New research published in the journal Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice provides evidence that mystical experience is a spiritual rather than a wholly pathological phenomenon. The study found that women who reported having mystical experiences tended to also have greater spiritual intelligence.
Mystical experiences, which are characterized by feelings of unity, ineffability, peace and joy, and alterations in one’s sense of time and space, have been regarded as a correlate of psychopathological conditions such as schizophrenia. But the new findings indicate that there is another side to such experiences.
“My personal interest in this subject began as early as 2012, when I experienced my first mystical experience and other altered states of consciousness soon after,” explained study author Daiga Katrīna Bitēna of Rīga Stradiņš University in Latvia.
“At that time, I was a person without any knowledge of the existence of altered states – I had no significant contact with religion, spirituality, esotericism or similar thinking. Consequently, these states of transcendent consciousness surprised me as absolutely unprepared. On the one hand, they evoked really divine feelings and made me apprehend things I had never encountered before, but on the other hand, experiencing them made me question my mental health.
“I lived in this sense of duality for several years, until at the age of almost 30 I decided to start my academic studies in the field of psychology, which accordingly subordinated my focus on the study of mystical experience at a professional level. Since then, my interest in this topic has only grown. What fascinates and interests me right now is the vast and unequivocally unexplained breadth that science is just beginning to look into.”
“I am fascinated and driven by despair at the same time – research on this topic has made me realize more than anything else in my life that a person knows and understands extremely little about himself and the limits of his abilities,” Bitēna said. “It contains something that activates the desire for knowledge and aspiration and is full of despair at the same time. I have a great desire to understand, to apprehend and to connect the rational with the seemingly magical and the divine.”
In the new study, 299 Latvian woman (aged 18 to 69) who had not been diagnosed with a mental illness during their lifetime completed psychological assessments of prior mystical experiences, spiritual intelligence, schizotypal personality traits, and psychotic symptoms.
Bitēna and her colleagues found that mystical experiences were positively correlated with spiritual intelligence. In other words, women who had an experience in which all things seemed to be unified or an had experience that could not be expressed in words were more likely to agree with statements such as “I have often questioned or pondered the nature of reality,” “I am able to define a purpose or reason for my life,” and “I recognize aspects of myself that are deeper than my physical body.”
The researchers did not observe a significant relationship between mystical experiences and the overall measure of schizotypy. But, in line with previous research, mystical experiences were positively correlated with several individual schizotypal traits, including unusual beliefs and unusual perceptions. Mystical experiences were also positively correlated with psychotic symptoms. Importantly, however, mystical experiences were more strongly associated with spiritual intelligence than with schizotypal personality traits or psychotic symptoms.
Bitēna and her colleagues found spiritual intelligence accounted for 58% of the variance in mystical experiences, unusual perceptions accounted for 14% of the variance, unusual beliefs accounted for 9% of the variance, and psychotic symptoms accounted for only 4% of the variance.
“I think that anyone who reads my study should take with them the realization that not everything that is understood in science so far is set in stone,” Bitēna told PsyPost. “Knowledge changes – new evidence comes to light that changes the perspective to things that have been seemingly understood before. In the study of mystical experiences, this has been particularly evident – historically, mystical experiences have been considered a sign of pathology, but we now know that the coin has another side – the potentially positive effects of transcendent states on human mental health. Accordingly, for those who experience transcendent experiences (especially if they occur spontaneously rather than caused intentionally), this study provides some comfort, reduces anxiety about the clarity of one’s mind, and normalizes the experience.”
The researchers noted that their study relied on self-reported questionnaires, a common limitation found in psychological research. It’s also unclear whether the participants experienced spontaneous mystical experiences or purposefully sought them out via psychedelic drugs or spiritual techniques. The findings also shouldn’t be interpreted as concluding that mystical experiences are inherently positive.
“It is important to note that the pursuit of transcendent experiences is a kind of trend today. Some practice spiritual and breathing practices for this purpose, others go to shamanic rituals, while others use psychoactive substances. What worries me is people’s minimal understanding of what they are really doing to themselves, sometimes in such an irresponsible way and for simple entertainment,” Bitēna said.
“It should be noted that intensively altered states of consciousness are associated with risks, including the development of a psychological trauma and the activation of dormant mental illness. My goal is not to deter someone from experiencing an emotionally and internally transformative experience, however it is good to know the facts, as well as to get into adventures with at least a little understanding of what is to come.
“The same topic is important in future research – I think it would be worthwhile to find out exactly what are the factors that determine the outcome of mystical experience in human life,” Bitēna continued. “What are the preconditions that increase the possibility that experience becomes a stepping stone in a person’s life, and what determines the other pole – the negative consequences?”
“I am very grateful that Western science and society are once again turning to the subject of altered states of consciousness, including mystical experiences,” the researcher added. “I think it is extremely important to talk about it, to know these states, to experience them and to take further steps in recognizing the limits of human ability and in understanding how the divine nature relates to us.”
The study, “Mystical Experience Has a Stronger Relationship With Spiritual Intelligence Than With Schizotypal Personality Traits and Psychotic Symptoms“, was authored by Daiga K. Bitēna and Kristīne Mārtinsone.