What Happens When You Have A Spontaneous Spiritual Experience?

Psychologist Jessica Corneille breaks down a widely chronicled but barely understood phenomenon.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | January 16, 2023

A recent study published in Frontiers in Psychology dives deep into the mysterious world of Spontaneous Spiritual Awakenings (SSAs).

I recently spoke to psychologist Jessica Corneille of the University of Greenwich in England to get a deeper understanding of SSAs and how different they are from other altered states of consciousness. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of Spontaneous Spiritual Awakenings (SSAs)?

Spontaneous Spiritual Awakenings (SSAs) are subjective experiences characterized by a sudden sense of direct contact, union, or complete non-dual merging (experience of oneness) with a perceived ultimate reality, the universe, "cosmic consciousness," or the divine. These experiences have scarcely been investigated within mainstream psychology, despite vast amounts of cross-cultural, anecdotal evidence suggesting the potential for SSAs to catalyze deep transformation and healing.

In contrast, these experiences are typically pathologized by default within mainstream clinical settings, due to their overlaps with the symptoms of certain psychopathologies, such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia – a presumption exacerbated by a lack of scientific data on SSAs, their characteristics, well-being implications, and general occurrence within widespread populations.

While there may occasionally be similarities between both sets of experiences, both anecdotal and existing scientific evidence suggest that these experiences can occur independently, void of the presence of a mental health disorder, and often lead to significant improvements in mental and physical well-being, enhanced pro-social and pro-environmental behaviors, and decreased risks of developing psychopathological tendencies.

By way of example, 98% of those who took part in our study involving 152 participants, reported positive long-term effects. A general lack of understanding around SSAs may lead individuals requiring simple guidance and validation to be treated through much more invasive means.

Understanding the differences, similarities, and overlaps between both sets of experiences will help equip clinicians with the appropriate tools to deal with patients presenting SSA. My primary inspiration and motivation, therefore, is to help destigmatize, depathologize, and raise awareness around SSAs by engaging in rigorous scientific research to help shed light on these experiences within mainstream psychology.

SSAs are associated with a multitude of extremely profound psychological and spiritual outcomes. Could you briefly describe these?

Immediate effects include an ineffable and noetic sense of deep inner "knowing" or "understanding" of the objective, unfiltered nature of reality, which can give rise to deep feelings of ecstasy, bliss, and awe.

Simultaneously to those feelings typically arise softer senses of peace and equanimity, as well as a distinct loss of anxiety and fear (notably so towards death). Occasionally, people report new or enhanced extra-sensory perception, such as increased coincidences, or synchronicities, and the ability to more effortlessly attract what one needs or desires.

Studies suggest that whether short or long in peak duration, the experience of SSA is almost always life-changing. The most commonly reported outcomes include an increased sense of mental and physical well-being, with reports of cases of loss of chronic pain; increased prosocial behaviors, such as increased empathy, compassion, and gratitude – often leading to a heightened sense of mission or a desire to act in selfless service; and enhanced pro-environmental behaviors, including an increased desire to both spend time in, and protect, nature.

Shifts towards less materialistic and less religious lifestyles are also reported, and these can sometimes lead to changes in philosophical views, relationships, and career paths. Reports also suggest that SSAs can lead to a decreased risk of committing suicide among suicidal individuals, and there have been reports of spontaneous release from addiction occurring post-SSA.

All in all, these experiences often show us an alternative way of existing, one that is typically filled with a sense of reverence and devotion towards life, and a deep desire to cultivate love.

You mention an association between SSAs and epilepsy? Could you explain this relationship?

Spiritual experiences are associated with temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE), with reports of clairvoyant, telepathic, out-of-body, and other non-ordinary experiences occurring both during, and following, seizures. Certain common features of SSAs, such as a strong sense of a cosmic, divine, or "God-like" presence or energy, and a deep sense of interconnection with the infinite, are also commonly reported.

In our study, we wanted to understand whether there was a discernible association between SSAs and the partial seizure-like symptoms characteristic of TLE, namely temporal lobe lability (TLL).

We found that TLL was in fact, positively correlated with the SSA experience, implying that individuals who reported stronger TLL symptoms were more likely to experience higher-intensity SSAs. We also found our group's TLL scores to be considerably higher compared to the TLL scores of a general population group from a previous, unrelated study, indicating the general possibility for more prominent partial seizure-like symptoms typical of TLE among SSA experiencers, compared to the general population.

Conversely, these results suggest a higher likelihood of experiencing SSA if an individual is predisposed to experiencing partial seizure-like symptoms - if they have TLE, for instance.

One thing that struck me was that SSAs are dependent on the personality trait of fantasy proneness. Could you elaborate on this trait and explain why it may induce SSAs more easily?

Personality trait absorption, or the depth to which one's attentional and experiential involvement occurs in relation to stimuli without effort or control, was found to be a predictor of the SSA experience.

In other words, the higher the absorption scores, the higher the likelihood of stronger SSA experiences. Trait absorption - which can be increased through communal repetitive activities such as chanting, prayer, and hypnotic drumming, or through the disruption of homeostatic balance (e.g., through the ingestion of psychotropic substances) – has traditionally been associated with higher levels of emotional sensitivity, openness, creativity, empathy, curiosity, and attachment to nature and other forms of life - relative to the general population.

It is also associated with hypnotisability and "transliminality" - the subconscious tendency for internal or external material to "cross the threshold of consciousness."

Fantasy proneness is just one of many personality traits and tendencies associated with trait absorption, and implies mere correlation rather than causation. Furthermore, fantasy proneness was not assessed as a predictor of SSAs, so we do not know its association with the phenomenon in question.

Nevertheless, trait absorption's correlation with SSAs may suggest that levels of attention and/or engrossment – and their respective neurobiological underpinnings – may play a part in the experience of SSA. However, it is important to note that, due to the prospective nature of this study, the direction of correlation remains unclear (i.e., we can't be sure that absorption levels didn't develop as a consequence of SSA).

What were the main phenomenological differences that you found between Spontaneous Kundalini Awakenings SKAs and SSAs?

Kundalini Awakenings are typically associated with greater physical and energetic symptoms, compared to general spiritual awakenings. Some of these physical effects include a sense of energy shooting up the body; tickling, prickling and tingling, particularly in the extremities of the body and the brow-point; unusual bodily movements including sudden jerking, shaking, and kicking; and unusual rapid changes to the reproductive and excretory systems.

Inspired by the frequent associations in transpersonal literature between powerful physical/energetic experiences and negatively perceived spiritual experiences - also known as spiritual crises or emergencies - we wanted to understand whether Spontaneous Kundalini Awakenings (SKAs) were more likely to be negative, as well as more physical, compared to SSAs. We found that SKAs were significantly more physical than SSAs, but that they were not necessarily more negative.

How do SSAs compare with other altered states of consciousness?

In our research, we compared SSAs with a variety of drug (DMT, psilocybin, LSD, dextromethorphan, MDMA, cannabis) and non-drug induced altered states (floatation tank, anechoic darkroom chamber, holotropic breathwork, ganzfeld environment).

Interestingly, all altered states of consciousness shared a similar phenomenological distribution, though SSAs were found to be significantly more powerful experiences compared to all measured altered states of consciousness, across almost all measured characteristics.

Particularly striking yet perhaps non-surprising were SSAs' similarities, both in their measured characteristics and intensity of experience, with psilocybin and DMT – powerful psychedelics capable of triggering mystical experiences.

These results are interesting, particularly because the profiles of such drugs are similar to those of SSAs in their spiritual outcomes and proposed therapeutic effects. While it is important to consider that recalled "most powerful" SSAs were compared to one-off drug and non-drug induced experiences, these findings are promising, in that these similarities could indicate the potential for research on psychedelic-occasioned mystical experiences to shed light on some of the neurobiological underpinnings and therapeutic potentials of SSAs, and conversely, that SSA research may help inform the study of psychedelic-occasioned mystical experiences.

How does your research connect with, and inform, other research on spiritual awakenings?

Both naturally-occurring (endogenous) and induced mystical experiences (including spiritual awakenings) have been linked to promising subjective and objective well-being improvements.

Psychedelic-occasioned mystical experiences have been associated with sustained improvements in the treatment of treatment-resistant depression, treatment-resistant alcohol and tobacco addiction, and significant reductions in anxiety, hopelessness, and fear of death in patients with life-threatening cancer - while SSAs have been linked to the decreased risk of committing suicide among suicidal individuals, and sustained improvements in the recovery of substance abuse. The very goal of the Alcoholics Anonymous programme lies in spiritual "awakening."

While our results further support the potential for awakening experiences of a spontaneous nature to occasion deeply therapeutic and potentially long-lasting cognitive, behavioral, and even physical changes, these help inform the wider study of awakening-type experiences, including those resulting from psychedelics, contemplative practices and Near-Death Experiences.

Conversely, the advancement of research on the wider spectrum of awakening experiences will undoubtedly be invaluable to the progress of our understanding of SSAs.