Is a mystical experience considered as a disorder by psychiatrists?
February 25, 2007 11:11 PM   Subscribe

Is a mystical experience considered as a disorder by psychiatrists?

Since mystical experiences are so common across the world, I was wondering if psychiatrists consider these as a disorder, i.e., some malfunction of the brain, akin to delusions. I've read a bunch of books and articles about the mystical experience, but know nothing of the scientific angle behind it. Does anyone have a link or so to a study of the mystical experience from the scientific point of view? I've found a few on pubmed, but I can't access them, so, I'm asking MeFi instead.
posted by dhruva to Religion & Philosophy (20 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: The article "Your Brain On Religion" might be a fine place for you to start.

Briefly, you could certainly track down psychiatrists who consider the mystical experience a. a valid apprehension of a higher order of reality, b. a valid human experience but nonetheless a naturalistic and frequently misinterpreted one, and c. a dangerous delusional carryover from some branching of our evolutionary history which is Bad for the World.

Certainly there has been scientific study of the neurological science behind mystical experiences and there is unquestionably something scientifically observable going on there. Before checking out that article I linked above again, I hadn't heard of the term "neurotheology," so there may be some value following that up (and note the more info link at the top of that article).

Although it is out of print, a book that gets into the topic (and a lot of others around the whole spirituality/consciousness expansion theme) is Powers of Mind by Adam Smith. You might find it at the library or it is quite accessible used (at least it was when my wife tracked down my copy half a dozen years ago). Although now dated it has a fantastic bibliography of study on these topics and attacks the subject with a nice mix of openness and healthy skepticism.
posted by nanojath at 11:32 PM on February 25, 2007

I can't find the exact wording, but *all* psychiatric "disorders" are only classified as such if they impact a person's ability to function and perform their typical family, social, or work-related duties.
posted by gramcracker at 12:03 AM on February 26, 2007

A significant percentage of schizophrenics exhibit religious fixations as a symptom of their disorder. In my brother's case, one of the first symptoms of medication imbalance is a return of excessive thoughts about religion, and a ritualized performance of prayer. Accordingly, his psychiatrist asks him about religious thoughts regularly, as part of his monthly theraputic and supervisory sessions, and we try by diet and excercise to control his weight and blood sugar levels. When his meds are working well, he has little overt interest in religious matters, and can discuss his genuine faith and enjoy participating in services. When his meds are less effective, he may read the Bible to the exclusion of most other waking activities, and be emotionally disturbed about the spiritual fate of others who do not vocally profess Christian ideals. Generally, in these situations he is probably also experiencing auditory hallucinations, and may feel the "voices" he hears are divine messages.

Left untreated, such symptoms are extremely frightening to the person experiencing them, and greatly heighten feelings of anxiety and disorientation. Those feelings tend to reinforce disassociative trends, and may even exacerbate the hallucinations from which they first arise.
posted by paulsc at 2:41 AM on February 26, 2007

This is related, if somewhat tangential: here's an article from 1995 about sensitivity to cultural norms in psychiatric diagnosis.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 2:44 AM on February 26, 2007

Hyperreligiosity can be a symptom of temporal lobe epilepsy. Before my sister's TLE was diagnosed she started "getting religion" in some odd ways (odd for our atheistic family and odd for her having had no religious predilections for the first two decades of her life) that completely went away when she took medication. PK Dick was noted for being someone with TLE who experienced mystical visions.

My schizophrenic cousin had something similar to what paulsc describes. He got very very Jewish, the only member of our family who kept kosher, etc. This was not a problem in and of itself but he had something of a fixation on it which didn't make him happy. And, when his medication wasn't working as well, the voices he heard which he has previously thought were divine, became troubling which created a problem for him.
posted by jessamyn at 6:08 AM on February 26, 2007

I'm no shrink but I do know they are required to take a person's religious beliefs under consideration before labeling something as a delusion. They have to take beliefs and experiences in CONTEXT.

For instance, since I belong to a segment of Christianity that believes that God can and does communicate directly to individual believers, it will not be automatically assumed to be part of a disorder if I share that with my doc.

Having said that, "religiosity" IS considered to be a mark of bipolar disorder as well as what the above posters shared.

Truth be told, it is probably wiser if those who have true visionary experiences NOT share it with a health care provider unless they are reasonably sure it will be viewed in the proper context.
posted by konolia at 6:44 AM on February 26, 2007

Best answer: dhruva, are you referring to mystical experiences that are sought out, or ones that strike as unprovoked revelations?

I don't have any links for you, but as someone who has done a lot of my own research I'll offer some thoughts.

As psychiatry is meant to treat and explain illness, you will find psychiatric language very limiting when it comes to describing events or sensations in a way that validates them or does them justice from a mystical point of view. Most people's initiatory mystical experiences are preceived as coming from an entity or world outside their own, and psychiatry attempts to integrate those experiences, helping an individual dissect themself and the experience so that its components can be revealed as having originated within the individual's own psyche.

As one explores mysticism further, one generally discovers that it's actually quite irrelevant whether these events originate from within or without, and that from a spiritual (and even scientific) point of view we are incredibly permeable and our consciousness of the world we inhabit may be the extent of its actual realness. Therefore an experience is no less groundbreaking or lifechanging if it is able to be explained or even replicated. The real value of mysticism is in what it contributes to a person's life, and what they are compelled to do about it. If a person is suffering or hurting others, then they need help regardless of whether they are a mystic or a mental case.

I recommend researching DMT, a potent hallucinogen and also a chemical produced by our own pineal gland, the "seat of the soul". DMT may or may not be the root of humans' mystical experiences and may represent the moment in evolution when we became able to have them. In fact I think that if you want to understand psychiatry's point of view on mysticism in general you ought to read whatever studies you can find on DMT, psilocybin, salvia divinorum, peyote, mescaline, and LSD; it is mainly in the study of hallucinogens that modern psychiatry has been forced to confront the concept of the mystical experience and the ramifications of such experiences being readily available to virtually everybody. I would specifically seek out studies conducted before the 60's counterculture craze, when science and psychiatry were still "discovering" the value of these chemicals. Psychiatrists used LSD to treat addiction and alcoholism by triggering mystical experiences in their patients, for example, with miraculous results. Unfortunately many of these studies are also incredibly clinical, attempting to control mystical experiences and induce them upon individuals who may not be prepared, and in a setting that is cold, unfamiliar, and sterile. YMMV. I think you can find most of these on the Erowid site. Also, MDMA (ecstasy) is currently being tested as a treatment for some psychiatric disorders. Ultimately I suspect you will find studies here and there, but no real "authoritative voice" from the psychiatric community-- just the same prejudices, suspicions, and squabbles that pop up whenever spirituality or mysticism is discussed.

Also, you should definitely look into the work of Wilhelm Reich, whose career was peppered with equal amounts of psychiatric discovery and personal dysfunction. Ultimately most of his work is considered to have been completely discredited, but there may or may not be several big babies being thrown out with the bathwater there.

As for sought-out experiences, such as those found in the mystic traditions of most religions as well as (of course) shamanism, there are plenty of cases in which a person's fervor or desire for divine communion is fueled by schizophrenia or a neurological problem. But what about the many, many people who lead otherwise functional, "normal" and happy lives, that seek out these same experiences. While I can't tell you exactly what a psychiatrist might think about this, I can tell you what they general point of view is among would-be mystics and seekers, and that's "the water in which the mystic swims is the same that the madman drowns in". Which is to say that even those who identify as mystics acknowledge that they tread a fine line in their work and that there is certainly a degree of personal risk in pursuing it, which is why many adopt strict disciplines as a way of remaining invested and functional in this world.

Hope you find what you're looking for!
posted by hermitosis at 7:37 AM on February 26, 2007 [3 favorites]

Is a mystical experience considered as a disorder by psychiatrists?


The official (American) list of psychological disorders can be found in the DSM-IV. While mystical experiences can be symptoms of some disorders, they are not in themselves considered to be a disorder.
posted by tkolar at 8:26 AM on February 26, 2007

No. There is no entry in the DSM IV for "mystical experiences disorder." gramcraker above sums it up when it comes to when anything can be considered a disorder. For instance writing slash fan fiction isnt a disorder but writing it all day, obsessing about it all day, not being able to hold a job or stay in school because of it is a sign that there's something wrong with you.

Although, I do understand where you question comes from. I've heard many false statements about how "science" treats certain things, which are phrased and repeated to create an us vs them mentality and to produce feelings of exclusiveness and persection.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:42 AM on February 26, 2007

Or are you asking about neurobiological explanations for what we call mystical experiences? More than one part of the brain has been identified. Extreme cases have to do with a form of epilepsy, non-extreme cases many be a natural side-effect of consciousness.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:45 AM on February 26, 2007

Best answer: From an article describing the history of the "Religious or Spiritual Problem" category of the DSM-IV, we have this interesting case study.

(and I have to say, I don't believe this woman's experience was unique)
A woman in her early thirties sought out therapy to deal with unresolved parental struggles and guilt over a younger brother's psychosis. Approximately two years into her therapy, she underwent a typical mystical experience, including a state of ecstasy, a sense of union with the universe, a heightened awareness transcending space and time, and a greater sense of meaning and purpose to her life. For ten days, she remained in an ecstatic state. She felt that everything in her life had led up to this momentous experience and that all her knowledge had become reorganized during its course. Due to the rapid alteration in her mood and her unusual ideation, her therapist considered diagnoses of mania, schizophrenia, and hysteria. But he rejected these because many aspects of her functioning were either unchanged or improved, and overall her experience seemed to be "more integrating than disintegrating...While a psychiatric diagnosis cannot be dismissed, her experience was certainly akin to those described by great religious mystics who have found a new life through them" (p. 806).

This experience increasingly became the focus of her continued treatment, as she worked to integrate the insights and attitudinal changes that followed. The therapist reported that the most important gain from it was a conviction that she was a worthwhile person with worthwhile ideas, not the intrinsically evil person, 'rotten to the core', that her mother had convinced her she was. Her subsequent treatment focused on expanding the insights she had gained and on helping her to integrate the mystical experience. (adapted from Group for the Advancement of Psychiatry, 1976)
posted by tkolar at 8:56 AM on February 26, 2007

While what tkolar says is correct, there are instances where some "mystical experiences" are treated as disorders in themselves.

when it comes to treating culture-specific maladies such as "the Evil Eye" or apparent "possession", trans-cultural psychiatrists have discovered that treating the condition within the cultural context of the afflicted can have incredibly successful results. This can involve staging ceremonies or "exorcisms" as a way of helping the individual resolve the problem.

I can't find a link to back it up, but I have read that the Evil Eye is now considered to be a legitimate disorder in itself, because of the the strength and consistency of its effects noted across several cultures.
posted by hermitosis at 8:57 AM on February 26, 2007

hermitosis writes...
While what tkolar says is correct, there are instances where some "mystical experiences" are treated as disorders in themselves.

Very true. From that same article:
At age 19, after returning home from hitchhiking in Mexico, Howard became convinced that he was on a "Mental Odyssey." To his family and friends, he began speaking in a highly metaphorical language. For example, after returning from a simple afternoon hike up a mountain, he announced to his parents that "I have been through the bowels of Hell, climbed up and out, and wandered full circles in the wilderness. I have ascended through the Portals of Heaven where I established my rebirth in the earth itself, and now have taken my rightful place in the Kingdom of Heaven." To one friend, he stated: "I am the albatross; you are the dove." The unusual actions and content of his speech led his family to commit him to a psychiatric ward where he was diagnosed with acute schizophrenia.

Once admitted to the hospital, Howard asked to see a Jungian therapist, but this request was ignored and he was given thorazine. While in the hospital, he continued his self-proclaimed odyssey by drawing elaborate "keys" that were mandalas stocked with many well-known symbols and cultural motifs, including the Islamic crescent and star, the yin yang symbol, the infinity sign, and pierced hands, eyes, and circles. In the hospital, he also conducted elaborate self-designed "power" rituals and rituals to the four directions, despite being on high doses of medication. After two months in the psychiatric hospital, his psychiatrist wanted to transfer him to a long-term facility for further treatment, but he refused to go and was discharged. He left feeling totally exhausted, physically and emotionally, but he continued exploring the mythological, philosophical and artistic parallels to his "Mental Odyssey." He read works by Joseph Campbell and C. G. Jung and joined a "New Age" religious group where he encountered many similar motifs.

In the subsequent 24 years, he has not been hospitalized or on medication, has held positions as an operator of high tech video editing equipment, and completed a college degree. When interviewed 11 years after the episode for a case study, he maintained that, "I have gained much from this experience. I am sorry for the worry and hurt that it may have caused my family and friends. These wounds have been slow to heal. I am deeply grateful for the great victory of my odyssey. From a state of existential nausea, my soul now knows itself as part of the cosmos. Each year brings an ever increasing sense of contentment." (adapted from Lukoff and Everest, 1985, pp. 127-143)
posted by tkolar at 9:56 AM on February 26, 2007

Yeah - the "mystical experiences" just doesn't fit into psychology. If you want to say visions, hallucinations, etc., that would be grounds for some statement, but saying that an experience is "mystical" focuses more on its substance than on the psychological experience.

But, yes, many visions, hallucinations, and prophetic signs have been diagnosed as various disorders. Sometimes schizophrenia, sometimes epilepsy, others, bipolar.
posted by tmcw at 10:59 AM on February 26, 2007

they're not DISORDERS. if anything, maybe symptoms.
posted by dagnyscott at 11:33 AM on February 26, 2007

Like tkolar and damn dirty ape mention, there's no specific diagnosis for it. When you sit down and read the DSM, you see that each disorder is described as a collection of symptoms, experienced with a given intensity or frequency. A symptom is just some experience that limits functioning somehow. Of course, "functioning" is fairly culturally-dependent.

Our culture isn't generally on board with mystical experiences in general--charismatic Christianity aside--so you could probably argue that it's a symptom if you're having your visions while driving a forklift or something. But if you were truly have a mystical revelation of some kind, I'd imagine you'd probably be worried about other things than being diagnosed by a psychiatrist.
posted by vraxoin at 12:43 PM on February 26, 2007

Check out The Mystical Mind: Probing the Biology of Religious Experience by Eugene D'Aquili and Andrew Newberg for some scientific background.
posted by vytae at 12:56 PM on February 26, 2007

Response by poster: Wow. Thanks you all. I was wondering if there was any way to distinguish between a "real" mystical experience, either sought for or unprovoked, and a sort of crossing of the wires in the brain, so to speak. I've looked into some of the links and I guess there's enough in this thread to answer my questions. Thanks, nanojath, for the term 'neurotheology'. While it is understandable that person experiencing a mystical experience tend to become more religious in the tradition they were brought up in, as in Jessamyn's example, I'm more interested in the ones that transcend any normal religious framework, such as in the case of Eckhart Tolle.
posted by dhruva at 6:01 PM on February 26, 2007

I was wondering if there was any way to distinguish between a "real" mystical experience, either sought for or unprovoked, and a sort of crossing of the wires in the brain, so to speak.

Even if the experiences were 100% connected to neural crosswiring, would it matter? It seems to me that the mechanism isn't nearly as important as the results here...
posted by tkolar at 7:48 PM on February 26, 2007

I'm a little late to the party, but Saints and Madmen: How Pioneering Psychiatrists Are Creating a New Science of the Soul is a pretty riveting look at the subject.
posted by Roach at 2:33 PM on February 27, 2007

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