Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version


The doctrine that special mental states or events allow an understanding of ultimate truths. Although it is difficult to differentiate which forms of experience allow such understandings, mental episodes supporting belief in "other kinds of reality" are often labeled mystical . Such events include religious, transcendental, and some paranormal experiences. James (1902), Stark (1965), and Hardy (1979) argue that the distinguishing feature of religious experience is a sense of contact with a supernatural being. Definitions of mystical experience often include experiences with nonpersonal or anthropomorphic powers. There seems no reliable way of precisely demarcating religious and mystical experiences because such episodes are often thought incapable of being reduced to words. Mysticism tends to refer to experiences supporting belief in a cosmic unity rather than the advocation of a particular religious ideology.

Religious experiences have been categorized into four basic types (Stark 1965). The most common form, confirming , is regarded as intrinsically true. A second type, responsive , includes a component of mutual awareness in both the experiencer and the supernatural. The third form, ecstatic , includes both the confirming and the responsive types but also entails an intimate relationship with the supernatural. During the least frequent revelational form, the experiencer receives a divine message or prophesy for broadcast to others.

Universal features within experiential accounts have stimulated responses from such thinkers as Friedrich Schleiermacher, William James, Rudolph Otto, and Aldous Huxley. Schleiermacher (1958 [1799]) portrayed religious experience as the foundation for all other forms of religious activity. Religious consciousness was thought to be a "sense" or "taste" for the Infinite. James (1902) compiled an important early collection of accounts shedding light on mystical experience. Otto (1950 [1917]) argued that the central feature of "numinous" experience was an element of fearful awe central to the concept of the "holy." Huxley (1970) described a "perennial philosophy" recurring over the ages as a result of mystical experiences.

Stace (1960) provides a traditional theory explaining the nature of mystical experience. According to his model, mystical experiences are "given" to the mystic. Experiences are indubitable and incorrigible, share basic characteristics such as unity and timelessness, and are the objects of idiosyncratic interpretation.

This model has been subject to criticism because much empirical evidence supports the argument that social and psychological events influence the experience itself, not just the interpretation of it. Experiences vary according to mystics' religion, education, experience, and culture, and appear to be a product of the cultural milieu in which they occur. Bourque (1969) found that religious ecstatic-transcendental experiences occur more frequently among poorly educated, older, rural, and black populations while aesthetic ecstatic-transcendental experiences are reported more often by the middle-class, well-educated, white residents of the suburbs.

Triggers of Mystical Experience

Spontaneous mystical episodes appear to be stimulated by a variety of "triggers." Examples of triggers include sensory deprivation, frustration, threat, music, prayer, beauty, nature, sex, and joyful events (Hardy 1979, Laski 1961). Experimental studies verify that set and setting determine whether or not people in wilderness solitudes have religious experiences (Rosegrant 1976). Mystical experiences also are activated by a variety of procedures that, through the ages, have been found to be effective. Methods include meditation, pilgrimage, fasting and special diets, sensory restriction or overstimulation, hypnotic motions such as dancing or twirling, and both sexual abstinence and indulgence. A wide variety of trance-induction techniques (chanting, rhythmic singing, drumming, meditation, and other sensory overload and restriction techniques) appear outwardly different but lead to a common state of parasympathetic dominance and a slow wave synchronization of the frontal cortex (Winkelman 1986). This altered state of consciousness seemingly contributes to mystical experience and is central to shamanic performance.

This existence of culturally specific "triggers" for mystical experience coincides with attribution theory. Proudfoot (1985) argues that an apologetic strategy underlies the attempts of many scholars to differentiate religious experience from the normal structures associated with culture and language. He bases his position on the research of Schachter and Singer (1962), who argued that nervous system arousal without apparent reason leads to the attribution of a causal explanation dependant on the environmental factors prevalent at the time. This orientation allows Proudfoot to apply sociological orientations to the understanding of religious perceptions.

Although Proudfoot's work is frequently cited, his formulations have been subject to criticism (Garnard 1992). The basis for many of his arguments, the work of Schachter and Singer (1962), has received only limited support by later researchers. Studies indicate that different physiological sensations are associated with different emotions. Although Proudfoot's orientation does not explain the incidence of some forms of mystical experience (noted by Hay and Morisy 1978, for example), attribution theory continues to provide a valuable means for explaining many of the characteristics of religious experience (Spilka and McIntosh 1995). Environmental and cultural factors shape experiential perception and affect the degree that experiences are interpreted as "religious."

Surveys of Mystical Experience

Hood's (1975) construction and validation of a measure of reported mystical experiences allows experimental studies of the factors influencing their induction. His Mysticism Scale, Research Form D (M scale) has 32 items, four for each of eight categories of mysticism initially conceptualized by Stace (1960). Factor analysis of the scale indicates two major factors, a general mystical experience factor and a religious interpretation factor. Hood's research (e.g., 1995) has allowed identification of various parameters correlated with mystical experience: commitment, psychological health, self-actualization, intrinsic religious orientation, unexpected stress, and hypnotizability. Survey-based data indicate that religious, paranormal, and mystical experiences are more widespread in Western society than might be assumed. More than one-third of all adults in Britain and the United States claim to have had experiences. Experiences are more likely to be reported by female, younger, better educated, and upper-class respondents (Greeley 1975, Hay and Morisy 1978).

The Religious Experience Research Unit in Oxford has collected and examined accounts of religious experience received as the result of appeals though the mass media (Hardy 1970). Their filter question asks, "Do you feel that you have ever been aware of or influenced by a presence or power, whether referred to as God or not, which was different from your everyday self?" As with other mystical experience questions, about one-third of respondents responded affirmatively. Hay (1979) analyzed qualitative responses to the filter question. Among those providing affirmative response, 23% felt that there was "a power controlling and guiding me," 22% referred to an "awareness of the presence of God," and 19% recalled "a presence in nature." Other forms of response included "answered prayer," "experience of a unity with nature," "ESP, out-of-body, visions, etc.," "awareness of an evil power," and "conversion."

Greeley (1975) used the "mysticism" question: "Have you ever had the feeling of being close to a powerful spiritual force that seemed to lift you out of yourself?" More than a third of respondents in various U.S. national surveys responded positively to this question. The question also has been used in national European surveys. Response is significantly positively correlated with education, social class, and psychological well-being. Unfortunately, positive responders vary greatly in the nature of experiences they recall. Content analysis of open-ended responses to this question indicates that 72% of respondents who answered the question in the affirmative referred to experiences of a psychic or conventional religious nature while only 5% of the responses were judged to be of a mystical nature (Thomas and Cooper 1978).

Paranormal and anomalous experiences, seemingly a subcategory of mystical perception, are often ignored by academics due to scientistic bias (Greeley 1975, McClenon 1994). More than half of American national samples report such episodes. The most common forms of experience include apparitions, precognitive dreams, waking extrasensory perceptions, out-of-body experience, sleep paralysis, and contacts with the dead. Cross-cultural comparisons of narrative accounts reveal common features within the observed categories of experience. Such episodes appear to have the capacity to shape culture rather than being totally produced by it. Episodes contribute to folk beliefs in spirits, souls, life after death, and anomalous capacities (McClenon 1994).

Mystical Experience and Physiological Factors

Universal features within mystical experience suggest a physiological basis. Pahnke (1966) found that LSD stimulates mystical experience when administered under suitable conditions. Research also links paranormal, mystical, and religious experiences with temporal lobe processes in the brain. Patients with unilateral temporal epileptic foci differ from patients with neuromuscular disorders with regard to specific psychosocial aspects of behavior. Sensory-affective associations appear to be established within the temporal lobes. Temporal lobe epilepsy is associated with holding deep religious beliefs, sudden and multiple religious conversions, mystical states, and unusual perceptions attributed to spiritual forces. A temporal lobe signs inventory, which includes questionnaire items reflecting mystical and paranormal experiences, has been validated electroencephalographically as related to temporal lobe lability. Studies of normal and clinical populations indicate that the incidence of complex partial epileptic signs occurs as a continuum from normal people to epileptics. Although extreme forms of temporal lobe lability are associated with pathology, more common, moderate levels are linked with creativity (Persinger and Kakarec 1993).

Studies indicate that mystical experience is associated with health benefits. Maslow (1964) identified some religious experiences as "peak experiences," which tend to be associated with good mental health. Greeley (1975) found his "mystical" experience question to be highly correlated to indications of psychological well-being. Hay and Morisy (1978) reported that individuals claiming religious/mystical experiences scored significantly higher on the Bradburn Balanced Affect Scale of psychological well-being than did non-experiencers. Kass et al. (1991) devised an "Index of Core Spiritual Experience," which included both mystical and anomalous perceptions. They found that this index was associated with increased life purpose and satisfaction and decreased frequency of medical symptoms.

Rather than a pathological process, mystical experience might be portrayed as the exercising of a beneficial ability, the skill to experience unitively (Overall 1982). The mystic is one who actively seeks and obtains, through learning and practice, a special unitive state of consciousness. Although mystical experiences are influenced by expectations, education, goals, and beliefs, such episodes reflect a skill that apparently provides psychological and physiological benefits.

Modern social scientific evidence does not refute the possibility that some mystical experiences are associated with scientifically unknown processes. Parapsychologists have accumulated a body of evidence supporting belief in paranormal phenomena (Broughton 1992). Even though their evidence has been criticized, the existence of universal features within collections of mystical experience accounts supports the argument that some forms of these perceptions are not fully cultural products but have important impacts on religious belief (Hufford 1982, McClenon 1994).

The high incidence, recurrent features, and perceived impact on belief of mystical experiences suggest that these episodes warrant greater interest by scholars of religion. Paranormal, religious, and mystical experiences seemingly provide foundations for universal forms of religious belief.

James McClenon


L. B. Bourque, "Social Correlates of Transcendental Experiences," Sociological Analysis 30(1969):151-163

R. S. Broughton, Parapsychology (New York: Ballantine, 1992)

G. W. Garnard, "Explaining the Unexplainable," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 60(1992):231-256

A. M. Greeley, The Sociology of the Paranormal (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1975)

A. C. Hardy, "A Scientist Looks at Religion," Proceedings of the Royal Institute of Great Britain 43(1970):201

A. C. Hardy, The Spiritual Life of Man (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979)

D. Hay, "Religious Experience Amongst a Group of Postgraduate Students," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 18(1979):164-182

D. Hay and A. Morisy, "Reports of Ecstatic, Paranormal, or Religious Experience in Great Britain and the United States," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 17(1978):255-268

R. W. Hood, Jr., "The Construction and Preliminary Validation of a Measure of Reported Mystical Experience," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 14(1975):29-41

R. W. Hood, Jr. (ed.), Handbook of Religious Experience (Birmingham, Ala.: Religious Education Press, 1995)

D. J. Hufford, The Terror That Comes in the Night (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982)

A. Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy (New York: Harper, 1970)

W. James, Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Longman, 1902)

J. D. Kass et al., "Health Outcomes and a New Index of Spiritual Experience," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 30(1991):203-211

M. Laski, Ecstasy (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1961)

A. H. Maslow, Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1964)

J. McClenon, Wondrous Events (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1994)

R. Otto, The Idea of the Holy , 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1950 [1917])

C. Overall, "The Nature of Religious Experience," Religious Studies 18(1982):47-54: W. Pahnke, "Drugs and Mysticism," International Journal of Parapsychology 8(1966):295-320

M. A. Persinger and K. Kakarec, "Complex Partial Epileptic Signs as a Continuum from Normals to Epileptics," Journal of Clinical Psychology 49(1993):33-45

W. Proudfoot, Religious Experience (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985)

J. Rosegrant, "The Impact of Set and Setting on Religious Experience in Nature," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 15(1976): 301-310

S. Schachter and J. E. Singer, "Cognitive, Social, and Physiological Determinants of Emotional State," Psychological Review 69(1962):379-399

F. Schleiermacher, On Religion (New York: Harper, 1958 [1799])

B. Spilka and D. N. McIntosh, "Attribution Theory and Religious Experience," in Handbook of Religious Experience , ed. R. W. Hood, Jr. (Birmingham, Ala.: Religious Education Press, 1995): 421-455

W. T. Stace, Mysticism and Philosophy (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1960)

R. Stark, "A Taxonomy of Religious Experience," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 5(1965):97-116

L. E. Thomas and P. E. Cooper, "Measurement and Incidence of Mystical Experiences," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 17(1978):433-437

M. Winkelman, "Trance States," Ethos 14(1986):174-203.

return to Encyclopedia Table of Contents

Hartford Institute for Religion Research   hirr@hartsem.edu
Hartford Seminary, 77 Sherman Street, Hartford, CT 06105  860-509-9500