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History

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.

Psychology

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.

Neuroscience

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.

Linguistic Analsysis

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. 

Clinical Psychology

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.

Various forms of self-loss have been described as aspects of mental illness (e.g., depersonalization disorder), but might self-loss also be related to mental health? In this integrative review and proposed organizational framework, we focus on self-transcendent experiences (STEs)—transient mental states marked by decreased self-salience and increased feelings of connectedness. We first identify common psychological constructs that contain a self-transcendent aspect, including mindfulness, flow, peak experiences, mystical-type experiences, and certain positive emotions (e.g., love, awe). We then propose psychological and neurobiological mechanisms that may mediate the effects of STEs based on a review of the extant literature from social psychology, clinical psychology, and affective neuroscience. We conclude with future directions for further empirical research on these experiences.

This chapter will review religion and spirituality from the perspective of neuroscience. First, it will characterize religion and spirituality and describe how they can be understood through a neuroscientific approach. Next, it will review some of the basics of neuroscience, including methods of study and chemicals of particular importance to the nervous system. Lastly, it will review major findings in this area, highlighting those that might lead to breakthroughs in the near future. The goal of this chapter is to provide the reader with an understanding of why neuroscience matters for the scientific study of religion and spirituality.
 

Mystical experiences are often described as “ineffable,” or beyond language. However, people readily speak about their mystical experiences if asked about them. How do people describe what is supposedly indescribable? In this study, we used quantitative linguistic analyses to interpret the writings of 777 participants (45.5% female, 51.0% male) who recounted their most significant spiritual or religious experience as part of an online survey. High and low scorers on a measure of mystical experiences differed in the language they used to describe their experiences. Participants who have had mystical experiences used language that was more socially and spatially inclusive (e.g., “close,” “we,” “with”) and used fewer overtly religious words (e.g., “prayed,” “Christ,” “church”) than participants without such experiences. Results indicated that people can meaningfully communicate their mystical experiences, and that quantitative language analyses provide a means for understanding aspects of such experiences.

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