described in the writings of the ecstatic Kabbalah of the thirteenth century, and search for similarities and differences with respect to AP from these and other populations. The article discusses potential common research areas between cognitive science and the science of religious experience.
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Shahar Arzy, Moshe Idel,
Theodor Landis & Olaf Blanke
Speaking With One’s Self
Autoscopic Phenomena in Writings
from the Ecstatic Kabbalah
Abstract: Immediate experience localizes the self within the limits of the physical
body. This spatial unity has been challenged by philosophical and mystical tra-
ditions aimed to isolate concepts of mind and body. A more direct challenge of
the spatial unity comes from a well-defined group of experiences called
‘autoscopic phenomena’ (AP), in which the subject has the impression of seeing
a second own body in an extrapersonal space. AP are known to occur in most
human cultures and have been described in healthy, as well as neurological and
psychiatric populations. In this article we investigated the phenomenology of AP
as described in the writings of the ecstatic Kabbalah of the thirteenth century,
and searched for similarities and differences with respect to AP from these and
other populations. The article discusses potential common research areas
between cognitive science and the science of religious experience.
Key words: autoscopic phenomena, ecstatic Kabbalah, neurology, phenomenol-
ogy, mystical experience, temporo-parietal junction.
I: Introduction
Autoscopic phenomena (AP) are defined as illusory visual experiences during
which the subject has the impression of seeing a second own body in an
extrapersonal space (Devinsky et al., 1989; Brugger et al., 1997). During some
AP a fundamental component of the self is isolated, as the self experiences itself
beyond the corporeal boundaries. Thus, it has been argued that the investigation
of AP is a valuable tool in the scientific study of the self (Blackmore, 1982;
Irwin, 1985; Blanke et al., 2004; Blanke & Arzy, 2005). Moreover, Metzinger
Journal of Consciousness Studies,12, No. 11, 2005, pp. 4–30
Correspondence:
Shahar Arzy, Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience, Brain-Mind Institute, Ecole Polytechnique
Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), 1015 Lausanne, Switzerland. Email: shahar.arzy@epfl.ch
(2005) suggests that philosophy and folk-psychology include AP in their defini-
tion and exploration of the self, as well as in the creation of theories concerning
the interactions between body–soul and brain–mind (see also Rank, 1925;
Sheils, 1978; Metzinger, 2003). However, AP are rarely discussed in the
neuroscientific literature, though they have long fascinated writers and physi-
cians (for review see: Dening & Berrios, 1994).
Another approach that may further our understanding of AP and self may be
the detailed analysis of mystical experiences. The person’s body and self have a
prominent role in mysticism (Idel, 1990; Hollenback, 1996; Forman, 1998). For
example, mystical experiences may be characterized by feelings of expanding
one’s body beyond its physical limits; feelings of forgetting one’s own body; or
sensing ‘something’ filling the body (Idel, 1988; 1990; Forman, 1998). In other
instances, the self is perceived as semi-permeable, while others have reported a
unity between self and object; splitting of the self; or experienced themselves in
bizarre positions (Forman, 1998). Forman claims that mystical experience facili-
tates a direct approach in understanding such phenomena. These, in turn, may
teach us relevant characteristics about the relations between mind and conscious-
ness, found usually within complex mental activities and perceptions. Although
Forman (1998) emphasizes the value of meditation techniques and non-ecstatic
mysticism, others suggest the importance of ecstatic mysticism for a better
understanding of consciousness (see Appendix A). Thus, Hollenback (1996)
understands the term ‘ex-tasis’ as an ‘out-of-body experiences’, which include a
variety of phenomena such as AP (see below), ‘journey of the soul’ (i.e. experi-
ence of leaving the body, paralysed or asleep, with paranormal experience of
encountering ‘heavenly entities’) and unio-mystica. (i.e. experience of unifica-
tion with the divine) (Idel, 1990).
The present paper will discuss one group of these phenomena, namely volun-
tarily induced AP in a mystical trend of the Jewish Kabbalah of the thirteenth
century. These mystics induced AP by using a specific technique as described
previously (Idel, 1988; 1989; 2001). It is hoped that our analysis will clarify the
following points: First, deciding whether AP were involved in the ecstatic
Kabbalah, and if so, which one. Second, to compare their AP with those experi-
enced amongst contemporary healthy subjects, as well as brain damaged
patients. Third, to further our understanding of AP and self models. Fourth, to
shed light on the historical evolution in understanding ‘self’ (Metzinger, 2005).
A final point concerns the scholarship of mysticism: the comprehension of dif-
ferent experiences of revelation with respect to known neurological phenomena
may help in understanding mechanisms of religious experiences and vice versa.
II: Autoscopic Phenomena
Three distinct forms of autoscopic phenomena have been defined (see figure 1):
(1) Autoscopic hallucination (AH): the experience of seeing a ‘double’ of one-
self in extrapersonal space viewed from the perspective of one’s own physi-
cal body, i.e. in AH the subject feels his ‘self’ or centre of awareness within
SPEAKING WITH ONE’S SELF 5
the physical body (Dening and Berrios, 1994; Brugger et al., 1997; Blanke
et al., 2004).1
(2) Out-of-body experience (OBE): people are awake and feel their centre of
awareness as located outside their physical body. The subjects ‘see’ their
body and the world from an elevated extrapersonal location, resulted in per-
ceptions which are organized consistently with this visuo-spatial perspec-
tive (Lukianowicz, 1958; Grüsser & Landis, 1991; Blanke et al., 2004).
(3) Heautoscopy (HAS): an intermediate form between AH and OBE. During
HAS subjects also see their double in extrapersonal space; although it may
be difficult for the subjects to decide whether they are disembodied and
whether the self is localized in the physical or the double’s body. In addi-
tion, subjects may experience the world from two simultaneous or alternat-
ing visuo-spatial perspectives: the habitual physical visuo-spatial
perspective and the extracorporeal one (Brugger et al., 1994; Blanke et al.,
2004).
6 S. ARZY, M. IDEL, T. LANDIS & O. BLANKE
Figure 1. Phenomenology of Autoscopic Phenomena (AP)
Figure 1a. Autoscopic hallucination: experience of seeing one’s body in extracoporeal space (as a
double) without disembodiment (experiencing the self as localized outside one’s physical body
boundaries). The double (right figure) is seen from the habitual egocentric visuo-spatial perspec-
tive (left figure).
Figure 1b. Heautoscopy: an intermediate form between AH and OBE; the subject experiences see-
ing his body and the world in an alternating or simultaneous fashion from an extracorporeal and his
bodily visuo-spatial perspective; often it is difficult for the subject to decide whether the self is
localized in the double or in one’s own body.
Figure 1c. OBE: During an OBE the subject appears to ‘see’ himself (bottom figure) and the world
from a location above his physical body (extracorporeal location and visuo-spatial perspective; top
figure). The self is localized outside one’s physical body (disembodiment).
The directions of the subject’s visuo-spatial perspective during the AP
are indicated by the arrows (modified from Blanke, 2004a).
[1] Dening & Berrios distinguished between AH and OBE as did Devinsky et al. (1989); Older authors
like Menninger-Lerchenthal (1935) and Hécaen & Ajuriaguerra (1952) only distinguished between
AH and HAS.
AP are mainly described visually (leading probably to their name), though not
limited to visual manifestations. In fact, there are several associated non-visual
sensations mostly vestibular sensations, such as floating, elevation, lightness,
tilting or vertigo (Hécaen & Ajuriaguerra, 1952; Grüsser & Landis, 1991;
Blanke et al., 2004); body schema disturbances; and visual body part illusions,
such as the illusion of shortening, transformation or movement of an extremity
(Menninger-Lerchenthal, 1935; Hécaen & Ajuriaguerra, 1952; Frederiks, 1969;
Devinsky et al., 1989; Brugger et al., 1997). In addition to these sensory mani-
festations, AP are also associated with various emotions. Fear was reported most
often, but also feelings of joy and elation. Some subjects considered the experi-
ence as neutral, yet intriguing and surprising (Devinsky et al., 1989; Brugger et
al., 1994; Blanke et al., 2004).
AP are associated with a wide range of neurological diseases: epilepsy,
migraine, neoplasm, infarction, and infection (Grüsser & Landis, 1991; Dening
& Berrios, 1994). Recent neurologic reports support the role of multisensory
integration deficits of body-related information and vestibular dysfunctions in
AP at the temporo-parietal junction (Blanke et al., 2004; see also Blanke & Arzy,
2005), but other brain regions have been also implicated (Menninger-
Lerchenthal, 1935; Hécaen & Ajuriaguerra, 1952; Devinsky et al., 1989;
Grüsser & Landis, 1991; Dening & Berrios, 1994; Brugger et al., 1997)
Although AP were most often related to clinical situations, they have been
found in 10% of the general population, occurring once or twice in a lifetime
(Blackmore, 1982). AP are thus quite frequent experiences. Yet, their rarity in a
lifetime, and their appearance mostly outside a clinical setting contribute to their
lack of scientific examination within behavioral neurology and cognitive neuro-
science. Nevertheless, AP (in the normal population) have been illustrated in
many cultures (Blackmore, 1982). Yet, there are also some differences, which
may be due to alternative approaches to the definition of body-boundaries that
have been developed in different cultures. Eastern cultures generally have wider
body borders and may include subjects and objects from extrapersonal space,
while western cultures rather restrained the borders of the self and tied the self to
the body borders (Kleinman, 1988). The ecstatic Kabbalists mediate between
these two cultures in their emphasis on inducing AP, as well as in their influence
on western mysticism and on its historical, cultural and intellectual conse-
quences (Wirszubski, 1969; Scholem, 1969; Eco, 1989; Idel, 1989). In the fol-
lowing the ecstatic Kabbalists and their approach to AP will be presented. This
will be followed by a detailed phenomenological analysis and discussion of the
similarities and differences of their experiences with respect to AP in healthy and
neurological subjects.
III: The Ecstatic Kabbalah and its Technique
Abraham Abulafia was a thirteenth-century mystic who mainly lived in south-
western Europe (see box 1). His mystical method focused on the nature of the
human being and ways to reach states of prophetic-like ecstasy. The method was
based on specific techniques, experiences and perceptions, unlike most
SPEAKING WITH ONE’S SELF 7
Kabbalah mystics — the Theurgic Kabbalists — who endeavoured to describe
the structure of the divine and the processes running in them (Idel, 1988; Pines,
1988; Idel, 1990). Abulafia envisioned his prophetic-ecstatic Kabbalah as more
advanced than previous forms, since it dealt mainly with linguistic matters.
Thus, Abulafia invented a special technique using the basic stones of the 22
Hebraic letters and their combinations (Pines, 1988). The main ‘prophetic-
ecstatic’ experience was characterized by the visual appearance of a human
form. This form had the appearance of the mystic himself (the double or
Doppelgänger), talked to the mystic,2and is similar to AP that we described
above. In their writings, Abulafia and his followers detailed their methods and
techniques, and described their visual and other sensory sensations during
ecstasy in quite a detailed fashion.
8 S. ARZY, M. IDEL, T. LANDIS & O. BLANKE
Box 1: Abraham Abulafia
Born in Saragossa, Spain, in 1240, Abulafia’s life was characterized by ceaseless
wandering. His first journey was to Israel when he was 20 years old. On his return he
determined to go to Rome, but stopped short in Capua, where he devoted himself
with passionate zeal to the study of philosophy and the ‘Guide for the perplexed’ by
Maimonides, under the tutelage of the well-known philosopher and physician Hillel
ben-Samuel of Verona. With an eagerness to teach others, he wrote extensively on
Kabbalistic, philosophical, and linguistic subjects, succeeding in surrounding him-
self with numerous students, to whom he imparted much of his enthusiasm. At the
age of thirty-one he returned to Barcelona, where he immersed himself in the study
of the book ‘Yetzirah’ [Creation] and its numerous commentaries. This book
explains the creation of the world and man as based on letter combinations. The
book, and particularly the commentary and method of the German mystic Eleazar of
Worms, exercised a deep influence upon Abulafia, and greatly increased his mysti-
cal tendencies. Letters of the alphabet, numerals, vowel-points, all became symbols
of existence to him. Their combinations and permutations possessed for him an illu-
minating power most effective in ameliorating his degree of perception and his abil-
ity to explore the riddles of mind, the problems of human life, and the purpose of the
perceptions.
Abulafia soon left Spain again, and in 1279 wrote in Patras, Greece, the first of
his prophetic books, Sefer ha-Yashar (The Book of the Righteous). Then, in 1280,
he went to Rome to meet Pope Nicholas III. The Pope, then in Suriano, issued orders
to burn the fanatic as soon as he reached town. The very night Abulafia arrived to
Suriano, the Pope suddenly died. Returning to Rome, Abulafia was thrown into
prison by the Minorites, but was released after four weeks detention. He was next
heard of in Sicily, where he appeared as a prophet. The local Jewish congregation in
Palermo addressed this issue to Shlomo ben-Aderet, who subsequently wrote a let-
ter against Abulafia. Abulafia had to take up the pilgrim’s staff anew, and under dis-
tressing conditions compiled his Sefer ha-Ot (The Book of the Sign) on the little
island of Comino, near Malta, 1285–88. In 1291 he wrote his last work, Imre Shefer
(Words of Beauty). Since then, all traces of him are lost (Adopted from Idel, 1988;
1989; Kohler et al., 2002).
[2] This linkage of linguistics and human form is derived from the second to sixth century ‘Book of Cre-
ation’ and from the idea that a demiurgic power is hidden in the speech and the letters (Scholem, 1971).
The ecstatic Kabbalists referred to the feeling of an ‘autoscopic’ body as a
higher mystical achievement. Such a connection, between mysticism and bodily
sensation, was known from ancient times. Thus, one of the texts of Hellenistic
magic, ‘Mitrash Liturgy’, contains a passage that speaks of man’s ‘perfected
body’ (Dietrich, 1923). In the Gnosis, there are also meetings between man and a
primal celestial image, the Doppelgänger. According to the song of the pearl and
the song of the soul this is one of the highest forms of self-knowledge
(Reitzenstein, 1927; Meirovitch, 1972; Scholem, 1991), and comparable to
eastern methods of Yoga or Tantric meditation,3Iranian Zoroastrianism and
oriental-Greek Hesychasm4(Pangborn, 1983; Idel, 1988; Couliano, 1991). Yet,
whereas in these other traditions the eventual goal is the achievement of maximal
concentration by repeating a simple formula, Abulafia suggested a method that is
based on a stimulus that continuously changed (Idel, 1988). His intention is not
to relax the consciousness by meditation,5but to purify it via a high level of con-
centration which required doing many actions at the same time. For this, he used
letters. He proposed to take two ‘Names’ that may contain up to 72 letters each,
and pair them, resulting in as 5000 variations of combinations (Fig. 2a). To each
letter, he added one of five possible vowels, created up to 25,000 combinations.
This may be related to absorption, which Irwin (1985) has described as an impor-
tant factor in OBEs. An individual in a state of absorption is in a ‘heightened
sense of the reality of the object of attention, even when the object is imaginal’
(p. 280). To this basis Abulafia suggested adding physiological manoeuvres and
mental imagery, similar to those utilized in modern experiments in cognitive sci-
ence which use such techniques to induce similar conditions (Fig. 2b) (Palmer,
1978; Pylyshyn, 1979; Zacks et al., 1999; Blanke et al., 2005; see discussion).
Abulafia’s method includes three steps (Idel, 1988). The first step, prepara-
tion: the mystic writes out different letter combinations (Fig.2a). The second
step, physiological manoeuvres: the mystic chants the letters in conjunction with
specific respiratory patterns, as well as head positioning. The third step, mental
imagery of letters and human forms: the mystic imagines a human form, and
himself without a body. Then the mystic ‘draws’ the letters mentally, projects
them onto the ‘screen’ of the ‘imaginative faculty’, i.e. he mentally imagines the
patterns of figure 2a. He then rotates the letters and turns them, as Abulafia
describes in Imrei Shefer:
SPEAKING WITH ONE’S SELF 9
[3] There is an important similarity between Abulafia’s technique and Tantric Sadhana practices. Both
include mental rotation of letters and words, their recitation, and visualization of oneself as facing
another similar image (see Gyatso, 1996). Mutual influence between eastern traditions such as Indian
Tantra or Shamanism and western mystical techniques such as the one discussed here are also plausi-
ble (see for example Idel, 2005), and this influence requires further investigation.
[4] In all of the rich magical papyri material there are very few Greek instructions on how to attain this
‘self-vision’, which we would expect, following Socrates’ advice that in order to ‘know thyself!’ one
should ‘see thyself!’ (Scholem, 1991). Using Abulafia’s method, the mystic might follow this
Socratic order when inducing AP during meditation.
[5] As it is suggested by Bowers & Glasner (1958); in the same notion, it is hard to accept Abulafia’s
method as self-hypnosis. In hypnosis, the subject is required to lower his mental and physical activity,
the opposite of Abulafia’s requirements.
And they [the letters], with their forms, are called the Clear Mirror, for all the forms
having brightness and strong radiance are included in them. And one who gazes at
them in their forms will discover their secrets and speak of them, and they will speak
to him. And they are like an image in which a man sees all his forms standing in front
of him, and then he will be able to see all the general and specific things (Ms. Paris
BN 777, fol. 49).
During the final step of mental imagery, the mystic passes a succession of four
experiences. The first is an experience of body-photism or illumination, in which
light not only surrounds the body but also diffuses into it, giving impression that
the body and its organs have become light.6As the ecstatic Kabbalist continues
to practise, combining letters and performing physiological manoeuvres, the
10 S. ARZY, M. IDEL, T. LANDIS & O. BLANKE
Figure 2. Letters tasks
Figure 2a. Abulafia’s letter combinations task: Combinations of pairs of letters and vowels
(!=A;*= y) before and after transformations. The signs underneath and above the letters are the
vowels, which indicate different expression of each pair. See Idel (1988) for further details.
Figure 2b. Temporary letter transformations task: the four different stimuli as used in the let-
ter transformations task of Blanke et al. (2005), designed to distinguish self mental-rotation from
external mental-rotation.
[6] The connection between light and body was described in a school in Greece around the same time. In
the history of Simon the theologian of the eleventh century the experience is described as coming into
result is the second experience: weakening of the body, in an ‘absorptive’ man-
ner as described above.7Subsequently, the mystic may feel an enhancement of
his thoughts and imaginative capacity (as described in Sha’arei Tzedeq). This is
the third experience. The fourth experience is characterized mainly by fear and
trembling.8Abulafia emphasizes that trembling is a basic and necessary step to
obtain prophecy (Sitrei Torah, Paris Ms. 774, fol. 158a). In another place he
writes: ‘all your body will begin to tremble, and your limbs begin to shake, and
you will fear a tremendous fear […] and the body will tremble, like the rider who
races the horse, who is glad and joyful, while the horse trembles beneath him’
(Otzar Eden Ganuz, Oxford Ms. 1580, fols. 163b-164a; see also Hayei Haolam
Haba, Oxford 1582, fol. 12a). For Abulafia the fear is followed by an experience
of pleasure and delight. This feeling is a result of sensing another ‘spirit’ within
his body, as he describes in Otzar Eden Ganuz: ‘And you shall feel another spirit
awakening within yourself and strengthening you and passing over your entire
body and giving you pleasure’ (Oxford Ms. 1580 fols. 163b-164a). Yet, a feeling
of happiness is rare in descriptions given by Abulafia’s followers. As one of his
students writes (in Sha’arei Tzedeq): ‘enormous trembling seized me, and I
couldn’t gather strength, and my hairs stood up’ (Jerusalem Ms., 148 8° fols.
64b-65a). Only after passing these successive experiences does the mystic reach
his goal: the vision of a human form, which is closely linked to his own physical
appearance (see below) and generally experienced as standing in front of the
mystic. The experience is increased when the mystic experiences his autoscopic
form (or ‘double’) as speaking: the double begins to talk to the mystic, teaching
him the unknown and revealing the future.
IV: Neurophenomenology
In this section we will describe autoscopic experience of seven ecstatic
Kabbalists.9Using ‘technical’ mysticism, their writings are instructive, leading
the performer through the sensations they experienced. Rarely, they express
their experiences as first person descriptions.10 However, the similarity between
the instructional directives and the first person descriptions suggest that the
instructions were probably based on first person experience.
SPEAKING WITH ONE’S SELF 11
the body (Hausherr, 1929); There were some attempts to explain these experiences, however without
established rational fashion (Zimmer, 1960; Deikmann, 1962). For a general review of the light in
mysticism see Eliade (1969).
[7] Other mystics ‘weakened’ themselves or their bodies by other methods. For instance, the author of the
book Sha’arei Tzedeq avoided sleeping for two nights, similar to descriptions of people who had AP
after great efforts, like marathon running (Metzinger, 2005) or 12 hour-long work as a waitress
(Green, 1968).
[8] These feelings are described prior to OBEs (Green, 1968; Blackmore, 1982; Irwin, 1985; Blanke et
al., 2004).
[9] The descriptions are based on the work of Idel (2001; 2002).
[10] We assume that they followed Abulafia, whose interest was to present his strictly designed technique,
rather than experiences. This is different from the experiences described in James’ Varieties (1985).
Mystic 1 (M1) – Abraham Abulafia (HAS)
Abraham Abulafia describes the experience of seeing a human ‘form’ many
times in his writings (for detailed quotes and references see Idel 1988; 1989;
2001). However, initially it is not clear who this ‘form’ is. As the dialogue
between the mystic and the ‘form’ proceeds, the reader understands that the
‘form’ is the image of the mystic himself. Addressing his students and followers
in Sefer Hakheshek, Abulafia further elaborates the scenario (New York Ms. JTS
1801, fol. 9a; British Library Ms. 749, fols. 12a-12b):
… and sit as though a man is standing before you and waiting for you to speak with
him; and he is ready to answer you concerning whatever you may ask him, and you
say ‘speak’ and he answers […] and begin then to pronounce [the name] and recite
first ‘the head of the head’ [i.e. the first combination of letters], drawing out the
breath and at great ease; and afterwards go back as if the one standing opposite you
is answering you; and you yourself answer, changing your voice …
Apparently, by utilizing the letters of ‘the Name’ with specific breath tech-
niques, a human form should appear. Only in the last sentence Abulafia suggests
that this form is ‘yourself’. Yet he explicitly put it, as he has also explained in
another book, Sefer Hayei Haolam Haba: ‘And consider his reply, answering as
though you yourself had answered yourself’ (Oxford Ms. 1582, fol. 56b).
Most of Abulafia’s descriptions are written in a similar fashion. Yet, in Sefer
Haoth Abulafia describes a similar episode, but from an explicit self-perspec-
tive. Upon a first reading it appears to be the form of another man:
I saw a man coming from the west with a great army, the number of the warriors of
his camp being twenty-two thousand men […] And when I saw his face in the sight,
I was astonished, and my heart trembled within me, and I left my place and I longed
for it to call upon the name of God to help me, but that thing evaded my spirit. And
when the man has seen my great fear and my strong awe, he opened his mouth and
he spoke, and he opened my mouth to speak, and I answered him according to his
words, and in my words I became another man (pp. 81–2).
With respect to this passage, Idel (1988, pp. 95–100) suggests that ‘the man’ is
Abulafia himself because he is ‘seen’ as having ‘a letter inscribed in blood and
ink […] like a shape of a staff separating between them, and it was a very hidden
letter’. On the same page Abulafia continues that this ‘letter’ is the very sign of
himself, and that ‘I looked [at him], and I saw there [in my heart] my likeness and
image moving in two paths’.11
Regarding the different subtypes of AP, we suggest that Abulafia experienced
HAS. We base this classification on the presence of several HAS components in
his reports such as the presence of a strong affinity between Abulafia and the
double, the sharing of the double’s self-location, and explicit reduplication of the
self, in particular auditory reduplification. As exemplified in the first quote from
Sefer Hakheshek, Abulafia describes the AP: ‘go back as if the one standing
opposite you is answering you; and you yourself answer, changing your voice’.
12 S. ARZY, M. IDEL, T. LANDIS & O. BLANKE
[11] With respect to the army of 22,000 men, this might refer to the 22 Hebrew alphabet letters, the ‘tools’
Abulafia uses in his technique.
This is HAS, as Abulafia experienced his self to be localized at two positions at
the same time, in his physical and the double’s body. In addition to visualisation,
Abulafia also describes speaking of the ‘double’ and an auditory dialogue
between the physical and the autoscopic body (sharing of words and thoughts
between subject and double). Interestingly, HAS was described as seeing of an
identical image which is taken as another person, accompanied by a dialogue
between self and double (Steffens & Grube, 2001). Absorption is the core of
Abulafia’s technique as he instructs the practitioner: ‘and the one who draws
them [the letters] should think as they are speaking with him like a man to his
friend and as they are themselves men with speech ability’ (Ms. New-York JTS
1801, fol. 8a). Finally, Abulafia describes the double in a standing position, and
elaborates on the antecedent feelings of fear and trembling, which subsequently
turn to delight.
Mystic 2 (M2) – Nathan ben Sa`adyah Har’ar (HAS)
An explicit description of AP is also found in the words of Abulafia’s student,
Nathan ben Sa’adyah Har’ar. In Shushan Sodot (Oxford Ms. 1655, fol. 69b) he is
quoted: ‘Know that the perfection of the secret of prophecy for the prophet is that
he should suddenly see the “form” of himself standing before him’. He states fur-
ther that ‘one will then forget one’s own self, which will then disappear from the
subject. And the person will see the form of his self in front of him speaking with
him and telling him the future’. Har’ar describes an experience of seeing a dou-
ble, accompanied by depersonalization [disappearance of the subject] (Brugger
et al., 1997). As depersonalization is more commonly associated with HAS than
with AH and because there is no mention of disembodiment or change in
visuo-spatial perspective, we classify this scenario as HAS. In addition, Nathan
heard the double speaking to him. With respect to position, the double was in a
standing position, as the mystic’s body. Further references can be found in
Nathan’s book Sha’arei Tzedeq. When he began practising Abulafia’s method,
Nathan has not yet succeeded in inducing AP despite his efforts:
And, with the combinations method and isolation it happened to me;whathappened
with the light I saw going on with me as I mentioned in Sha’arei Tzedeq. However,
seeing a figure of myself standing before me, this I didn’t arrive to do and couldn’t
on that (Oxford Ms. 1655, fol. 69b).
This description has special importance in that it testifies to the reliability of the
present phenomenology. In addition, while inducing AP, Har’ar encountered
different features of the phenomena, which are sometimes ignored due to the pre-
dominant emphasis on the form’s appearance. As previously noted, by fasting
and sleep deprivation, thought acceleration occurred, causing him the feeling
that his forehead ‘is going to be broken’. He also describes absorption: ‘and all of
these letters, one should move them in a fast movement which warms up the
thought and increases eagerness and happiness’ (Jerusalem Ms. 148 8°, fol. 73a).
SPEAKING WITH ONE’S SELF 13
He describes physical and emotional experiences: ‘enormous trembling
seized me, and I couldn’t gather strength, and my hairs stood up’12 (Jerusalem
Ms., 148 8°, fols. 64b-65a), and the experience of body-photism:
in the third night [of practising the technique] after midnight, I nodded off a little,
quill in hand and paper on my knees. Then I noticed that the candle was about to go
out. I rose to put it right, as oftentimes happens to a person awake. Then I saw that
the light continued, I was greatly astonished, as though, after close examination, I
saw that it issues from myself. I said: I do not believe it. I walked to and fro all
through the house and, behold, the light is with me; I lay on a couch and covered
myself up, and behold, the light is with me all the while (Jerusalem Ms. 148 8°, fols.
63b-64a).
This scenic illumination occurred between waking and sleeping (hypnagogic),
which has been described as classical situation in AP (Dening & Berrios, 1994).
Further, the mystic was sitting and suddenly it happened. Finally, regarding
auditory sensations (in the epoch of writing Sha’arei Tzedeq)Hararwasnot
able to hear the double. Nevertheless, he heard a voice that emerged involun-
tarily from his own throat: ‘Behold, like the speech which emerges from my
heart and comes to my lips, forcing them to move; and I said that perchance, God
Forbid, it is a spirit of folly which has entered me, and I perceived it speaking
[matters of] wisdom. I said that this is certainly the spirit of wisdom’ (Jerusalem
Ms. 148 8°, fol. 65a).13 As this is not speech of the ‘double’ as described by
Abulafia, we do not classify it as such, nor as ‘hearing of a presence’ (HP) (see
discussion) since in the latter the subject generally hears someone else speaking
behind him, whereas Har’ar heard someone speaking within his body. A similar
report is supplied by Brugger et al.’s subject 1 whose AP occurred while climb-
ing in a high altitude: ‘I heard someone speaking French. The voice seemed to
emanate from within my own body, and I heard myself responding. It was in
French too — amazing, if you consider that I do not speak French at all…’
(Brugger et al., 1999). Therefore, this may be a variant of the double’s speech in
addition to the direct speech and the HP mentioned above (see discussion).
Mystic 3 (M3) – Yitzhak Hacohen (HAS)
Another important ecstatic mystic is Yitzhak Hacohen. Though not a contempo-
rary of Abulafia, Hacohen was an earlier mystic who had a similar approach, and
might have influenced the Abulafia school. He also witnesses AP as part of the
ecstatic process (Idel, 1988, p. 73; Scholem, 1934; ibn-Gabai, Avodat
Hakodesh):
All agree they possess the form of a body, similar to [that of] a human being, and
very awesome. And the prophet sees all sorts of his powers becoming weaker and
changing from form to form, until his powers cast of all forms and are embodied
14 S. ARZY, M. IDEL, T. LANDIS & O. BLANKE
[12] ‘My hairs stood up’ — in Hebrew, a common expression for intense fear (cf. the English phrase ‘My
hair stood on end’).
[13] The tradition that the prophet expresses in his voice divine words originates in the midrash (see
Heschel, 1962, pp. 267–8) and expressed by Azriel of Gerona and Haim Vital (Idel, 1988, pp. 67–8).
into the power of the form revealed to him, and then his strength is exchanged with
the angel who speaks with him. And that form gives him strength to receive proph-
ecy, and it engraved in his heart as a picture […] the prophet casts of that form and
returns to his original form, and his limbs and strength come back as they were
before and are strengthened, and he prophesies in human form.
We classify this experience as HAS due to the presence of autoscopy, deperson-
alization, affinity between the physical body and the double, and the alternation
between the last two as the subject is ‘embodied’ in the double, and then ‘returns’
into his ‘original form’. Hacohen’s experience is also associated with the sensa-
tion of fear and weakness. The subject heard his double speaking to him although
the experience is mostly visually. His body position is not mentioned. Although
it could be argued that his experience contains some OBE-like features as ‘are
embodied into the power of the form revealed to him’, Hacohen do not explicitly
describe disembodiment or an extracorporeal visuo-spatial perspective.
Mystic 4 (M4) – Yitzhak of Acre (HAS)
While practising Abulafia’s technique, Yitzhak of Acre reports:
this supernal spirit of holiness suddenly comes […] only heavenly voice speaking
within it, teaching him [the mystic] sciences which have never been heard or have
never been seen […] [All this will happen] after he has stripped off every corporeal
thing, because of the great immersion of his soul in the divine spiritual world. This
‘container’ will see his own form, literally standing before him and speaking to him,
as a man who speaks to his friend; and his own [original] form will be forgotten as if
his body doesn’t exist in the world […] their soul stands opposite them in the form
of the very ‘container’ speaking with them, and they say that the Holy One, Blessed
Be He, speaks with them. And what caused them this great secret? the stripping out
of sensory things by their souls, and their divestment from them and the embodi-
ment in the Divine Spirit (Otsar Haim, Moscow-Ginsburg Ms. 775, fols.
162b-163a).
He also adds a personal description ‘that one day I was sitting and writing down a
Kabbalistic secret, when suddenly I saw my body form standing in front of me
and my self disappeared from me, and I refrained from writing but I was com-
pelled’ (Shushan Sodot, fol. 69b; Scholem, 1991, pp. 253–4; Idel, 2001). We
classify Yitzhak of Acre’s description as HAS for the following reasons: First,
the experience of depersonalization reported by the mystic points to HAS. Sec-
ondly, the visuo-spatial perspective alternates between the physical body and the
double. While it moves into the double, the physical body disappears. Finally,
the standing position of the double is common in AH/HAS. Though emotions are
not elaborated, he was ‘compelled’ by the experience.
Mystic 5 (M5) – Elnathan ben-Moshe Kalkish (HAS)
Elnathan ben-Moshe Kalkish analyses the AP evoked by Abulafia’s technique
and describes absorption. He claims that by completely concentrating on the pro-
cess of letter combination, one may neglect all external stimuli. The internal
SPEAKING WITH ONE’S SELF 15
thought can ‘externalize’, causing the illusion that his own figure exists or
speaks independently:
for every apprehension which man receives of the spiritual apprehensions, its
beginning is in human thought, and when man thinks continually […] and viewsall
corporeal and bodily matters as the image of contingent things, and spiritual matters
as the essential ones […] and he shall do all this by combining the holy letters and
words and the pure language, which are the vehicles of all thoughts, then there are
born from their combination thoughts of wisdom and understanding, and, because
of its intense meditation on them, the intellect will perceive reality, and there will
come the renewed spirit […] and will speak by itself, but the thinker will recognize
that there is a mover and cause which causes him to think and to speak and to guide
and to compose until, through the grate [mental] activity [by the technique] the
inner one will return as if externally apprehended, and the two of them, the one
apprehending and the object of apprehension, are one thing, and they are mental
apprehension (Even Sapir, Paris Ms. 727, fols. 158a-158b).
Though not an explicit description, by analysing Kalkish’s experience infer-
ences to some aspects of the phenomenology can be made. Thus, there is an ‘ex-
ternal’ form that speaks to the mystic, the ‘internal’. The two are one and seem to
exist simultaneously. The self seems to extend and include both forms. The expe-
rience of the external form is described as an illusion with some degree of deper-
sonalization, while both forms are ‘mentally apprehended’. Based on these
observations (autoscopy, depersonalization, affinity, no disembodiment), we
classify Kalkish’s experience as HAS. With regard to non-visual features,
Kalkish does not mention the body position of the double, nor his associated
emotions. However, the double is speaking to the mystic ‘by himself’; and this is
a result of disciplined mental activity.
Mystic 6 (M6) – Yehuda ben-Nissim ibn-Malka (AH)
Another mystic from a close circle, Yehuda ben-Nissim ibn-Malka, also sug-
gests that the ‘form’ reflects the physical appearance of the mystic himself. This
is described in Ktab Anas Uetafsir (in: Vida, 1974, p. 22–3):
I have seen with my own eyes a man who saw a power in the form of an angel while
he was awake, and he spoke with him and told him future things. The sage [angel]
said: ‘Know that he sees nothing other than himself, for he sees himself front and
back, as one who sees himself in a mirror, who sees nothing other than himself, and
it appears as if it were something separate from your body, like you’. In the same
manner, he sees that power, which guards his body and guides his soul and then his
soul sings and rejoices, distinguishes and sees.14
16 S. ARZY, M. IDEL, T. LANDIS & O. BLANKE
[14] Immediately after the above citation, ibn-Malka offers an explanation that the process is a psychologi-
cal one; namely, taking place between three inner faculties: ‘And three powers overcome him: the first
power is that which is intermediary between spirit and soul, and the power of memory and the power of
imagination, and one power is that which imagines. And these three powers are compared to a mirror, as
by virtue of the mixing the spirit is purified, and by the purification of the spirit the third power is puri-
fied. But when the spirit apprehends the flux which pours out upon the soul, it will leave power to the
power of speech, according to the flow which comes upon the soul, thus shall it influence the power of
speech, and that itself is the angel which speaks to him and tells him future things’ (Vida, 1974, p. 23).
We classify ibn-Malka’s experience as AH. The ‘double’ is described as ‘sepa-
rated’ from the body with a weak affinity between the physical and autoscopic
body. There is no hint of depersonalization or disembodiment. Interestingly, the
mystic refers explicitly to mirror-like reflections to describe the autoscopic
events. This analogy has also been mentioned by patients with autoscopic hallu-
cination (i.e. Féré, 1891; Sollier, 1903; Brugger, 2002; hence the older term
‘specular hallucinations’). Ibn-Malka describes a speaking double, without ref-
erence to emotion or position. Interestingly, the transformation ‘front and back’
described here is quite close to experimental procedures designed to investigate
own body mental imagery (Zacks et al., 1999) and autoscopic phenomena
(Blanke et al., 2005; see below for discussion).
Mystic 7 (M7) – Sefer ha-Hayim (AH)
The anonymous Sefer ha-Hayim (sometimes attributed to Abraham ibn-Ezra)
states that:
in the manner that a man sees a form within the water or the form of the moon or the
form of some other thing or the form of himself […] he sees his own image in the
light of God and His glory, and this is a form against my eyes’ (Ms. Oxford-
Bodleiana 574, fol. 13b).
This appears while the mystic prepares himself for the prophetic experience.
Another paragraph of the anonymous Kabbalistic text (Ms. Oxford-Bodleiana
1954, fol. 68a) states that the manner of seeing one’s own form is ‘as one looks in
a mirror’. Reflected in the following is the origin of the vision in the technique,
and its emotional manifestations:
a vision occurred when a man is awake and reflects upon the wonder of God, or
when he does not reflect upon them, but pronounces the Holy Names or those of
angels in order that he be shown [whatever] he wishes or be informed of a hidden
matter, and the Holy Spirit then reveals itself to him […] and he trembles and shakes
from the power of the holy spirit, and is unable to stand it (Ms. Oxford-Bodleiana
1574, fol. 34b).
Though not detailed, the descriptions point to AH, as suggested by the description
of the ‘form’ as a mere image of the mystic, the term ‘mirror’ as well as the absence
of descriptions of depersonalization and affinity between autoscopic and physical
body. Furthermore, body position of the autoscopic double is not mentioned.
Summary of results
Amongst the mystics we reviewed, two had an experience of AH (M6; M7), five
had HAS (M1-M5), none had OBE. All mystics described verbal communication
between physical and autoscopic body. All mystics reported that they saw them-
selves in front-view, that is double and subject were facing each other; but two
reported seeing themselves also in back view (M2; M6). Light as a prominent
feature was described by two mystics (M2; M7). Five mystics mentioned the
position of the autoscopic body, all of them saw their double in a standing
SPEAKING WITH ONE’S SELF 17
18 S. ARZY, M. IDEL, T. LANDIS & O. BLANKE
SUB NO. NAME AP DISEMBODIMENT DEPERSONAL-
IZATION
SPEECH DOUBLE’S
POSITION
WEAKNESS PREDOMINATIN
GEMOTION
1 Abulafia HAS
(sim)
+ standing n.r. f,h
2 Nathan Har’ar HAS
(alt)
+ + standing + f,s
3 Yitzhak Hacohen HAS
(alt)
+/– + + n.r. + f
4 Yitzhak of Acre HAS
(alt)
+ + standing + h,s
5KalkishHAS
(sim)
––+standing n.r. n.r.
6 ibn-Malka AH + standing n.r. h
7 Sefer ha’Hayim AH + n.r. + n.r.
Table 1. Phenomenological findings in the writings of the Ecstatic Kabbalists
(AP = Autoscopic Phenomena; HD = Hearing of the Double; HAS = HeAutoScopy;
AH = Autoscopic Hallucination; sim = simultaneous type; alt = alternating type;
LC = Letter Combinations; n.r. = not reported; f = fear; h = happiness; s = surprise)
position (M1; M2; M4; M5; M6). Three mystics (M1; M2; M4) were sitting dur-
ing the experience. Five mystics reported an experience of ‘trembling’ (M1; M2;
M3; M4; M7). The sensation of fear was described only amongst HAS mystics
(M1; M2; M3). Happiness was experienced by three of the mystics (M1; M4;
M6). These phenomenological results are summarized in Table 1.
V: Discussion: Autoscopic Phenomena in the Ecstatic Kabbalah
In the following we will discuss the present results on AP in a group of ecstatic
Kabbalists from the thirteenth century with respect to current studies on AP in
neurological patients as well as in healthy subjects. We then evaluate the contri-
bution of such a comparative approach in the study of mysticism for cognitive
science and science of religious experience.
Visuo-spatial perspective, self-location, and depersonalization
Our data show that the above mystics had two types of AP: HAS and AH. Five of
the seven mystics experienced HAS, which was characterized by the experience
of a realistic double. In these latter cases self-location was frequently ambiguous
as the mystic could not decide easily whether his self was localized in the physi-
cal or the autoscopic body. Thus, mystics M1 and M5 experienced seeing the
world from their embodied and the disembodied visuo-spatial perspective at the
same time (simultaneous HAS): ‘go back as if the one standing opposite you is
answering you; and you yourself answer, changing your voice’ (New York Ms.,
JTS 1801, fol. 9a). M2, M3 and M4 had the impression that they were alternating
between the two positions and perspectives (alternating HAS) along with feeling
of depersonalization while seeing the double (‘my self disappeared from me’;
Scholem, 1991, p. 254). Both types of HAS (simultaneous and alternating) have
been described in neurological patients and healthy subjects. The simultaneous
type was described by Blanke et al. (2004, case 2b) and the alternating type by
Kamiya and Okamoto (1982), Brugger et al. (1994) as well as cases 4 and 5 in
Blanke et al. (2004). Alternating and simultaneous HAS have also been
described by Muldoon & Carrington (1929). Whereas all three HAS-mystics
with alternating HAS experienced depersonalization, the HAS-mystics with
simultaneous HAS did not. Clear disembodiment (experience of the self as being
localized outside one’s physical body boundaries) as described in OBEs was not
described by any of the mystics.
Two of the mystics experienced AH, i.e., they saw their double in
extrapersonal space viewed from their own physical body and perspective. The
location of the observing self was, thus, unambiguous. These mystics felt that
their center of awareness remained within their bodies and saw their double in
extrapersonal space: ‘something separate from your body like you’ (Vida, 1974,
p. 23). One AH-mystic stated that the double appeared ‘in front’ of him. Both
AH-mystics explicitly used the term ‘mirror image’ to describe how they experi-
enced seeing the autoscopic body. This is typically reported by subjects with AH
of neurological origin (Lukianowicz, 1958; Dening & Berrios, 1994). Finally, no
SPEAKING WITH ONE’S SELF 19
mystic with AH reported depersonalization or disembodiment, the first charac-
terizes HAS (and OBE) and the second characterizes OBE. Due to the small sam-
ple size, we discuss our finding for HAS-mystics and AH-mystics together.
Characteristics of the autoscopic body
With regard to the visual characteristics of the double’s body, five mystics
reported seeing themselves in front-view, i.e. double and subject were facing
each other (M1; M3; M4; M5; M7); two mystics (M2; M6) reported seeing
back-view as well. All of the mystics saw the face of the autoscopic body (i.e.
their ‘double’) as their own face. This was noted by Dening and Berrios (1994) in
AP of psychiatric and neurological origin. Nevertheless, none of the mystics spe-
cifically mentioned seeing other parts of the autoscopic body or whether they
saw their autoscopic body in its entirety. Partialness of the autoscopic body is
commonly reported in AP subjects and Dening and Berrios (1994, p. 812) noted
that ‘in almost all cases the subject viewed the face, commonly the upper body,
and less often the whole body’. Partialness was also common in psychiatric
patients reported by Lukianowicz (1958) and neurological patients reported by
Blanke et al. (2004).
Visual sensation of body photism was described by three mystics. Thus, M2
saw light as ‘it issues from myself’. The experience of seeing a bright light com-
ing from ones own body is also reported by Devinsky et al. (1989, case 4): ‘light
moved from my body on the floor. It lit up the room […] somehow I became the
light source’. The experience of illusory light sources or visual hallucinations
had also been described by other patients (Lukianowicz, 1958 [‘flashes’];
Dewhurst and Pearson, 1955 [‘white lights’]; Blanke et al., 2004, cases 1, 4, 6).
The experience of light is also common in subjects with OBEs as was described
by Twemlow et al.’s (1980) in 30% of subjects observing a brilliant white light
during their OBE (quoted by Irwin, 1985, p. 95).
Body position of the physical and autoscopic body
Blanke et al. (2004) noted that AH- and HAS-patients tend to see their double in
a standing/sitting position, identical to their physical body position, whereas
patients with OBEs tend to have the experience in a supine position. The authors
suggested that the patient’s body position influences the experienced position of
the autoscopic body. In the present study, in all instances where the mystic men-
tioned his position, mystic and double were in a sitting or standing position. Five
mystics reported they saw their double in a standing position (M1; M2; M4; M5;
M6). Three of them (M1; M2; M4) mentioned that they were themselves in a sit-
ting position during the AP. M4 stated that he did not experience HAS until he
got out of the supine position into the sitting position. The absence of OBEs in
these ecstatic Kabbalaists might, therefore, have been influenced by the sitting
position that Abulafia instructed his followers to utilize: ‘sit as though a man is
standing before you’ (Sefer ha-Hesheq, Ms. New York, JTS 1801, fol. 9a; Idel,
1988, pp. 111–12).
20 S. ARZY, M. IDEL, T. LANDIS & O. BLANKE
Non-visual manifestations
As previously reported, AP are not limited to the visual appearance of the
autoscopic body (Lukianowicz, 1958; Blackmore, 1982; Irwin, 1985; Dening
and Berrios, 1994), but include a selective set of other sensory manifestations
(Devinsky et al., 1989; Blanke et al., 2004). Likewise, the present AP were asso-
ciated with a variety of non-visual phenomena. Thus, five mystics reported sen-
sations of ‘trembling’ (M1; M2; M3; M4; M7) which were previously reported
in subjects with AP (Muldoon & Carrington, 1929; Menninger-Lerchenthal,
1935; Devinsky et al., 1989; Grüsser & Landis, 1991). Although tactile and/or
proprioceptive sensations were not described in the texts by the analysed mystic
school, M2 associated the effect of the letter combinations method with vestibu-
lar manifestations: ‘letters transpose [...] affects the “proper” balance of the
body, so has this an effect on the soul by the power of the name’ (Sha’arei
Tzedeq, Jerusalem Ms., 148 8° fols. 48b-49a). Most mystics did not elaborate on
locomotive action of the autoscopic body, yet Abulafia saw the double as
approaching the physical body. No vestibular sensations were described.
A pattern that has not been widely reported previously was the frequent asso-
ciation of auditory manifestations. All mystics not only saw the double, but also
heard the autoscopic body speaking. This may be similar to the observation made
by Dening and Berrios (1994) who mentioned ‘talking images’ in patients with
AP. Latter patients were characterized by male gender, a long duration of AP,
and psychiatric illness. Likewise, cases D, F, and G of Lukianowicz (1958)
stated that they ‘heard’ their double speak. Case D heard the double ‘in my head
and in my mind’ and case G ‘hear[d] him [the double] speaking to me’. A patient
of Hécaen and Ajuriaguerra (1952) also heard his double speaking to him. Other
forms of auditory phenomena, not directly related to the autoscopic body, have
also been reported. Thus, cases 1 and 4 of Devinsky et al. (1989) heard a voice
talking to them or to their double while having an OBE. A patient of Lunn (1970;
case 1) reported formed auditory hallucinations (‘voices from below’) and case 3
of Devinsky et al. (1989) reported hearing a ‘beeping sound’. Machinery sounds
and undefined voices were also reported by Williams (1956). Blanke et al.
(2003) suggested that there may be an auditory analogue to AP: the hearing of a
presence. This is characterized by only hearing the double (or another person)
close by, instead of seeing the double as in AP. This auditory form was described
as the convincing feeling of hearing another person behind oneself. Blanke et al.
(2003) suggested a functional relationship between hearing a presence with AP,
i.e. non-visual auditory form of illusory self reduplification, although the person
in the backspace was not identified as one’s double but rather as another person.
A third variant is reported by Nathan Har’ar (M2) and by Brugger et al.’s subject
1 who heard a voice emanating from their own body (Brugger et al., 1999; see
results).
With respect to the speaking double as described in the group of mystics and
previous patients, the experience of a speaking double might result from an addi-
tional implication of brain functions related to audition and speech, whereas
non-auditory AP do not interfere with these latter brain functions. Interestingly,
SPEAKING WITH ONE’S SELF 21
both auditory and language cortex are localized in close proximity to the anatom-
ical site which was proposed to be involved in AP (Blanke et al., 2004; Blanke &
Arzy, 2005; see below). Alternatively, these phenomenological differences
might be related to the fact that the mystics artificially induced their experiences,
as Blackmore (1982) argued that AP which do not occur spontaneously, as most
do, might differ in their phenomenology. The language-based induction method
utilized by the mystics might also have led to a higher frequency of speaking
doubles. As audition, like vision, balance, and somatosensation, is involved in
the construction of the body image (Blanke et al., 2003), we propose that the
experience of a speaking double is due to additional interference with auditory
mechanisms of own body perception (see Frith, 1996).
Emotions, evoked by the appearance of the double, were common. The sensa-
tion of fear was described by three mystics (M1; M2; M3). Happiness was expe-
rienced by three mystics (M1; M4; M6). Emotional association with dominance
of fear is described in the neurological literature (Lukianowicz, 1958;
Blackmore, 1982; Irwin, 1985; Blanke et al., 2004). Concerning a surprise by the
appearance of the double, three mystics (M2; M3; M4) described such a feeling,
as is also described in neurological literature (Lukianowicz, 1958; Blackmore,
1982; Irwin, 1985).
Abulafia’s technique with respect to other induction techniques
Most mystical and scientific techniques that have been applied to induce AP
tried to induce OBEs (Blackmore, 1982). Yet, mystics that have used Abulafia’s
method experienced HAS/AH which might be due to several characteristics of
Abulafia’s technique. Many aspects of the method such as respiration, concen-
tration and sleep deprivation (Blackmore, 1982) and even the use of letters and
words, rotating and reciting them (Gyatso, 1996), were not unique to Abulafia.
However, he makes an important use of a vast number of combinations as well as
own body mental imagery task as ‘in a mirror’. With regard to letter combina-
tions, Abulafia’s method combines two aspects, a verbal one and an imagery
one. With respect to the verbal aspect, the mystic performs reverberations
involving reading and speaking, mainly a left hemispheric process. With regard
to mental imagery, Nathan ben Sa`adya Har’ar describes:
If he is able to compel and to further draw [from his thought] it will emerge from
within to without, and it will be imagined for him by the power of his purified imagi-
nation in the form of a pure mirror, […] back side is transformed and becomes the
front, and he recognizes the nature of its inner side from the outside (Sha`arei
Tzedeq, p. 27, translated by Scholem, 1995, p. 155 in a different manner).
Later phases move from the mental image of letters to the human form. As
ibn-Malka describes the mystic ‘sees himself from the front and the back, as one
who sees himself in a mirror’. This is similar to methods applied by contempo-
rary authors (Ratcliff, 1979; Zacks et al., 1999; Blanke et al., 2005) using
own-body mental imagery tasks. Another factor, contributing to the appearance
of AH/HAS in Abulafia’s method rather than OBEs, may be due to the mystic’s
22 S. ARZY, M. IDEL, T. LANDIS & O. BLANKE
position during the experience. Blanke et al. (2004) observed that HAS/AH were
associated with a standing or sitting position, whereas OBE occurred in a supine
position. As the mystics were generally sitting or standing their position might
have led to the induction of HAS and AH.
Anatomical and functional considerations
The brain region that has been shown to be associated with AP is the
temporo-parietal junction (TPJ) as interference with this area has been found to
be associated with AP in lesion and electrophysiological studies (Fig. 3; for fur-
ther details see Blanke et al., 2002; 2004). In addition, neuroimaging studies
implicate the TPJ as the area associated with sensations of AP, like body image
and self perception (for review see Decety and Sommerville, 2003; Blanke &
Arzy, 2005). The associated auditory sensations, described by all mystics may
also be linked to the TPJ because the primary and secondary auditory cortex is
just anterior to the TPJ (Firth & Bolay, 2004; see there for discussion on AP and
HP in high altitude and the TPJ). In addition, electrophysiological, neuropsycho-
logical and neuroimaging studies suggest that the TPJ and adjacent cortical areas
such as the inferior parietal lobule combine auditory information and other sen-
sory information, such as vision and touch, in a coordinated reference frame for
personal and peripersonal space (Guldin & Grüsser, 1998; Duhamel et al., 1998;
Bremmer et al., 2001; La’davas, 2002).
Further characteristics of Abulafia’s method may be linked to the TPJ. It relies
on mental imagery, a function that involves the TPJ (Zacks et al., 1999; Zacks et
al., 2002; Blanke et al., 2004; Blanke et al., 2005). Moreover, given the central
SPEAKING WITH ONE’S SELF 23
Figure 3. The temporo-parietal junction (TPJ)
This brain region is supposed to be responsible to the integration of multisensory inputs and to
self-processing; thus creating fundamental mental contents as agency (being author of one’s own
thoughts and actions), self-other distinction and self-location. Disturbance of the activity in this
region may lead to AP (for further details see Blanke & Arzy, 2005).
role of language and letters in Abulafia’s method and the prime importance of
the left TPJ in language function (i.e. Wernicke’s area; Hustler & Galuske, 2003;
Cohen & Dehaene, 2004), Abulafia’s method may modulate activity at the left
TPJ or adjacent regions by reading and rehearsal of letters. Accordingly,
neuroimaging studies suggest that mental imagery with respect to letters (like in
a line orientation task, letter matching task or letter-case judgement task) or pho-
nemes reading and/or expressing (like in rhyming tasks) as in Abulafia’s method
lead to an activation of the left TPJ and near areas (Pugh et al., 1996; Shaywitz et
al., 1998; Temple et al., 2001; Xu et al., 2001). Finally, damage to the left TPJ
may lead to aphasia or alexia (Iragui & Kritchevsky, 1991; Shaywitz et al., 1998;
Temple et al., 2001; Cohen et al., 2003). Moreover, with respect to mental own
body imagery, several recent studies suggest methods to induce OBEs that are
quite similar to Abulafia’s method. Thus, Palmer (1978) used similar steps as
Abulafia relying on successive steps of relaxation, a visual trigger (a turning spi-
ral) and mental imagery of an OBE-like situation (the subjects were instructed to
imagine a figure they had seen before). In neuroimaging studies of a mental own
body imagery task (that were mentioned above), authors asked healthy subjects
to imagine themselves in the position that is characteristically reported by OBE
and HAS patients and found this to activate the TPJ (Zacks et al., 1999; Blanke et
al., 2005).
The importance of neuro-phenomenology in the study of mysticism
Important as they indeed are in normal life and in its religious moments, mystical
experiences are almost never accessible to the scholars interested in examining
them. One problem is that the descriptions reflect unique terminologies, theolo-
gies and realia, which are different from those known to the scholar (Idel, 1990).
Therefore, some modern scholars of religious experience focused their inquiry
on subjective experience, rather than theological data (Moore, 1978; Idel, 1990).
Yet, highly subjective experience is not easily approachable either. The compar-
ison we suggest here between mediaeval mystics and contemporary findings in
healthy and neurological subjects arms the scholar with a new access to these
experiences. The tools of cognitive neuroscience make it possible to approach
mystical experiences not only by semantical analysis of the mystics’ writings,
but also by approaching similar mystical experiences in healthy and neurological
patients in conjunction with analysis by neuropsychological methods, experi-
mental paradigms, lesion studies, and brain imaging studies. AP exemplify such
a comprehensive approach: on the one hand, AP are important parts of the mysti-
cal experience and essential to many forms of ecstasy like soul-traveling,
unio-mystica, and OBE (Couliano, 1983; 1991; Idel, 1990; Hollenback, 1996).
On the other hand, AP are also present in the normal population and in neurologi-
cal patients with no mystical interest at all (Blackmore, 1982; Blanke et al.,
2004).
The above discussion points to a more general phenomenon in visions of reve-
lation that might be described as the shifting of the centre of gravitation from the
24 S. ARZY, M. IDEL, T. LANDIS & O. BLANKE
outer, common and public revelation, to the more individual and intimate aspects
of the experience. Thus, in contrast to the assumption that religion is a special
type of human experience to be analysed by tools specific to this field, cognitive
approaches assume that religion is one of many other human creations, and as
such it should be incorporated into the study of human creativity, i.e. understand-
ing how the human mind operates the systemic nature of creativity. On the other
hand, cognition may be considered as integral part of the religious system, as
religions include important cognitive aspects (beliefs, cosmologies, symbol-
isms). This is especially true for those religions that place greater emphasis on
rituals, magical practices and mystical techniques. Therefore, religious experi-
ence may be induced by resorting to the bodily exercises prescribed to attain
changes in one’s internal mental states (Idel, 2005).
We presented here a group of mystics who achieved their mystical experience
of revelation and prophecy by using a practical technique which changed their
internal mental state. This consonance may be of importance not only in the
cases discussed above, but also in an improved understanding of religious expe-
rience in general. Thus, a central role in the understanding of the mystical experi-
ence may belong to the techniques and practices performed by the mystic, and to
their realization through physiological and psychological mechanisms. Interest-
ingly, some of the ‘mystical’ techniques are used today in laboratory settings to
investigate central processes of mental imagery. Therefore, in the study of mysti-
cism, interdisciplinary approaches might be as valuable to scholars (Idel, 2004)
as to contemporary philosophers who use these experiences for understanding
the concept of mind (Metzinger, 2003; 2005). Cognitive Neurosciences, in turn,
might profit from the research of mysticism in their endeavour to further our
understanding of mechanisms of own body perception and self consciousness
(Forman, 1998).
Conclusion
Abundant in folklore, mythology, and the spiritual experiences of ancient and
modern societies, AP have fascinated mankind from time immemorial (see
Blackmore, 1982; Irwin, 1985). Thomas Metzinger claimed that ‘our traditional,
folk-phenomenological concept of a ‘soul’ may have its origins in accurate and
truthful first-person reports about the experiential content of a specific
neurophenomenological state-class’, i.e. AP (Metzinger, 2005, p.1). He claims
that our contemporary folk-psychology about mind might have emerged from
the older notion of ‘soul’, which in turn may be related to autoscopic mystical,
mythical and historical descriptions. The soul, or ‘proto-concept of mind’, as
Metzinger names it, may be a direct derivate of the experience of AP, which led
men ‘to first start developing a theory of mind’ (p. 2). The ecstatic Kabbalah
mystics perceived the AP as if the self would be separated not only from the
human body but also from the ‘original’ self, and is reified in an entity standing
before them. The ecstatic Kabbalists interpreted it by a model of different levels
of self (Idel, 2001). Regarding the mutual influence between the ecstatic
Kabbalah, Moslem Sufi and astro-magical traditions as well as Christian
SPEAKING WITH ONE’S SELF 25
mysticism,15 the above observations might have relevance for the understanding
of the proto-concept of mind and the roots of western culture (Scholem, 1969;
Wirszubski, 1969; Idel, 2001; Shoham, 2003). Finally, for cognitive science, AP
present a valuable advantage to consciousness studies as well as neuropsycho-
logical understanding of the ‘self’, since during AP fundamental components of
the self are isolated. In this manner, the technical and phenomenological work of
Abulafia’s school may be considered as an important exploration of the human
‘self’.
Acknowledgment
The authors thank Dr. Sara Mordzynski for helpful comments on the manuscript.
Appendix A: Kataphatic Mysticism and Apophatic Mysticism
Forman (1998) discusses mysticism as a subject for consciousness studies and as
an opportunity to search for neurocognitive phenomena in healthy subjects. He
proposes to divide the mystical experience to two main faculties: The first is a
faculty that conquers full attention of the subject, by filling the subject’s aware-
ness with different perceptions or hallucinations (kataphatic mysticism). The
second is an emptying of the awareness of all stimuli (apophatic mysticism).
Forman suggests that in particular the second type might provide useful insights
into the mechanisms of consciousness and calls it pure consciousness events.
Forman does not discuss potential contributions through investigation of the
kataphatic mysticism, which he claims to consist mainly of hallucinations of all
types and related to schizophrenia — not the healthy position that drove him to
explore mystical experience. We believe that ecstatic mystical experience, like
the experience described here, provides useful insights into the mechanisms of
consciousness, though it belongs to the full attention route. We emphasized the
scientific-like basis of such a technique, which is very close to current laboratory
experimental tasks (Zacks et al., 1999; Blanke et al., 2005). Thus, a technical
approach leads the practitioner to a unique consciousness state. A detailed and
precise phenomenology of ecstatic mystic experience may serve neurocognitive
science and consciousness studies with rich sources of data about the mind, brain
and the inner world.
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Why did many religious leaders—Moses, Old Testament prophets, Zoroaster—claim they heard divine voices? Why do ancient civilizations exhibit key similarities, e.g., the “living dead” (treating the dead as if they were still alive); “speaking idols” (care and feeding of effigies); monumental mortuary architecture and “houses of gods” (pyramids, ziggurats, temples)? How do we explain strange behaviour such as spirit possession, speaking in tongues, channelling, hypnosis, and schizophrenic hallucinations? Are these lingering vestiges of an older mentality? Brian J. McVeigh answers these riddles by updating “bicameralism.” First proposed by the psychologist Julian Jaynes, this theory postulates that an earlier mentality existed: a “human” (the brain’s left hemisphere) heard voices of “gods” or “ancestors” (the brain’s right hemisphere). Therefore, ancient religious texts reporting divine voices were recounting of audio-visual hallucinations—a method of social control when early populations expanded. As growing political economic complexity destabilized god-governed states in the late second millennium BCE, divine voices became inadequate. Eventually, humans had to culturally acquire new cognitive skills (modern religions) to accommodate increasing social pressures: selves replaced the gods and history witnessed an “inward turn.” This psychological interiorization of spiritual experience laid the foundations for the world’s great religions and philosophies that arose in India, China, Greece, and the Middle East in the middle of the first millennium BCE.
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This chapter examines the use of letter combination to create the golem. It shows that the purpose of the medieval golem differs from both rabbinic and contemporary popular-culture conceptions of it. Similarly, it considers golem making in terms of totemization, or the process of turning an object into a subject. While the golem is animated by rituals resembling totemization, the golem itself differs primarily in its instrumentality. Its function is not relational, and therefore it is not a proper subject. Instead, it is used to effect met a physical changes, including the resurrection of the dead and the reconstruction of the cosmos. From the late Middle Ages onward, the golem has lived a varied and interesting life in the popular imagination. Both rabbinic and modern sources show its social function, but medieval sources give the ritual a theological telos. In the Middle Ages, this is the true function of the golem. As such the golem gains its power through the process of totemization, but once created, it acts as an agent and not as a totem.
Article
Our experiences, through day and night, are not as clear-cut as might seem on first thought. Considerable aspects of life comprise illusory phenomena, some of which are realised, while others are not. Moreover, the boundaries between illusion and hallucination can be very blurred. This essay considers specific situations exemplary of these aberrations-the phantom limb phenomenon, the effects of migraine and temporal lobe epilepsy, sleep disturbances, out-of-body and near-death experiences, conjuring, and the technique of pick-pocketing. Life is never as certain or as sure as we think.
Article
The paper encompasses a review of selected themes and textological analysis of "Book of the Sign", Sefer ha-Ot, by 13th century kabbalist, r. Abraham Abulafia. Part one includes a depiction of eight extant source manuscripts with an analysis of the structure and possible path of development of each copy and eventually - an explanation on the choice of the main sources applied for the synopsis. Part two sketches on the themes from Sefer ha-Ot that have not yet been the subject of detailed research or were just initially hinted without delving into minutiae. These are supported by scans of respective folios from one of the manuscripts. Some schemes and illustrations were added, too, where applicable.