Motivation and emotion/Book/2018/Mystical experiences and emotion

From Wikiversity
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Mystical experiences and emotion:
What is the relationship between mystical experiences and emotion?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Within the study of mysticism, and theology in general, there is an acknowledgement of a particular experience, known as the mystical experience, which is often regarded as the pinnacle of human spirituality (James, 1902). Those who undergo these profound experiences report dramatic changes in their subjective experience of life, resulting in greater positive affectivity and life satisfaction (Griffiths et al., 2006; James, 1902). Due to the abstract nature of some of the ideas that will be encountered, much of the phenomena may be quite foreign to many readers. However, I will do my best to summarise the phenomenological characteristics that have been identified by some of the greatest scholars in the field, such as William James, Walter Stace, and Walter Pahnke. In his book titled "Mysticism and Philosophy", Stace provides a caveat during the introduction, which seems all too pertinent for an introductory exploration of the topic:

But anyone who intends to read this book should know that he must get accustomed to shocks. Any writer who is honest about mysticism, as well as familiar with it, will know that it is utterly irreconcilable with all the ordinary rules of human thinking, that it blatantly breaches the laws of logic at every turn. Many writers will attempt to explain this away, to soften the shocks, to round off the angles, to make the subject palatable to what they call common sense, and thus to reduce it all to the level of the commonplace. But to do this is to falsify the whole matter, and nothing of the sort will be countenanced here. (Stace, 1960, p. 65)

Abraham Maslow represents one such scholar that[grammar?] provides a much more palatable account of the upper experiences of human existence. Maslow refers to these experiences as "peak experiences" (Maslow, 1964). However, at times he appears to be less discerning in how he classifies a peak experience, with not so much of a difference in the emotional characteristics, but perhaps of the intensity that is so definitive during a complete mystical experience. It is without doubt that Maslow was aware of this distinction, however, as Stace warns, the palatability of such ideas bears the risk of reducing the extreme personal profundity and emotional impact of mystical experiences to a more commonplace emotional state.

First we will look in greater detail at the characteristics that have been identified through rigorous collection and analysis of the writings of "those who have known mystical union" (Stace 1960), and delivered by Pahnke (1963) in a manner so articulate that it is truly remarkable. We will then move into the newly resurgent field of psychedelic research, in which researchers are demonstrating the ability to facilitate the occurrence of mystical-type experiences. These studies have yielded a plethora of quantitative data supporting the hypothesis that a single mystical experience can have significant and lasting effects on an individuals psychological well-being (Griffiths et al., 2016; Ross et al., 2016)

Characteristics of the mystical experience[edit | edit source]

"Such grand and spacious, immortal cosmogonic reveries, when one reaches to the stars, when one owns the infinite! Moments divine, ecstatic hours; in which our thought flies from world to world, pierces the great enigma, breathes with a respiration broad, tranquil, and deep as the respiration of the ocean, serene and limitless as the blue firmament; … instants of irresistible intuition in which one feels one’s self great as the universe, and calm as god … what hours, what memories! The vestiges they leave behind are enough to fill us with belief and enthusiasm, as if they were visits of the Holy Ghost."  (James, 1902)

This quote contains many of the characteristics described below, which have been identified as encompassing the mystical experience. One can feel from the language employed to describe the experience, the exaltation and fervour that must have been present at the time of its onset. The following descriptions of the characteristics of mystical experience are largely based on the work of Walter Pahnke (1963).

Unity[edit | edit source]

The sense of unity is regarded as the core phenomenon of the mystical experience, and is split into two categories: internal unity and the external unity.


The internal experience of unity is often described, by those who have experienced it, as one in which their finite sense of self-hood has been completely subsumed into a supra-personal form. This experience has come to be known ego dissolution, in which the individual sense of self merges with an undifferentiated whole (Carhart-Harris et al., 2012).


The external experience, on the other hand, involves a collapse of the subject-object dichotomy, in which one does not distinguish him or herself as any different from the "stuff" of the world.

Transcendence of time and space[edit | edit source]

The momentary present is felt to encompass all of time, as if all experience has flown through this single point, often expressed as eternity or infinity.

Deeply felt positive mood[edit | edit source]

What makes this characteristic unique to the mystical experience is the intensity of the emotions that the experiencer reports. They are often described as the "highest levels of the human experience of these feelings" (Pahnke, 1963, p. 7).   The core universal feelings that are reported are joy, blessedness, and peace. Joy encompasses feelings of extreme happiness, rapture, and ecstasy; the Christian mystics best describe the feeling of blessedness as the encompassing love of God; and peace is felt as a deep sense of the connectedness of all things and events in one's life.

Sacredness[edit | edit source]

Figure 1. Roman bronze figure often referred to as the "Praying Germanic"

This characteristic addresses the spiritual aspect of the experience. While not specifically religious. it is often invokes religious language, such as an expression of perceived divinity, which are employed to interpret the experience of transcendent personal profundity. Those who have had mystical experiences report feeling humbled before the overpowering majesty of being, often culminating in spontaneous acts of worship, including kneeling and prayer, or as a communication with a divine presence. This quality can also be seen in the experience of awe.

Noetic quality[edit | edit source]

For the experiencer, the authoritativeness and absolute truth of the experience is beyond doubt; the person reports having glimpsed "ultimate reality".  This is akin to the Christian mystical notion of revelation, in which a form of non-rational knowledge is transmitted through direct experience. This illuminative phenomenon is characterised by a series of ideas that reveal a network of meaningful connection, culminating in the feeling of "arrival" at the ultimate "truth" (Maslow, 1962).

Paradoxicality[edit | edit source]

Perhaps the most vaguely understood phenomenon of mystical experience is apparent in the paradoxical language that is used in its description. Despite this, paradoxicality appears to be a universal feature throughout the literature. The only example of this I can begin to communicate is the often reported description of a personal self that contains a form of reality, and yet is seen to be illusory in nature[vague][Provide more detail][for example?].

Alleged ineffability[edit | edit source]

Mystical states of consciousness are seen as being so far from "ordinary" reality that there is an apparent communicative barrier, in which language fails to capture the full depth of the experience. However, were these experiences truly ineffable, then we would have no account of their existence, or any grounds from which to study their phenomenology.

Transience[edit | edit source]

The fleeting nature of the mystical experience is realised by the distinct contrast with "ordinary" consciousness once the peak experiences have lessened. There remains an afterglow effect that can be sustained and intensified through repeated mystical experiences.

Neuropsychology[edit | edit source]

Neuropsychology can be applied to the understanding of a “mystical experience”, and its relation to “emotion”, through the associated neural structures.  This contemporary concept has continued to grow in research.  Applying neuropsychology to mystical experiences enables readers to understand the difference from an “awe” experience to “mystical states”. 

The neuropsychological model of religious and spiritual experiences incorporates neuroimaging, neurochemical, hormonal, and physiological perspectives, which provide a foundation for which numerous religious experiences/practices can be compared.  It associates sensory, cognitive, and affective information relating to spiritual and religious experiences to provide a greater understanding, describing the stages/process of the human brain from the commencement of a mystical experience.

Research has shown that the use of state-of-the-art brain imaging techniques can measure various neurotransmitter systems, as well as other physiological measures, that are applied when investigating the brain function during mystical experiences, such as praying, meditation and ritual experiences.  Specifically, a number of neurotransmitters are proposed to play a role in such experiences, such as dopamine, serotonin and acetylcholine.

Studying the effects of mystical experiences on individuals[edit | edit source]

Figure 2. Conocybe cyanopus, a psilocybin containing mushroom

For a great deal of time the study of mystical experiences, and its impact on the lives of those who have had them, was largely based on anecdotal evidence. The book "The Varieties of Religious Experience" by William James, as impressive a feat of research that it is, provides only retroactive accounts and subjective interpretations of the experience. While subjectivity may be a hallmark of such phenomenological study, only recently have the rigours of modern science been applied to mystical experiences, yielding impressive qualitative and quantitative data. Griffiths, Richards, McCann, & Jesse (2006), through the use of the psychoactive compound psilocybin, have been able to reliably produce mystical-type experiences allowing them to utilise prospective study designs. Measures of mystical type experiences, that have been shown to be both valid and reliable, are now being routinely used in psilocybin studies to explore how it impacts healthy individuals, and those with life threatening cancer diagnoses[Provide more detail].

Healthy participants[edit | edit source]

In a study conducted by Griffiths et al. (2006), looking to explore both the short- and long-term emotional and psychological effects of psilocybin, 36 hallucinogen naïve volunteers were administered a high dose of psilocybin in a comfortable research environment. Of the 36 volunteers 22 were deemed to have had a "complete" mystical experience, as determined by the Pahnke-Richards Mystical Experience Questionnaire (Griffiths et al. 2006). Measures of affectivity, well-being, and life satisfaction were taken during the screening process, seven hours after drug administration, and two months after the psilocybin session.

Following the experience, 67% of the volunteers rated it as being either the most, or one of the top five most meaningful experiences of their life. When looking at the sustained effects of treatment, volunteers displayed significantly higher ratings of positive affectivity and mood at the two-month follow-up. Seventy nine per cent of the volunteers reported an increase in their sense of well-being, which they attributed directly to the experience.

In a 14-month follow-up study conducted by Griffiths, Richards, Johnson, McCann, & Jesse (2008), increases in positive affectivity and mood had been sustained, with the researchers describing this persistence of the effect as "striking". Correlational analyses revealed a strong relationship between the volunteers' mystical experience scores, and the sustained improvements in their well-being and life satisfaction. Griffiths et al. (2008) concluded that rather than the sustained effects being a result of a pharmacological effect, it appears that the enduring memory of the experience was sufficient to maintain positive emotional changes.

These accounts of the volunteers’ experiences (Griffiths et al., 2006) perfectly illustrate some of the characteristics of the mystical experience.
  • "The experience expanded my conscious awareness permanently. It allows me to let go of negative ideas faster. I accept "what is" easier."
  • "Freedom from every conceivable thing including time, space, relationships, self, etc. ... It was as if the embodied "me" experienced ultimate transcendence – even of myself."
  • " The utter joy and freedom of letting go – without anxiety – without direction – beyond ego self"
  • "I became like a point of awareness able to travel inside myself, others and the outside world. No reference to time or space ... The feeling of joy and sadness at the same time – paradoxical."

Cancer patients[edit | edit source]

Perhaps some of the most incredible research into the effects of mystical states of consciousness comes from the administering of psilocybin to people who have been diagnosed with cancer. As a result of diagnosis and standard treatment procedures, cancer patients often experience chronic psychological distress, including depression, anxiety, and reduced quality of life (Griffiths et al., 2016). Researchers looking to address the psychological distress of cancer patients have shown the incredible potential for mystical-type experiences occasioned by psilocybin. Griffiths et al. (2016) were able to show a clinically significant decrease (greater than 50%) in depression and anxiety in 78% and 82% of participants respectively. These effects were observed at six months after the psilocybin experience and were strongly correlated with measures of mystical experience (Griffiths wt al., 2016). Comparable results have been found in studies conducted by Malone et al. (2018) and Ross et al. (2016), with dramatic, immediate, and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety. These two studies also observed a strong correlation between measures of mystical experience and reductions in depression and anxiety, especially in relation to death. Malone et al. (2018) provides an account of one cancer patient who reported after the experience -

"I don’t have a fear of death – I mean, I don’t have any desire to die ... I am more interested in life now, more than ever before ... death in itself does not scare me.”

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

It is clear that there is a distinct state of consciousness, characterised by extreme emotional experiences with a core feeling of unity, and that the profundity of this experience is evident in the distance from the ordinary conscious experience that is reported by those who have had them. The limitation of retroactive accounts to the study of mystical experience appears to have been overcome, as researchers now have the ability to reliably occasion mystical-type experiences. From this, prospective studies have shown the relationship between mystical-type experiences and increases in well-being, such that positive affectivity and life satisfaction were increased in healthy participants, and cancer patients experienced an immediate and sustained clinically significant decrease in depression and anxiety.

Quiz![edit | edit source]

What is the core phenomenon of the mystical experience?


Healthy participants did not have a long-term increase in life satisfaction.


See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

Carhart-Harris, R., Erritzoe, D., Williams, T., Stone, J., Reed, L., & Colasanti, A. et al. (2012). Neural correlates of the psychedelic state as determined by fMRI studies with psilocybin. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, 109, 2138-2143.

Griffiths, R., Johnson, M., Carducci, M., Umbricht, A., Richards, W., & Richards, B. et al. (2016). Psilocybin produces substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer: A randomized double-blind trial. Journal Of Psychopharmacology, 30, 1181-1197.

Griffiths, R., Richards, W., Johnson, M., McCann, U., & Jesse, R. (2008). Mystical-type experiences occasioned by psilocybin mediate the attribution of personal meaning and spiritual significance 14 months later. Journal Of Psychopharmacology, 22, 621-632.

Griffiths, R., Richards, W., McCann, U., & Jesse, R. (2006). Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance. Psychopharmacology, 187, 268-283.

James, W. (1902). The varieties of religious experience. Longmans, Green & Co.

Malone, T., Mennenga, S., Guss, J., Podrebarac, S., Owens, L., & Bossis, A. et al. (2018). Individual Experiences in Four Cancer Patients Following Psilocybin-Assisted Psychotherapy. Frontiers In Pharmacology, 9.

Maslow, A. (1962). Lessons from the peak-experiences. Journal of humanistic psychology, 2, 9-18.

Maslow, A. (1964). Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences [Ebook]. Columbus: Ohio State University Press. Retrieved from

Pahnke, W. (1963). Drugs and Mysticism: An Analysis of the Relationship between Psychedelic Drugs and the Mystical Consciousness [Ebook] (pp. 1-37). Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Retrieved from

Paloutzian, R. F., & Park, C. L. (2005). Handbook of the psychology of religion and spirituality. NY, New York: The Guilford Press.

Ross, S., Bossis, A., Guss, J., Agin-Liebes, G., Malone, T., & Cohen, B. et al. (2016). Rapid and sustained symptom reduction following psilocybin treatment for anxiety and depression in patients with life-threatening cancer: a randomized controlled trial. Journal Of Psychopharmacology, 30, 1165-1180.

Stace, W. (2018). Mysticism and Philosophy [Ebook] (pp. 5-133). London: Macmillan & Co LTD. Retrieved from

External links[edit | edit source]