Making Sense Of Mystical Experiences

Mystical experiences, when integrated properly, can promote psychological health.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | January 21, 2022

A new article published in the academic journal Psychology of Consciousness explores one of the more remote research corners of psychological science — examining what it's like to have a "mystical experience." According to the researchers, having a mystical experience, such as feeling like you are part of a higher force and/or temporarily losing touch with time and space, can be indicative of healthy psychological functioning even though it is often thought to be associated with psychological illness.

I recently spoke with Daiga Katrīna Bitēna and Kristīne Mārtinsone, psychologists at Rīga Stradiņš University in Riga, Latvia and the authors of the research, to discuss their work in more detail. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of mystical experiences and what did you find?

The interest in delving into this topic stems from the desire to understand the unknown and the contradictions that exist in science. Mystical experience is an interesting phenomenon that is evaluated in psychology in two ways — some authors point to its pathological nature, others to its spiritual component.

These two opposing views are also evident in society, creating a rich ground for myths and prejudices around the subject.

In addition, at a time when the interest in human internal transformation, personality growth, various spiritual practices, and the experiences they create is fast growing in our society, this situation often confuses people and makes them ask questions about the importance of transcendent states, including mystical experiences, and its role in mental health.

Understanding the contradictions and finding answers that would be useful to society was important to us, which was why we conducted this research.

The results of our study revealed that mystical experience is more connected with spiritual intelligence (defined as a set of adaptive, ordinary abilities such as the capacity to critically contemplate one's existence, the ability to create and master the purpose of life, the ability to recognize the transcendental dimensions/patterns of reality, and the ability to reach higher states of consciousness) than with the schizotypal personality traits and psychotic symptoms that characterize the pathology.

Can you give a description of what it means to have a mystical experience?

Mystical experience is unique and deeply personal to each person. However, the common traits are, for example, heartfelt positive emotions, a feeling of joy, happiness, unconditional love, feeling that all that exists is one whole or unity with the universe, that everything that exists has a consciousness, and that everything is alive, perfect, and predetermined. A person may have the feeling that he is facing an all-inclusive force with an all-knowing and/or higher source. The sense of time and space may be lost.

These experiences usually leave the feeling that something sacred and divine has happened.

What are the practical takeaways from your research for someone trying to make sense of a mystical or mystical-like experience?

The most practical advice for a person who has experienced a mystical experience is, at least initially, to allow both possibilities — both that this experience may be part of spiritual development or that it may be a symptom of pathology. It is important to accept both views at the same time with an open view and the fact that they can both coexist. Don't choose between either but try to understand how it is and how I should react to what I am experiencing.

The practical advice for professionals (psychologists, psychotherapists, psychiatrists, and others working in the field of mental health) would be to carefully consider cases where people seek help in transcendent experiences cases. Mystical experience and psychotic episodes seem similar and have common traits, but it is also important to pay attention to the differences and how one integrates the experience. Care, openness, and allowing both options can help reduce misdiagnosis and increase the potential for a person to gain potentially positive effects from this experience.

What are the downsides or negatives, if any, to having a mystical experience?

This is an essential question because it seems that, in our time, people are often fascinated by the pursuit of ever new mystical or mystical-type experiences, including those created by various substances. After all, they provide a pleasant feeling for a moment. However, it is important to understand that, although the consequences of such experiences are positive in most cases, there are also exceptions. Mystical experience is also associated with many risks. For one, it is related to pathology. The intensity of the experience may contribute to the onset of pathological conditions. Therefore, attention must be paid to its integration, as only integrated experiences can become a wonderful internal resource.

Can you talk a little bit about why mystical experiences are related to schizotypal personality traits and psychotic symptoms?

If we talk about the external manifestations of the mystical experience, then it should be noted that the mystical experience is in some way similar to psychosis, which is an episode related to an illness, in which a person is confused about what is real and what is not. Also, during the mystical experience, the person's sense of reality is changed. This is why the connection between mystical experience and psychotic symptoms is discussed.

For example, during mystical experience and psychosis, a person may experience hallucinations, hear voices, perceive the environment, time, and space in another way than usual. In case of illness, it is difficult for a person to return to normal life after such an episode.

On the other hand, in the case of a mystical experience, if a person can successfully process this experience, draw meaningful conclusions from it, a person will essentially benefit from it. As a result of these experiences, the internally transforming processes usually start in people. Their perception of the world, their value system, behavior, and, consequently, everyday life improve from the experience.

But, talking about schizotypal personality traits, some studies show that mystical experience is associated with magical thinking, unusual beliefs, perceptual dysregulation, and other schizotypal personality traits, which were also confirmed in our study.

What other personality traits are related to mystical experience?

This is an interesting issue as, despite the relatively stable nature of personality, researchers have hypothesized that significant life events could change adult personality quite dramatically, and such an event can also be a mystical experience that people often choose to call one of the most important events in their lives. The results of the research also show that people who have experienced a mystical experience have a significant increase in openness to experience.

After conducting your research, are you more likely to view mystical experiences as a normal part of healthy psychological functioning?

Yes, mystical experience and transcendent states of consciousness are a natural part of human spiritual growth. However, after conducting research and studying the theories of various authors, the idea has emerged that more important than the fact of experiencing the mystical experience itself is to look at one's next steps after it. How and whether a person can integrate the experience into everyday life. It is thought that this process of integration, which is greatly influenced by peers' attitudes, social support, environment, culture, and also aspects of personality, plays a greater role in whether or not a mystical experience becomes a normal part of a person's psychological functioning.