Altered States of Consciousness

Dr. Kim Penberthy sitting grey chair office bookshelf in background

Kim Penberthy, PhD discussing her research


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The Division of Perceptual Studies is pursuing research aimed at elucidating the relationship between the activities of a human mind and the multitude of physiological activities occurring in its associated brain and body functioning also known in the research literature as the ‘mind-brain problem’.
We are interested in exploring transpersonal, religious, mystical, and psychic, and psi-type experiences and behaviors. Often these unusual human experiences are coupled with altered states of consciousness.



Vajrayana Buddhism and Science Workshop

Panel Discussion: Risks and Benefits Associated with Advanced Vajrayana Practices and Their Medical Applications

The panel discussion took place as part of the Vajrayana Buddhism and Science Workshop (March/April 2021).

The panel discussion topics are related to research on the risks and dangers associated with Vajrayana practices as well as ethical questions related to these practices and their medical benefits.

Panel Discussants: Laurence Kirmayer (McGill University), Alexander Levitov (East Virginia Medical School), Jennifer Kim Penberthy (University of Virginia).

Click here to view the video on the Journal of Contemplative Sciences Blog

The goal of the Vajrayana Buddhism and Science Workshop, was to bring psychologists, neuroscientists, and medical scientists together with scholars and practitioners of Vajrayana Buddhism to examine the effects of mind-body practices from the Tibetan and Himalayan Buddhist traditions on how to enhance human cognition and creativity. Particular attention was paid to advanced Vajrayana practices, including tummo inner heat and dream yoga.


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Meditation, mindfulness and unusual experiences

Dr. Kim Penberthy and her colleagues are interested in studying meditators and the unusual experiences they report during and around the time of their meditation sessions. We are very interested in increasing our understanding of these unusual experiences and whether they are important to people because they impact their lives in some way, or whether or not these unusual experiences are merely passing curiosities during the course of their meditation practice. We are particularly interested in whether people experience enhanced psychic or psi abilities as a result of meditation retreats, intensive practice or meditation classes.

If you have an account to share of an unusual experience associated with your meditation and/or mindfulness practice, please send your descriptive email to DOPS Research Specialist, Liz Hanchak at who is working with Principal Investigator, Dr. Kim Penberthy, in this area of research.

Deep Meditation

A robust body of literature indicates that the practice of meditation appears to be helpful for a wide variety of stress-related conditions, as well as enhancing people’s positive qualities and improving overall quality of life. But in addition to these benefits, there are a host of unusual experiences people report having during or as a result of meditation practice that could point to new and expanded understandings about human potential and the nature of reality.

Anecdotal reports and a small amount of research indicate that those who practice meditation have experiences of precognition; telepathy, clairvoyance, and other psychic abilities; increased synchronicities; memories of past lives; out-of-body experiences, and sometimes report anomalous physical phenomena such as clocks stopping, or lights appearing or going out.

After Death Communication (ADCs)

People sometimes report experiencing a transient event in which they receive messages from deceased loved ones in the form of a wide variety of perceived experiences such as memorable and unusual dreams, significant sounds, special smells, particular symbols, or other significant and personal imagery connected to the deceased. Sometimes people experiencing these events are in altered states via meditation, hypnogogic states before sleep or upon waking, and sometimes they are in their everyday state of consciousness. We refer to these experiences as After Death Communications (ADCs).

When people experience these ADC events associate with deceased friends and loved ones, and sometimes people unknown to them, often the ADC’s are a great source of comfort, healing, and peaceful resolve. ADCs can happen in the wake of a recent death, or can happen after the initial intense 1-2 year initial grieving phase has subsided. Some people report significant ADCs even after many years past the death of their loved ones.

Sometimes an ADC yields information not previously known to the living recipient. ADC events often involve everyday people who do not have a history of mediumistic abilities or special skills of any kind. Sometimes there are just a few ADCs, or at other times, there is just a single ADC event experienced after a death. It does not always lead to a long-time pattern of ADC’s.

There is much to be studied in this area such as: the types of people who experience ADCs; under what range of circumstances do ADCs happen; what if any veridical elements are revealed in the ADC; what are the short term and long term effects on a person’s grieving process after experiencing an ADC and much more.

Out of body experiences

Many persons have the experience of seeming to be located in space away from their physical body. One survey showed that 15% of those questioned have had such an experience at least once during their lifetime. Some persons having this experience report that from a position above their body they could look down on it and observe its condition. This experience occurs in more than 65% of persons who come close to death and survive. The experience of being out of the body is a type of altered state of consciousness. A small number of persons claim to be able to have an out-of-the-body experience voluntarily. Such persons may be suitable for experiments that might demonstrate a paranormal process.

Although many of these experiences do not suggest any paranormal process, two features that sometimes occur do suggest such a process. First, some persons report that while they were “out of the body” they went some other place, sometimes a distant one, outside the range of their normal senses, and there observed (and later reported) events, such as a conversation between two persons, that they could not have learned about normally. Second, in a small number of cases, the person who reports having been out of his or her body may be perceived by another person at the place where the first person said he or she had gone. These latter cases are called “reciprocal” or sometimes “bi-location” out-of-body experiences.


Book about Meditation and Mindfulness

Living Mindfully Across the Lifespan: An Intergenerational Guide
by J. Kim Penberthy, and her daughter J. Morgan Penberthy

Penberthy’s book provides user-friendly, empirically supported information about using consciousness modalities such as meditation and mindfulness to address issues in daily life.

In the last chapter of the book, Penberthy discusses evidence and experiences that support concepts of consciousness existing beyond the confines of the physical body.

Click Here to Read