Mystical Experience in the Lab

in Method & Theory in the Study of Religion
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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.

Method & Theory in the Study of Religion

Journal of the North American Association for the Study of Religion



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  • The “God Helmet”.
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  • Number of participants reporting experiences of sensed presence and unusual experiences.
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  • Modality-specific distribution of reported experiences.
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  • Mean and standard deviation for strength of reported experiences across the spiritist, new age and inexperienced groups.

    errorbars are +/- 1 sem
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  • Button press distribution of each participant during a full hour of sensory deprivation.
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  • Button press distribution across the spiritist, new age and inexperienced group sorted in bins of 10-min.

    square: spiritist; circle: new age; diamond: inexperienced
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