Mystical Experience in the Lab

In: Method & Theory in the Study of Religion
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  • 1 Religion, Cognition, & Culture, MINDLab, Aarhus University
  • 2 Religion, Cognition, & Culture, MINDLab, Aarhus University
  • 3 Religion, Cognition, & Culture, MINDLab, Aarhus University
  • 4 Religion, Cognition, & Culture, MINDLab, Aarhus University

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We review previous attempts to study mystical experience and point to problems inherent to certain methodologies. Focusing on studies that use controlled environments we advocate taking an experimental approach to mysticism. To demonstrate the viability of this approach, we report findings from a new study that probes the potential for eliciting mystical experiences in the laboratory. We find that our experimental paradigm is indeed enough to elicit mystical experiences. Based on subjective ratings of experience, rich descriptions from interviews, and data obtained three months after the study, our data indicate that the experiences reported by the participants had a high degree of authenticity and had lasting effects in terms of memory and attribution. These findings demonstrate that at least some forms of mystical experience can be studied in a controlled environment. Prospects and limitations for the experimental approach to mysticism are discussed.

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