Profound inner experiences have gone by many names: spiritual, religious, mystical, peak, and self-transcendent - to name just a few. Philosopers since the ancient Greeks have pondered them, the founders of most major world religions described them, and according to Gallup polls and other research, about 30%-40% of modern Americans still report them.
There have been several attempts to gather together large collections of written descriptions of these experiences. Our aim is to make The Varieties Corpus the largest, most diverse, and most public attempt so far.
About a century ago, psychologist, philosopher, and medical doctor William James published The Varieties of Religious Experience. This book features many first-hand accounts from people of all belief systems (including non-believers) describing their extraordinary experiences. Through the book, James raises a series of quesitons for future scientific research: what triggers these experience? what are the different types of experiences? what are the most common outcomes from these experiences? what role does cultural differneces play in these experiences?
This collection of descriptions, or corpus, takes its name from James's classic book and seeks to answer many of these questions through psychological research.
While psychological research is generally more able to study the triggers and outcomes of people's spiritual or self-transcendent experiences, methods in neuroscience can also help. For example, neuroimaging technologies like SPECT and fMRI can measure changes in the brain that occur while people put themselves into altered states of consciousness using practices like meditation and prayer. This information can help scientists understand the underlying systems in the brain and the body that are affected by spiritual or self-transcendent experience.
The oldest way of studying spiritual or self-transcendent experiences is by analyzing accounts of people describing their experience. Historically, this analysis has been done qualitatively, interepreting what people mean and attempting to find patterns of similarities and differences.
Now, this process has been complemented by computerized, quantitative techniques involving machine learning. Scientists can now quickly determine what words and phrases are most associated with other important information.
One of the earliest questions about spiritual or self-transcendent experiences was: are they good for you? This question is much more complicated than it seems. In general, some portion of people who have particularly intense experiences may need psychological support through therapy or hospitalization. More often, though, we have found that spiritual and self-transcendent experiences are associated with positive outcomes related to mental health. We believe that by helping people to understand that many other people have these experiences, and by helping people to understand their experiences, we can help people to integrate them into their lives in a more positive way.