DIGETHIX 2: Neurofeedback, Technodelics, Brain Stimulation, and the New Spirit Tech with Kate Stockly

Kate Stockly is a PhD candidate in Science, Philosophy, and Religion at Boston University’s Graduate Division of Religious Studies. her work is characterized by multidisciplinary investigation into human religiosity that aspires to harmonize the sciences and humanities. Kate recently published the book, Spirit Tech, which explores technologies of ‘spiritual enhancement.’

 

In this interview, I talk to Kate about her interdisciplinary training for her PhD in religion and science at Boston University, specifically about the application of scientific methods to the study of religion. In her book, Spirit Tech, Kate describes the ways in which new technologies are being developed to facilitate both connection between people and new kinds of spiritual experiences. The key questions for this episode are: what drives people to seek out novel experiences? What role might technology play in these experiences in the future?

 

Music: “Dreams” from Bensound.com

Episode Transcript

Seth Villegas
Hello, I’m really pleased to be joined by Kate today. Kate is someone who I’ve actually known for a long time, now coming on almost four years. We share the same advisor Wesley Wildman, and both part of the Center for Mind and Culture. And one of the things I’ve actually missed Kate is that we used to be deskmates, we were kind of on the same desk Island, we’re a little cross from each other. I was in a corner, though. So you can always be sure if I was there, you know, just because I’d be like covered by the desk. But I really enjoyed actually getting to talk to you during that time. And that’s one of things I really miss about not being able to be in the office, because you know, we can chat about things, check in about the program and everything. So how have you been doing?


Kate Stockly
Yeah, I’m doing well. I mean, since COVID, began, I’ve been working diligently. We first finished the final manuscript of this book, Spirit Tech that I wrote with Wesley, our advisor, then started in full time on my dissertation. So I have three chapters done, and I’m working on the fourth. So it’s been, it’s been a very productive time for me; well, as productive as you can expect, during a global pandemic. The one benefit is that I would have probably been spending most of my time isolated working anyways. So it’s been a long year, lots of work in progress done on multiple projects.


Seth Villegas
You know, most people actually choose to write their dissertation before they publish a book. But I think this isn’t even your first book, right? Haven’t you also working on another book before this one?


Kate Stockly
Yeah. This book, I just happen to have a copy high on God. I wrote with my, actually my advisor from my master’s program, James K. Wellman, and a colleague, Katie Corcoran, who is now also a tenure track professor. We had…we started on this project during my master’s, which was I graduated from that nine years ago. So this project was a long time coming, we had access to tons of interview data from mega church attendees and lay leaders, and so we wrote a book on mega churches. And then Spirit Tech was the second project which is totally different, of course, about religion, but a different different kind of angle in on on the same topic.


Seth Villegas
Okay, Kate, yes, you’re not trying to flex on me, by just having like a copy of your book right next to you as we start the interview. I mean, I know she’s gonna be audio. So for audio listeners, Kate, you know, when I asked her about this, how to book an extra reach to it, and showed it to me on the screen.


Kate Stockly
So yeah, I did just happen to have it here. Okay, I was actually, oddly enough citing it in my dissertation.


Seth Villegas
Well, sorry, I’m actually trying to talk you up, Kate. Because Because I think it’s really impressive. You’ve already worked on two books, the fact that you’ve had a chance to be on the cutting edge research is really cool.


Kate Stockly
Yeah, I don’t know how these these opportunities have just kind of fallen into my lap. And I’ve grabbed them, I’m just kind of like, yeah, of course, I can do that. Let’s do it. And we just go with it. So, so yeah, it is kind of a cool thing to have both of these books. And then hopefully, my dissertation can be a third book at some point. It’s given me a lot of variety. In my program, since you know, since a lot of times, PhD programs kind of get you more and more narrow to look at one very specific narrow thing and your dissertation. And I’ve done that, but this, these other projects have kind of afforded me the opportunity to cast my interest net a little wide and entertain these other side interests that would never make it into my dissertation.


Seth Villegas
So I know we’re going to be talking about spirit second, just a little bit, but I thought it’d be great if we could talk a little bit about your specialties. So what’s your main focus and your your research? And what do you do here at Boston University?


Kate Stockly 

I’m in the Ph. D. program, in religion and science. And so religion and science can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. Sometimes it means the dialogue, kind of between religion, religious and scientific ways of knowing. Sometimes it means like the history of science and the philosophy of science and religion kind of intersecting. Sometimes, it means a look at the environment, science, environmental science and religions response to things like the climate crisis. For me, it is very much an interested in scientific approaches, meaning for me, that means like cognitive science, neuroscience and evolutionary biology, for understanding how people are religious, and how communities are religious. I tend to incorporate a lot of sociological factors in my work and looking at the way that human bodies and brains coexist together and kind of coalesce into this…to create richly textured affective spaces that are religious and what that means for the individuals in those spaces. What kinds of realities and communities emerge from those dynamics. Yeah, and this has, for me, this has always included and actually grew out of an interest in feminist theory. Way back when, at the beginning of my bachelor’s degree, I became interested in feminist theory. And I was kind of blown away and a little disturbed, I mean, very disturbed as like a young college student, realizing the extent of the patriarchy for the first time. One of the things that really got to me was this degradation of the body and the sort of the hyper focus or sort of like the glorification of the spirit and of the transcendental mind, above and beyond the body, which was seen as somehow, like unruly passions or things that needed to be controlled things that needed to be kind of tamped down to in order to emphasize the transcendent spirit. And, of course, historically, this has often meant that women are closely associated with the physical body, whereas men are more associated with the transcendental spirit. And I thought, this is just, you know, this is not necessary, basically. And I kept thinking over and over again, that if we paid a little bit more attention to the body, not only would not only could correct some of the sexist and patriarchal elements that have, that have worked to oppress women, but also, we could potentially have a better understanding of what it means to be human, what it means to be a full human embodied in this biological materiality that we have, and how that contributes to our experience of, of transcendence of the world of religion and spirituality and these kinds of things. So I was always interested in kind of bringing back the body into the conversations of spirituality. So that sort of remained through line through all my work.


Seth Villegas
To summarize a little bit of what I think you just described, you talked a little bit about a methodology of particular way of say, investigating things, or looking to the way in which people experience those things, because what really came to mind for me is like, well, you might get very different answers, depending on what you look at. And I think from the broad range of projects you’ve already described, I can see that that’s, that’s already true, it seems like you want to look at things really, really closely. But also you have a particular interest, that there’s this kind of division over cultural ideas that aren’t necessarily rooted in anything but a kind of association, especially between, I think what you said the transcendent mind, you know, kind of associate with the sort of maleness and femaleness and the body. And so, I guess when we’re talking about specifically religious spaces, is it just as simple as that kind of dichotomy? Does that repeat in all kinds of cultures? To me, that seems like a very sort of Western idea, perhaps maybe kind of something from like Christendom of the past? I don’t Middle Ages, Europe, something like that.


Kate Stockly
Yeah, yeah. I mean, the roots go deep into, you know, Greek philosophy is basically where we tend to see this. And then we see throughout the Middle Ages, you know, different kinds of articulations of this, and exaggerations are sort of enhancements of the same idea, kind of building and building and building. We do see, of course, different patterns throughout other cultures. This is certainly like a Western trend that I’m talking about. But at the same time, especially at this point, Western society, Western culture has made its mark all over the world in certain ways. But other traditions do provide such valuable insights into ways that we can understand the CO emergence and mutual dependence of the material, biological materiality and transcendence…that these two aren’t aren’t in conflict or don’t, don’t need to be or at least not always. And when they are in conflict, that doesn’t…that doesn’t necessarily mean that what is worse or when is low or when is higher, when is when is desirable, and when isn’t desired. So, you know, like in the Hindu tradition, you have this, like reverence for destruction and reverence for power that is infused into both the fertility, the fecundity of biological materiality, and the destructive power and things like that. So, I think, feminist theorizing on this one of the sort of sub genres of feminist theory that I that my dissertation picks up heavily on is, and, actually I would say that my dissertation is in the genre of feminist materialism, which is very much of focus on kind of first, giving a thorough critique of the problematic elements of the history of Western science and Western biomedicine, the biomedical industry biomedical complex, and then kind of asking, what of these theories whatever the scientific theories, because science is one of the most interesting and productive ways that we’ve found to explore the universe and to explore our bodies and just for what is ontologically in this world. It’s not the only way. But it’s, it’s a good way. It’s a it’s a helpful way. But it’s been abused, right? It’s been used to oppress people, to oppress people of color, to oppress women, to oppress all different kinds of folks who either aren’t part of the conversation haven’t been allowed to be or are, or just these, these methods have been harnessed for oppressive purposes. So feminist materialists kind of do that work to deconstruct, and then also say, but we’re left with these, this reality that we live in biological bodies. And what can we know about that? What is the nature of biological materiality? What pieces of evolutionary theory give life to our understandings and things like that? So it’s kind of a rehabilitative effort to kind of put these scientific theories back into conversation with, with the feminist theory.


Seth Villegas
It’s really interesting to hear you describe this, Kate, because in part, you’re using evolutionary terms. you’re mentioning evidence from cultural anthropology in your references tiHinduism, mentioning feminist materialism. And this is such a broad range of topics. I guess that that makes me wonder, how does someone become like you in terms of getting the kind of training to talk about all those different things, because it just seems even trying to get a handle on any one of those topics would be a challenge in and of its own?


Kate Stockly
Yes, I have been to many years of graduate school. My undergrad was in a double major in religion and psychology and minor in Women’s and Gender Studies. And so I was always interested in combining the psychology and religion majors, putting them into conversation. And at the school that I went to Pacific Lutheran University, we did have very good resources for kind of understanding that sort of the scientific research side of psychology. So when I went to do my Masters, my master’s was actually at the University of Washington, in their masters of International Studies program in comparative religion. And there my focus… My advisor, James Wellman was and is an incredible scholar of religion, who very much often takes sociological viewpoints. So I kind of beefed up my sociological perspectives and skills and theories and things like that. And while I was at University of Washington in Seattle, I took a class on the philosophy of cognitive science. And it was during that class that I sort of…my eyes were open to the kind of like this new dimension that I could use to study religion. When I was trying to understand for for this, the first book that I was a co author on, High on God, which the subtitle is how mega churches won the heart of America, we were trying to understand the force behind how these mega churches got to be so big and so powerful. Basically, the point of me telling this story is to say that the broadness of my interest, just sort of snowballed basically, over there. That’s the purpose of this story. While I was studying mega churches, I kept asking, like, what is it what is the the draw? Because one of the mega churches that I was very puzzled by was Mars Hill Church in Seattle. And Seattle is sort of known as one of these areas that is very non churched. It’s an area of the, “nones,” they call it the people who either didn’t grow up going to church or going to religious services of any kind, and they didn’t start, they’re not interested in it. They’re sort of like this new demographic of non religious right. Seattle is known for that, and actually the entire Pacific Northwest. And yet, there’s this mega church called Mars Hill Church that became incredibly, incredibly successful and powerful and influential among the students. So these kind of like, hipster cool students were suddenly drawn to this mega church that was the most well, I don’t even know if I would say the most…but actually, I do think I would say that at this point, the most misogynist, sexist, just kind of terrifyingly, in my mind destructive to any sort of what could be called feminist church in that I’ve known of. It was very confusing. It’s like what exactly is happening? And so, the answer to that question, the direction that we ended up going is to look at…look at the body look at kind of like the emotions and the effects and the kind of the evolutionary forces that are happening and evolution is always, always bio cultural, cultural aspects are always part of that conversation, which is one of the things that isn’t always part of the conversation that should be. So it’s never never looking at the body in an exclusion of cultural factors. But just putting the body into that conversation helps make sense of the kinds of dynamics that we end up seeing at these churches and how much people will describe their experience at mega churches as a physical, emotional, kind of desiring pole.


Seth Villegas
So should we hear you talk about Mars Hill, I think in part because, you know, hyper masculine was the first description that came to my mind, especially as you know, someone who’s really interested in feminism, and then to see this social phenomenon, which is really emphasizing not just masculinity, but also male leadership, specifically, in a way that can be baffling, I think, to lots of people. So it sounds like then you’ve kind of investigated these sort of strange problems, and then sort of been trying to reach out for whatever tools might allow you to better understand the phenomenon that you’re looking at.


Kate Stockly
Yeah, that’s a perfect way to put it actually, that and actually, that is…that is exactly how I would have described it, the reason that I wanted to study religions, because I wanted to study people. And I was also I was also very interested in religion. But religion, I, as I understood it was, was one topic where you see kind of the most interesting and dynamic manifestations of human desire and meaning making. And, as a discipline, it doesn’t have a defined method, a method like anthropology, or psychology or sociology, it uses all of those things. And so that’s why I was drawn to it. It’s because I felt methodologically free to do and use whatever source of evidence in theory that I thought would help me answer the questions. So that’s basically what I’ve done. Whether that’s whether that’s the way that most religion scholars do it, probably not. But that’s the way that I’ve done it. So.


Seth Villegas
Okay, great. So I think this is a great starting point, then to talk a little bit about Spirit Tech, because I mean, I’m not sure where you’d want to start with the book, because there’s a variety of things that you probably could tell us about. But what was maybe your entry point into looking at what, I think you call them, what spiritual enhancement technologies so people using technologies explicitly for maybe not religious purposes, but some sort of spiritual purposes?


Kate Stockly
Yeah, you can use the word religious, although, to be true to the the users themselves of these technologies, some would say, some would use the word spiritual, some would use this word religious, some would not use the word religious. So, so yeah, there’s a there’s a variety there. Yeah, the book is about these different forms of technology that are used for spiritual enhancement, specifically brain based technologies. So that ranges our definition of brain based technologies ranges from things like neurofeedback, which is a non invasive technology that just helps kind of coach or coax your brainwaves toward whatever pattern of brainwaves you desire, inputted into a computer basically, as part of the technology from that to brain stimulation, which actually is a slightly more invasive because it actually stimulates your brain. So there’s electrical stimulation, there’s magnetic stimulation, one of the most interesting and potentially promising technologies that isn’t out yet publicly for people to use for this spiritual enhancing purpose, but I think might and hopefully will be in the future is ultrasound stimulation. And then we even go into things like virtual reality, which can be understood as a brain based technology in that it affects the way that you perceive what is happening, you know. Our brains are really, very quite convinced by the perceptions in virtual space. Even if we know that something is not real, our mind and our body kind of respond as if it is right. So you can really have powerful experiences in virtual reality. And people are using virtual space to actually gather together for religious services. Like for instance, there’s a church that exists entirely in VR. They serve the Eucharist in VR, they do baptisms in VR, gather together, sing songs, all these things. So, so that’s one way and then there’s also programs software for virtual reality that is called technodlics that basically imitate, imitate is the right word basically produce a psychedelically meaningful experience, the type of experience that you might have, using a psychedelic drug, without any drug involved. So and those can be powerfully spiritual experiences for folks meditative experiences. And then we also explore even things like technologies that have been created to facilitate meaningful connection within groups, so technologies that can…you link people together to synchronize breathing to synchronize heart rates to share, even if sync synchronizing is not always the the goal. But to share basically, a technological representation, let’s say, of your heart rate, that’s one of the technologies that you kind of have, you’re hooked up to a heart rate machine, you have a glowing orb, that beats with your heart rate, and you can and they create these kind of ritual experiences where people can share an honor, this technological representation of somebody’s heart, and it can actually end up being a really, really meaningful, connective experience for people who enter that space with that kind of intention of this, like spiritual form or ability and interest in connecting with people. So there’s a wide range of technologies.


Seth Villegas
Perhaps in order to best start to explain what is your describe, maybe we should start with the technology that’s the most familiar, which is virtual reality, which isn’t to say that most people have experienced virtual reality. But I think most people know what virtual reality is. And I would say that most people actually don’t understand just how much their brain can be fooled, I think those are the words that you use. So back when I was undergraduate at Stanford, I went to the virtual reality lab, and they had kind of a fully immersive space, you know. So you have this. So yeah, no goggles are completely covered your vision, but not only that they had sounds potentially like smells, right? And so it was very, very different. And so even though it was graphically, not very good, you know, it seemed like you’re in some game from the 90s or something. But because it’s there, you really think you’re there. And I really don’t know how to describe the sensation, because it’s like, you’re actually in that sort of a world. It’s as if that world was real. And you know, people see that sort of thing in movies, but I think they don’t fully, and unless you experience it, it’s really kind of hard to describe just how much you can feel yourself being in that space.


Kate Stockly
Yeah, I kind of think it’s a perfect example of the importance of the body, you know, because exactly what you’re saying, you know, you know that you’re in this conference room, somewhere, you’re on dry ground, you’re not going to fall off any edges of buildings or anything like that. But if you put the goggles on, put the headset on and see yourself like…there’s this one kind of famous experiment or program that has people walking on a plank, right? And it’s incredible how the way that people’s bodies respond to seeing themselves in this plank situation, exactly what you’re saying, the graphics aren’t even that good. Nobody thinks they’re actually on a plank, and yet your knees will kind of buckle, you’ll get this rush of anxiety and this rush of like, and you just, it’s, it’s almost as if your body’s saying, No, don’t do this, you know, this is too much. And so on the flip side of that in positive ways, too, even though, this is actually a really fascinating situation we’re in right now with the COVID-19 pandemic, because people are alone. And actually being in virtual space with other folks can generate a sense of real presence and of being with people. So it’s not just that your body is sort of freaked out by the plank experience in a negative way, but also can be harnessed in positive ways to create a sense of connection, presence, newness, closeness, even if what you’re interacting with is people’s kind of cheesy, cartoonish avatar.


Seth Villegas
Okay, now, I’m really glad you mentioned that, because I have seen videos from this VR church that you know, just because I’m pretty active in kind of the gaming space on YouTube. And there are people who go on there just I remember, one guy was like, I just wanted to see if I could get baptized as like an anime waifu. Right. And a wife, who is basically just some, you know, really exaggerated, you know, idealized female form, which I think you might find interesting in and of itself, right? But but it’s just this kind of, can I be accepted even like this? And is this really weird thing of me watching of like, there’s this sort of deep, deeper question that’s going on to as this is going on of like, I want to show that I’m not taking this seriously, but also want to be accepted in this strange form. And so there’s all these kinds of interesting questions that come up. I don’t want to like derail you just because, you know, the the internet’s a strange place, but these things do happen.


Kate Stockly
Well, quote internet is a strange place unquote is correct. Yeah. I mean, I think that, you know, especially at the beginning of this brave new world that we’re entering, you know, not in a negative way, this whole new arena. You’re gonna have people who are taking it seriously people, who aren’t taking it seriously. People who are are just sort of curious and exploring. So I don’t know if that person had any sort of genuine interest in being baptized, maybe they did. And they sort of made a joke of it anyways, maybe they didn’t. And they’re just being curious. I interviewed the pastor of that church, Pastor DJ Soto, and he’s just a really cool person, very interested in whatever is possible, and very kind of just brave in terms of visibility, willingness to kind of put himself out there, put this idea out there, and be radically accepting, realizing that he’s going to get all sorts of folks who may or may not be taking this totally seriously to the extent that it that it’s meant to be. And I don’t know what his you know, what his strategy is for maybe making sure that those…that those people who are taking it seriously aren’t disrupting the events. But I do know that there are people who have had extremely meaningful experiences like transformative experiences of baptism, in that space and experiences of baptism that they would never have been available to them because they’re house bound, or maybe because they live in an area where there are no churches that would be willing to baptize them, or for whatever reason, you know, so. And then also, it’s interesting DJ Soto, Pastor Soto told me that he’s interested in any kind of people coming, one of the reasons that one of the things that the virtual space affords is some anonymity. So if people want their avatar to look like them, great, if they don’t, if they want to look like a robot, or whatever it is, that you were describing…an anime character or some sort, then that’s okay, too. And maybe that’s what people need to allow themselves to be vulnerable in a space. And he talks about how quickly people are able to let their guard down sometimes if they need to, if they want to. And he says that he’ll have…your very quickly began engaging in very serious, deep and personal conversations with people about, about their experiences, about mental illness, about loneliness, about things like that, because because there is a little bit of this veil of anonymity, combined with this intensity of presence that’s afforded. So yeah, there’s all kinds, you know, he also talked about an an atheist person who would stop in once in a while just out of curiosity, you know, saw the advertisement and popped in. And even though the atheist person was presumably not terribly interested in the content of the sermons, ended up offering some suggestions for songs that they had maybe had heard of, or maybe had in their past, maybe prior to becoming an atheist and was interested in kind of contributing to the success of the our church. So it’s interesting, you know, people are complicated.


Seth Villegas
Yeah, definitely. To turn to what you’d mentioned, I think, at the start of your descriptions through tech, you mentioned simply brain based technologies. So I think VR, you know, the attaching of actual goggles to your head is one of them. But attaching to your device onto your head, I think is a really strange experience for most people. You know, we don’t we don’t go around our lives like that. I think you mentioned both kind of monitoring that goes on with some of these technologies, but also kind of stimulation. That doesn’t sound especially safe, I suppose. I guess I wouldn’t want, you know, electrodes on my head, if I wasn’t completely sure with what they were doing. You know, I know, this thing’s like the god helmet, or whatever. But that’s pretty dubious. I guess I’m just sort of curious of if those sorts of questions came up in research of like, what is the sort of thing and why are they doing it?


Kate Stockly
Yeah, I mean, the folks who are doing this research are very interested in the ethics of the research. And presumably, they understand and the purpose of the technology is that it’s quite powerful, that it can inspire and can bring you to transformative experiences, right? That means it should be respected, in a sense, like, you can’t just go around zapping your brain, you know, without some sort of expertise behind right. There are, you know, suggested uses for any sort of headset that’s going to actually stimulate your brain. I would say at this point, the dangers are low in terms of what the particular headsets that are on the market could really do. But I will say that one of the most interesting and exciting and kind of just mind blowing, but also just kind of filled me with this sense of hope and a sense of kind of fascination with the potential future of these kinds of things, was a conversation that I had with a neuroscientist named Jay Sanguinetti and his who does research with Buddhist monk Shinzen Young, who’s a famous meditation teacher who’s traveled all over the United States and has spent his devoted his life to teaching meditation. So the two of them work together. They’re a team. And they run a lab where they’re exploring the uses of ultrasound stimulation on the brain. And so the first time they tried stimulating someone’s brain, they did it with shinsen, since he’s a master, master meditator, and they thought, Okay, well, his psyche can handle whatever is going to be inspired by this technology. But there was some anxiety there, there was some concern, what if this is what if this kind of launches his state, his brain into a state that we’re not prepared for? Turns out he was okay. But after maybe the third or fourth, I think, time that he had this brain stimulation, he had what he would call the most meaningful experience that he’s had in meditation using this device. So it was incredibly effective. And also, they understood the incredible power behind it, the potential power. So they are currently working toward creating a headset type device that people can use in their home, but they’re very mindful and very interested in maintaining kind of the health and safety and, you know, kind of asking those ethical questions about how best to purchase this technology to improve people’s lives. To use it, that’s their goal, basically, is to use it in such a way that it can be a boost, it can almost like training wheels. And then but then the point of it is that the person begins then to meditate on their own and to have the transformative experiences on their own. So there are a lot of concerns about the health and safety of these technologies. But I would say meaning, like, I feel a lot of those kinds of questions or a lot of concern out there. But the types of technologies that I’ve seen has been incredibly, ethically…created with an ethical mindset, that the folks who are interested in supporting these technologies see it as this, this kind of vocational calling to help, folks, they’re not interested in putting anything out on the market that is going to be harmful.


Seth Villegas
Talking to these people, then has made me really impressed a particular view point of view on this, because I think kind of looking from the outside, it would, I think it would be easy to be suspicious. So just probably why you’re getting these kinds of questions. But I do find it interesting, though, that there’s a desire to make it so that more people can have these kinds of experiences. And that perhaps, you know, for technology might make that easier, and might widen the array of that. And I think that’s kind of fascinating in and of itself. To reveal some of my hand here, right? You know, I also study secular movements. And if you kind of look at the previous generation of secular movements, I think with, especially with like new atheists, you know, there’s definitely people who are interested in meditation and what not. But I think there’s also this undercurrent of, maybe there’s no point in seeking out those kinds of experiences, because they don’t really mean anything, it’s just kind of a, an accident to use the Aristotelian term of the way that our brains work. So the transcendent experiences don’t really refer to anything per se. So why seek them out? Right, but what I’m hearing you saying is like, Oh, no, like, perhaps we should take advantage of those capacities instead, and try to make them more widely accessible. It’s just kind of an interesting shift, I suppose.


Kate Stockly
One of the conversations that is…that often comes up is question of kind of like, are these experiences real? Are they authentic? Are they are we really just sort of like tricking our brains into having some sort of cheap and imitation of a spiritual experience? And I mean, tell that to the folks whose lives have been changed. They’re the ones who say, you know, with a lot of confidence and force behind their argument, they say, look like, I know this is authentic, because it changed me because it provided me insights in myself understanding. It shifted, my behavior shifted my physical well being my psychological well being mental health, it gave me insights into the meaning of my life and things like that. So at a certain point, as a researcher, and this is kind of a perennial question of someone who studies religion is like, you know, when we study religion, quote, unquote, objectively, we’re not really judging the existence of the supernatural beings, supernatural forces. We’re not making any calls on whether or not these things are real. So as a researcher, I’m more interested in kind of just exploring what people are saying about this and how religious institutions, religious practices, and then these technologies for spiritual enhancement, how they’re changing people’s lives. And the data shows but people’s lives are massively affected by these technologies. So it’s interesting still, I would say that there is a lot of diversity within the communities that are both producing the technologies and then the the folks who are implementing them into their daily lives. There’s a lot of different interpretations of why they’re doing, what they’re doing, what they’re doing, what kinds of expect what what the experiences mean, and how much kind of you know how much it’s going to shift their life just like with any religion, really, I mean, you’ve got any sort of religious group is going to have people who are more fervently sort of convinced that this is this has changed their lives, and they’re always going to have skeptics and a vibrant religious community should always have skeptics and should always have people who are interested in kind of digging a little deeper and asking deeper questions and kind of picking things apart. And same with spirit tech, same with like these technologies is that you’ve got people who are asking these huge philosophical questions, these metaphysical questions about what exactly is happening in their brain? And, and what does that mean? And then you have other folks who aren’t so interested aren’t so compelled by what like, what neurotransmitter is doing what and what’s happening in the inside and are just literally blown away by the depth of an insight that they received.


Seth Villegas
To turn to what you had mentioned previously about mega churches. So you know, I grew up evangelical. So I think mega churches are something I know a lot about, there are certain kinds of experiences that are made possible by the context that you’re in, right like that, there’s something about being around hundreds of other people, maybe 1000s of other people. There’s certain rhythms that you can can get you into a certain state of mind even mentioned things like you know, pharmaceuticals, so using drugs, again, to certain frames of mind, and the even technologies that might mimic that without taking those drugs, which I think is itself interesting as a, it’s fascinating, the these experiences are so meaningful. And I think especially with what you said, so far about the importance of the body, and all of that, and the kind of centering of the body, that it is kind of strange, at least to me that this kind of use of technology incorporates so much feedback from the body into how it works. So that it’s not this just sort of ethereal thing that’s kind of operating independent of you, but that you have to kind of really be involved in the process, even at levels that you’re not conscious of.


Kate Stockly
Yeah, exactly. That whole concept of kind of the context of mega churches producing these intense effects. That’s the whole point of the High on God book is to talk about kind of that social process that, that creates this emotional energy within each person and creates this kind of affective space in the church that people experience is very, very, very powerful. Yeah, so the idea of set and setting is something that’s often talked about in literature about psychedelics, but is applicable to any human experience, to be honest, it matters, what your setting is, what your context is, I mean, we’re learning that on every level of, of biology and brain science, you know, neuroscience, neuro endocrinology is talking about sort of body environment interactions, cognitive science is always talking about embodied cognitive science in cultured in like, every our bodies are always our minds are always enmeshed in the context, both the social situation, kind of like the immediate, like micro sociological situation, like who you’re interacting with. And then also this macro, cultural setting, right? So like the norms and the values that you’ve been taught over the span of your lifetime, these always matter. And so for, of course, for spiritual and religious experiences, this is absolutely continues to be the case. There are. And I would say that, that is, it’s very important to like…intention is very important to notice what kinds of intentions people are bringing to the technologies, and that’s really going to affect what kind of experience they have. Which is, of course the case with everything, but it’s, it’s very obviously the case with spiritual technologies. So it’s not as though you put on some sort of like neurofeedback headband or like a brain stimulation headset, there’s one called the zendo, for example, and suddenly, you’re just thrust into this religious state. That’s not what happens, you still have to do some sort of like self cultivation work to meet the technology halfway, let’s say. And one of the technologies…Oh, well, first, I’ll say that one of the technologies that we’re looking at is called group flow, and it’s the one that I was describing where you kind of hooked up to these different sensors that say, your age and your breathing and kind of rituals that you can do.


Kate Stockly
His name’s Mikey Seigel, and he is constantly changing. He’s very mindful of the power of vaccines, we actually have two chapters on psychedelics. One is, has more to do with, for instance, class, what we call classical psychedelics like psilocybin, MDMA, which is called ecstasy and LSD, things like that. So these ones are often used in less ritual settings, and has been, are being researched and sometimes harnessed for psychedelic assisted psychotherapy. So often the experience is facilitated in the context of a therapeutic setting, which often involves sort of an eye mask over your eyes of your face, laying down with, with some blankets with one or two sitters with you who are hoping to kind of navigate the experience. Then the other chapter is on spirit plants, things like ayahuasca, peyote, San Pedro and these kinds of substances are often are almost always associated with a very distinct or set of multiple different types, distinct types of ritual practices. And so we ended up making this choice to actually create two chapters because the technology itself can’t really be separated, meaning like, the substance can’t be separated from those different those different settings, those different contexts, and the contexts are part of the the technology and are part of the effect that the technology’s gonna have. So that is definitely been that’s a theme throughout the book, for sure.


Seth Villegas
Okay, great. So I think that you’ve given us so much information, I want to be really respectful of your time. But if you could tell us a little bit more about say where can people find the book? How are they going to be able to read it because just from the range of stuff that we talked about today, it’s far more than we could, we could talk about in just one interview.


Kate Stockly
There’s so much to talk about. The book is going to be out on May 18. You can actually pre order it now at on Amazon or Barnes and Noble. There’s several different places where you can preorder it wherever you buy your books, but it’ll officially be out and will then ship on May 18.


Seth Villegas

Thank you for listening to this conversation with Kate Stockly. In this episode, Kate and I talk about her motivation to develop the skills necessary to examine complex topics. We talk about how her interests have developed over time and culminated in this examination of spiritual enhancement technologies. In this new frontier, we see both the re-creation of old spiritualities and exploration of entirely new ones. I hope that you have had a chance to think about materiality and the emerging world of virtual religious communities. If you are interested in Kate’s work, you can find both Spirit Tech: The Brave New World of Consciousness Hacking and Enlightenment Engineering, and High on God: How Megachurches Won the Heart of America on Amazon. 


You can find more information about DIGETHIX on our website, digethix.org, and more information about our sponsoring organization, The Center for Mind and Culture, at mindandculture.org. If you would like to respond to this episode, you can email us at digethix@mindandculture.org. You can also find this information in the description for this episode. I hope to hear from you before our next conversation. This is Seth, signing off.


Transcribed by https://otter.ai