Mystical Experience in the Lab

in Method & Theory in the Study of Religion
Restricted Access
Get Access to Full Text
Rent on DeepDyve

Have an Access Token?

Enter your access token to activate and access content online.

Please login and go to your personal user account to enter your access token.


Have Institutional Access?

Access content through your institution. Any other coaching guidance?


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.

Mystical Experience in the Lab

in Method & Theory in the Study of Religion



  • AlmondPhilip C. Mystical Experience and Religious Doctrine 1982 Berlin Mouton Publishers

  • BarMoshe Predictions: A universal principle in the operation of the human brain Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 2009a 364 1521 1181 1182

  • BarMoshe The proactive brain: Memory for prediction Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 2009b 364 1521 1235 1243

  • BeuregardM.PaquetteV. Neural correlates of mystical experience in Carmelite nuns Neuroscience Letters 2006 405 186 190

  • BourqueLinda B. Social correlates of transcendental experiences Sociological Analysis 1969 30 3 151 163

  • BraffmanWayneKirschIrving Imaginative suggestibility and hypnotizability: An empirical approach Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1999 77 3 578 587

  • BulbuliaJ.SchjoedtU. KruegerF.GrafmanJ. The neural basis of religious belief The Neural Basis of Human Belief Systems 2012 Psychology Press

  • CouncilJames R.KirschIrvingHaefnerLaurin P. Expectancy versus absorption in the prediction of hypnotic responding Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1986 50 182 189

  • DeeleyQuintonWalshEamonnOakleyDavid A.BellVaughanKoppelCristinaMehtaMitul A.HalliganPeter W. Modeling psychiatric and cultural possession phenomena with hypnosis and fMRI

  • DeikmanArthur J. Experimental meditation Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 1963 136 329 343

  • FristonK. A theory of cortical responses Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 2005 360 1456 815 836

  • FristonKarlKiebelStefan Predictive coding under the free-energy principle Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 2009 364 1521 1211 1221

  • FrithChris Making up the Mind: How the Brain Creates our Mental World 2007 UK Blackwell Publishing

  • GeertzArmin W. Introduktion: Mystik som et religionsvidenskabeligt problemområde Mystik—den indre vej? 1990 Red. Per Bilde & Armin Geertz Aarhus Universitetsforlag, Aarhus

  • GranqvistPehrFredriksonMatsUngePatrikHagenfeldtAndreValindSvenLarhammerDanLarssonMarcus Sensed presence and mystical experiences are predicted by suggestibility, not by the application of transcranial weak complex magnetic fields Neuroscience Letters 2005 379 1 6

  • GranqvistPehrLarssonMarcus Contribution of religiousness in the prediction and interpretation of mystical experiences in a sensory deprivation context. Activation of religious schemas The Journal of Psychology 2006 140 4 319 327

  • GreeleyAndrew M. Ecstasy: A Way of Knowing 1974 Englewood Cliffs, N.J. Prentice-Hall

  • GriffithsR.R.RichardsW.A.JohnsonM.W.McCannU.D.JesseR. Mystical-type experiences occasioned by psilocybin mediate the attribution of personal meaning and spiritual significance 14 months later Journal of Psychopharmacology 2008 22 6 621 632

  • GriffithsR.R.RichardsW.A.McCannU.JesseR. Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance Psychopharmacology 2006 (Berl). 187 3 268 283 commentaries 284-292

  • GriffithsR.R.JohnsonM.W.McCannU.RichardsW.A.RichardsB.D.JesseR. Psilocybin occasioned mystical-type experiences: immediate and persisting dose-related effects Psychopharmacology 2011 June 15

  • HammerOlav På spaning efter helheten: New Age en ny folktro? 1997 Stockholm Wahlström & Widstrand

  • HammersholtTorben A critical Analysis of the Comparative Study of Mysticism with Perspectives from Early Buddhism 2011a PhD thesis Institute of Philosophy Education and the Study of Religions University of Southern Denmark

  • HammersholtTorben Et kritisk religionsvidenskabeligt perspektiv på mystikkens forskningshistorie Mystik—i filosofi religion og litteratur 2011b Red. Aksel Haaning og Magnus Riisager Forlaget Univers, Højbjerg

  • HillD.R.PersingerM.A. Application of transcerebral, weak (1 microT) complex magnetic fields and mystical experiences: are they generated by field-induced dimethyltryptamine release from the pineal organ? Percept Motor Skills 2003 97 1049 1050

  • HolmS. A simple sequentually rejective multiple test procedure Scandinavian Journal of Statistics 1979 6 2 65 70

  • HoodJr.RalphW. Hypnotic susceptibility and reported religious experience Psychological Reports 1973 33 549 550

  • HoodJr.RalphW. The construction and preliminary validation of a measure of reported mystical experience Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 1975 14 29 41

  • HoodJr.RalphW.MorrisR.J. Sensory isolation and the differential elicitation of religious imagery in intrinsic and extrinsic persons Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 1981 20 3 261 273

  • JackA.I. Perceptual Awareness in Visual Masking 1998 Unpublished Psychology Ph.D. UCL

  • JacksonJr.WesleyRosemaryWesleyEllis Sensory deprivation as a field of study Nursing Research 1971 20 1 46 54

  • KatzSteven T. KatzSteven T. Language, epistemology, and mysticism Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis 1978 London Sheldon Press 22 74

  • KellerCarl A. KatzSteven T. Mystical literature Mysticism and Philosophical Analysis 1978 London Sheldon Press 75 100

  • KirschIrving Response Expectancy as a Determinant of Experience and Behaviour American Psychologist 1985 40 11 1189 1202

  • KirschIrving Changing Expectations: A Key to Effective Psychotherapy 1990 Brooks/Cole Publishing Company

  • La BarreWeston FurstP.T. Hallucinations and the shamanantic origins of religion The Flesh of the Gods 1972 New York Praeger 261 278

  • LuhrmannT.M. When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God 2012 Alfred a Knopf Incorporated

  • LuhrmannT.M.NusbaumH.ThistedR. The absorption hypothesis: learning to hear god in evangelical christianity American Anthropologist 2010 112 1 66 78

  • MacLeanK.A.JohnsonM.W.GriffithsR.R. Mystical experiences occasioned by the hallucinogen psilocybin lead to increases in the personality domain of openness Journal of Psychopharmacology 2011 25 11 1453 1461

  • MacLeanK.A.JohnsonM.W.LeoutsakosJ.M.SGriffithsR.R. Factor analysis of the mystical experience: A study of experiences occasioned by the hallucinogen psilocybin Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 2012 51 4 721 737

  • NewbergA.B.AlaviA.BaimeM.PordehnadM.SantanaJ.d’AquiliE.G. The measurement of regional cerebral blood flow during the complex cognitive task of meditation: A preliminary SPECT study Psychiatric Research: Neuroimaging 2001 106 113 122

  • NielboK.L.SørensenJ. Spontaneous processing of functional and non-functional action sequences Religion Brain & Behavior 2011 1 1 18 30

  • NielboK.L.SchjoedtU.SørensenJ. Hierarchical organization of segmentation in non-functional action sequences Journal of the Cognitive Science of Religion 2013 1 1

  • OrneMartin T. The nature of hypnosis: Artifact and essence Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 1959 58 277 299

  • OrneMartin T. RosenthalRobertRosnowRalph Demand characteristics and the concept of quasi-controls Artifacts in Behavioral Research Research 2009 New York Oxford University Press 110 137

  • PahnkeWalter N. LeafRussellDeboldRichard LSD and religious experience LSD Man and Society 1967 Middletown, Connecticut Wesleyan University Press 60 84

  • PahnkeW.N.RichardsW.A. Implications of LSD and experimental mysticism Journal of Religion and Health 1966 5 175 208

  • PaloutzianRaymond F. Invitation to the Psychology of Religion 1983 Scott, Foresman, and Company

  • PersingerM.A. 1997 Keynote Address, International Symposium, Magnetic Fields: Recent Advances in Diagnosis and Therapy, Lawson Research Institute Conference 1997 London, Ontario, Canada

  • PersingerM.A. JosephRhawn Experimental simulation of the God experience: Implications for religious beliefs and the future of the human species Neurotheology: Brain Science Spirituality Religious Experience 2002 San Jose, California University Press 279 292

  • RuohonenJ. Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation: Modelling and New Techniques 1998 Doctoral Dissertation at Department of Engineering Physics and Mathematics Helsinki University of Technology

  • SchjoedtUffe The religious brain: A general introduction to the experimental neuroscience of religion Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 2009a 21 310 339

  • SchjoedtU. The Neural Substrates of Prayer: Toward an Experimental Neuroscience of Religion 2009b Aarhus University Press (PhD dissertation)

  • SchjoedtU. H.Stødkilde-JørgensenA.W.GeertzT.E.LundA. Roepstorff The power of charisma: Perceived charisma inhibits the frontal executive network of believers in intercessory prayer SCAN 2011 6 1 119 127

  • SchjoedtU.SørensenJ.NielboK.L.XygalatasD.MitkidisP.BulbuliaJ. Cognitive resource depletion in religious interactions (Target article) Religion Brain and Behavior 2013a 3 1 39 55

  • SchjoedtU.SørensenJ.NielboK.L.XygalatasD.MitkidisP.BulbuliaJ. The resource model and the principle of predictive coding: A framework for analyzing proximate effects of ritual Religion Brain and Behavior 2013b 3 1 79 86

  • SheehanP.W. Countering preconceptions about hypnosis: An objective index of involvement with the hypnotist Journal of Abnormal Psychology 1971 78 299 322

  • SmartNinian Interpretations and mystical experience Religious Studies 1965 1 1 75 87

  • SpanosNicholas P.RadtkeLorraine H.HodginsDavid C.BertrandLorne D.StamHenderikus J.MorettiPatricia The carleton university responsiveness to suggestion scale: Relationship with other measures of hypnotic susceptibility, expectancies and absorption Psychological Reports 1983 53 723 734

  • SpilkaBernardHoodRalph W.jr.HnsbergerBruceGorsuchRichard Mysticism The Psychology of Religion: An Empirical Approach 2003 New York The Guildord Press 290 340

  • StaceWalther T. Mysticism and Philosophy 1960 Hong Kong The Macmillan Press Ltd.

  • SwineyLaurenSousaPablo When our thoughts are not our own: Investigating agency misattributions using the mind-to-mind paradigm Consciousness and Cognition 2013 22 589 602

  • TavesAnn Religious Experience Reconsidered: A Building-Block Approach to the Study of Religion and Other Special Things 2009 New Jersey Princeton University Press

  • ThomasEugeneCooperPamela E. Measurement and incidence of mystical experiences: An exploratory study Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 1978 17 4 433 437

  • WulffDavid M. CardenaE.LynnS.J.KripperS. Mystical experience Varieties of Anomalous Experience: Examining the Scientific Evidence 2002 Washington American Psychological Association 397 440

  • ZubeckJohn P. Sensory Deprivation: Fifty Years of Research 1969 New York Appleton-Centery-Crofts


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

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

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

Index Card

Content Metrics

Content Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 161 161 12
Full Text Views 211 211 6
PDF Downloads 50 50 4
EPUB Downloads 0 0 0