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Various forms of self-loss have been described as aspects of mental illness (e.g., depersonalization disorder), but might self-loss also be related to mental health? In this integrative review and proposed organizational framework, we focus on self-transcendent experiences (STEs)—transient mental states marked by decreased self-salience and increased feelings of connectedness. We first identify common psychological constructs that contain a self-transcendent aspect, including mindfulness, flow, peak experiences, mystical-type experiences, and certain positive emotions (e.g., love, awe). We then propose psychological and neurobiological mechanisms that may mediate the effects of STEs based on a review of the extant literature from social psychology, clinical psychology, and affective neuroscience. We conclude with future directions for further empirical research on these experiences.
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Review of General Psychology
The Varieties of Self-Transcendent Experience
David Bryce Yaden, Jonathan Haidt, Ralph W. Hood, Jr., David R. Vago, and Andrew B. Newberg
Online First Publication, May 1, 2017.
Yaden, D. B., Haidt, J., Hood, R. W., Jr., Vago, D. R., & Newberg, A. B. (2017, May 1). The Varieties
of Self-Transcendent Experience. Review of General Psychology. Advance online publication.
The Varieties of Self-Transcendent Experience
David Bryce Yaden
University of Pennsylvania Jonathan Haidt
New York University
Ralph W. Hood Jr.
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga David R. Vago
Harvard Medical School
Andrew B. Newberg
Thomas Jefferson University
Various forms of self-loss have been described as aspects of mental illness (e.g., depersonalization
disorder), but might self-loss also be related to mental health? In this integrative review and proposed
organizational framework, we focus on self-transcendent experiences (STEs)—transient mental states
marked by decreased self-salience and increased feelings of connectedness. We first identify common
psychological constructs that contain a self-transcendent aspect, including mindfulness, flow, peak
experiences, mystical-type experiences, and certain positive emotions (e.g., love, awe). We then propose
psychological and neurobiological mechanisms that may mediate the effects of STEs based on a review
of the extant literature from social psychology, clinical psychology, and affective neuroscience. We
conclude with future directions for further empirical research on these experiences.
Keywords: self-transcendence, mindfulness, flow, positive emotions, awe
. . . we can experience union with something larger than ourselves and
in that union find our greatest peace.
—(William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience)
Under certain circumstances, the subjective sense of one’s self
as an isolated entity can temporarily fade into an experience of
unity with other people or one’s surroundings, involving the dis-
solution of boundaries between the sense of self and “other.” Such
transient mental states of decreased self-salience and increased
feelings of connectedness are described here as self-transcendent
experiences (STEs). These temporary mental states are proposed to
be experienced along a spectrum of intensity that ranges from the
routine (e.g., losing yourself in music or a book), to the intense and
potentially transformative (e.g., feeling connected to everything
and everyone), to states in between, like those experienced by
many people while meditating or when feeling awe.
Consider the following accounts of STEs:
I felt myself one with the grass, the trees, birds, insects, everything in
Nature. I exalted in the mere fact of existence, of being part of it all
. . . I knew so well the satisfaction of losing self in a perception of
supreme power and love . . .
—(as quoted in James, 1985/1902, pp. 364–365)
I lost the boundary to my physical body. I had my skin, of course, but
I felt I was standing in the center of the cosmos.
—(as quoted in Watts, 1957, p. 121).
. . . I could no longer clearly discern the physical boundaries of where
I began and where I ended. I sensed the composition of my being as
that of a fluid rather than that of a solid. I no longer perceived myself
as a whole object separate from everything.
—(Taylor, 2008, p. 42)
In each account, an aspect of consciousness usually taken for
granted—the sense of being a bounded, separate self—is conspic-
uously absent. Each author (a Christian experiencing God’s pres-
ence, a Buddhist experiencing enlightenment, and a secular neu-
roscientist having a stroke) describes fading self-boundaries and a
sense of unity with other people and objects. Many similar de-
scriptions can be found throughout history and across many cul-
tures (Haidt, 2006, ch. 9; James, 1902; Newberg & d’Aquili, 2008;
Underhill, 1913; Yaden, McCall, & Ellens, 2015). STEs remain
common, with around one third of people in samples from multiple
cultures reporting intense experiences of unity with other people
and their surroundings (Hood, Hill, & Spilka, 2009, pp. 343–347).
David Bryce Yaden, Department of Psychology, University of Pennsyl-
vania; Jonathan Haidt, Stern School of Business, New York University;
Ralph W. Hood Jr., Department of Psychology, University of Tennessee at
Chattanooga; David R. Vago, Brigham & Women’s Hospital, Harvard
Medical School; Andrew B. Newberg, Myrna Brind Center of Integrative
Medicine, Thomas Jefferson University.
David R. Vago is now at Departments of Physical Medicine & Reha-
bilitation, and Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, Vanderbilt University
Medical Center.
The authors would like to extend special thanks to Martin E. P. Selig-
man, Britta Hölzel, and Mary Elizabeth Smith.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to David
Bryce Yaden, Department of Psychology, University of Pennsylvania,
3701 Market Street Suite 200, Philadelphia, PA 19104. E-mail:
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This article is intended solely for the personal use of the individual user and is not to be disseminated broadly.
Review of General Psychology © 2017 American Psychological Association
2017, Vol. 0, No. 999, 000 1089-2680/17/$12.00
Variability in the intensity of perceived unity is apparent in
several common psychological constructs that researchers have
claimed contain degrees of self-transcendence. These “varieties of
self-transcendent experience” include: the states of mindfulness
(Davidson et al., 2003; Kabat-Zinn, 1994), flow (Csikszentmi-
halyi, 1991), self-transcendent positive emotions such as love and
awe (Haidt, 2003; Haidt & Morris, 2009; Keltner & Haidt, 2003;
Van Cappellen, & Rime, 2014), peak experiences (Maslow, 1964),
and “mystical” experiences (Hood, 1975, 2003; James, 1902;
Newberg & d’Aquili, 2000). Each of these otherwise quite differ-
ent constructs has been described in theoretical writing and in
psychometric scales as having aspects related to reduced self-
salience and/or enhanced connectedness.
The designation “self-transcendent experience” (STE) works
best for our purposes because it captures a spectrum of intensities
in addition to remaining neutral regarding secular or spiritual
connotations. However, empirical research on STEs is proceeding
under a number of different labels, including: hypoegoic states
(Leary & Guadagno, 2011), transpersonal experiences (Grof,
1972; Tart, 2006), unitary experiences (Newberg & d’Aquili,
2000), quantum change (Miller & Bacag, 2001), religious experi-
ences (James, 1902), spiritual experiences (Kass et al., 1991),
sacred moments (Lomax, Kripal, & Pargament, 2011), epiphanic
experiences (Pawelski, 2007), ecstatic experiences (Laski, 1961),
anomalous experiences (Cardena, Lynn, & Krippner, 2000), non-
dual awareness (Josipovic, 2014) near death experiences (Black-
more, 1996), mystical experiences (Hood et al., 2001; James,
1902; Newberg & d’Aquili, 2008; Wulff, 2000), and the closest to
a catch-all term “religious, spiritual, and mystical experiences”
(RSME; Beauregard, 2011)—among others (see Hood, Hill, &
Spilka, 2009). Here, STE refers specifically to the aspects of
decreased self-salience and increased feelings of connectedness to
other people and one’s surroundings, though we acknowledge
overlap with many of the terms listed above.
Historically, James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience
brought STEs (mystical experiences, in particular) and various
other profound inner experiences into mainstream psychological
discussion. James articulated the psychological value of experi-
encing states of unity (see the quote that begins this article).
However, this early, largely positive attention was followed by
decades of pathologization from the psychoanalytic perspective
and neglect from the behaviorist perspective (Belzen & Hood,
2006). Freud, for example, speculated that “oceanic feelings of
oneness” were likely neurotic regressions to the womb and a
symptom of psychopathology (Freud, 1930/2002).
More recently, intense STEs (e.g., mystical and peak experi-
ences) have been the subject of empirical research in social psy-
chology, clinical psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience
(Boyer, 2003; Haidt, 2012; Hood, Hill, & Spilka, 2009; Newberg
& Iversen, 2003). Simultaneously, other more common STEs (e.g.,
mindfulness, awe) are routine subjects of empirical research in
cognitive, clinical, affective, and social psychology (e.g., Shiota,
Keltner, & Mossman, 2007; Vago & Silbersweig, 2012; Van
Cappellen, & Rimé, 2014). There may indeed be a spectrum of
intensity along which one may experience an STE, where states like
awe or mindfulness may be on the lower part of the spectrum—while
peak or mystical experiences may be higher on the spectrum
insofar as they are felt to be more salient, visceral, and memorable
Pathological manifestations of alterations to the sense of self
have been formalized within the dissociative cluster of the DSM as
depersonalization disorder (Bernstein & Putnam, 1986; Simeon &
Abugel, 2006; Simeon et al., 2014), now referred to as deperson-
alization/derealization disorder (DDD) in the DSM-V. While a
technical definition of “the self” is not given in the DSM, the
feeling of an “unreal or absent self” is described as a primary
symptom. Efforts to identify which particular aspects of the self
are diminished in DDD have been attempted (Simeon et al., 2014);
yet, the DSM relies on the subjective report surrounding changes to
the sense of self that are nonspecific.
Some experiences of self-loss may have a mix of positive and
pathological aspects, which may sometimes require psychothera-
peutic care (Lukoff, Lu, & Turner, 1992). However, our review
suggests that STEs are more often associated with positive out-
comes such as well-being and prosocial behavior—and more in-
tense STEs are sometimes counted among life’s most meaningful
moments. We propose that a qualified consensus has emerged that,
on the whole, Freud was wrong and James was right regarding the
positive psychological potential of STEs.
Scope of STEs
The “sense of self” we conceptualize as being transcended
during STEs is not yet clear and likely involves multiple self-
related processes. In practical terms, we refer here to the “sense of
self” that is described by other researchers in both theoretical
writings and scales used to measure self-transcendent constructs.
Generally, this notion of self-diminishment and/or connectedness
in the literature appears to be based first on phenomenological
reports and is then retained due to the predictive validity of
items in scales that refer to these subjective qualities. However,
the particular aspects of the self that are altered in instances of
STE—whether it is self-awareness, self-appraisal, self-construal,
self-evaluation, self-perception, self-reference, or any number of doz-
ens of such self-relevant constructs (Baumeister & Finkel,
2010)—is a question for future empirical work (Baumeister &
Exline, 2002; Hood, 2002). The lack of specificity regarding
fine-grained definitions of the self in the context of STEs may
indicate that a more generalized, folk psychological sense of self is
involved (Bloom, 2010; Gelman, 2003; Gillihan & Farah, 2005;
Newman, Bloom, & Knobe, 2014). However, here we base our
review on the observation that other researchers have referred to a
diminished, more unified, or otherwise altered sense of self in
theoretical writing on, and in psychometric scales meant to mea-
sure, a number of psychological constructs.
Self-transcendence, in the term’s most general sense, is often
used by others to describe a generalized reduction of self-
centeredness and selfish motivations. Many religious, spiritual,
and philosophically secular moral systems, for example, advocate
self-transcendent ideals that prioritize serving others above the self
(Shariff, Norenzayan, & Henrich, 2010). Here, however, our in-
terest is exclusively on phenomenological experiences of self-
transcendence—not beliefs, values, or orientations (though these
are likely influenced by STE).
Our definition of STE—transient mental states of decreased
self-salience and/or increased feelings of connectedness—includes
two broad complementary subcomponents worth decomposing: (a)
an “annhilational” component, which refers to both the dissolution
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of the bodily sense of self accompanied by reduced self- bound-
aries and self-salience; and (b) a “relational” component, which
refers to the sense of connectedness, even to the point of oneness,
with something beyond the self, usually with other people and
aspects of one’s environment or surrounding context. Both of these
components can occur to varying degrees, and though it remains an
open question for future empirical work, these aspects may some-
times vary with a degree of independence from one another.
The spectrum of intensity in perceived self-transcendent unity
has been called the unitary continuum (Newberg & d’Aquili, 2000)
and can be characterized by a phenomenology of varying degrees
of intensity during temporary experiences of self-diminishment
and increased connectedness. This dimension may be captured by
the extent to which one feels boundaries fall away between
oneself and the surrounding environment. This dimension can
be demonstrated by a commonly used measure to assess the
degree to which an individual feels connected to other people or
one’s environment (Aron, Aron, & Smollan, 1992; see Figure
Self-transcendence has been variously conceptualized in the
psychological literature in ways that are not relevant to our defi-
nition. Erickson (1982) described self-transcendence as a non-ego-
centric understanding of the world. Although our conception of
STE may involve a decreasingly ego-centric spatial frame of
reference, it does not assume that there is a change in one’s
conceptual understanding of a self-centered perspective on the
world. Frankl (1966) referred to self-transcendence as a prioriti-
zation of other people over self-focus. Although we suggest that
altruistic motivation may result from STEs, such other-prioritized
behavior or thinking is not involved during the STE. Self-
transcendence is also sometimes construed as a value emphasizing
universalism and benevolence (Schwartz, 1999) and set opposite to
self-enhancement values focused on personal power-seeking. Kes-
ebir and Diener (2013) observed that there are virtues and char-
acter strengths (Peterson & Seligman, 2004) that have an other-
focused, self-transcendent aspect (e.g., gratitude and love). Reed’s
(1991) self-transcendence scale involves a broad array of items
arranged around the notion of a process of expanding concern
beyond the self for close others, caretakers, one’s community, and
one’s existence in general. Although such prosocial attitudes and
motivations may result from an STE, they are not part of the
transient state of STE we describe here. Other approaches describe
self-transcendence as a personality factor (Piedmont, 1999), or a
developmental process involving a maturing capacity for mean-
ingful connection (Levenson, Jennings, Aldwin, & Shiraishi, 2005;
Tornstam, 2005). A few approaches describe long-term alterations
to self-processes called selflessness (Dambrun & Ricard, 2011;
Davis & Vago, 2013), whereas here we focus on brief mental
states. The self-transcendence subscale of the Temperament and
Character Inventory (TCI; Cloninger, Svrakic, & Przybeck, 1993)
operationalizes self-transcendence as a trait-like tendency to both
believe and feel that one is part of, rather than apart from, the
universe as a whole (Garcia-Romeu, 2010). For our purposes, each
of these characterizations of self-transcendence may be predispos-
ing factors for, or outcomes of, STEs but are not exclusively
experiences—and are therefore not STEs.
Additionally, STEs do not refer to cases in which people make
errors about a highly specific aspect of their bodily boundaries.
For example, STEs are not related to perceiving an imaginary
appendage, or a “phantom limb” (Ramachandran & Rogers-
Ramachandran, 1996). Further, STEs do not refer to anomalous
cases of confusions of reference, such as mistakenly tying someone
else’s shoe instead of one’s own (Baumeister & Exline, 2002).
While these characterizations of self-transcendence demonstrate
the malleability of representations of one’s sense of self and one’s
bodily boundaries, they do not carry the temporary cognitive or
perceptual changes associated with the more gestalt experience of
decreased self-salience and increased perceived connection indic-
ative of our definition of STEs.
Finally, STEs do not consist of practices or activities that may
induce experiences of self-transcendence. Such practices include
meditation, prayer, yoga, music, dancing, ingesting psychoactive
substances, and many more (Yaden et al., 2016b). While such
practices, rituals, and activities capable of eliciting STEs are
clearly important for the study of these mental states, they would
not themselves be considered STEs. The self-transcendent con-
structs described in the next section are mental states and should
not be confused with their antecedents or outcomes.
STE in Common Psychological Constructs
Researchers have described a self-transcendent aspect in a num-
ber of common psychological constructs, though, as noted, these
constructs are otherwise more different than alike. Mindfulness
Figure 1. The Inclusion of Other in Self Scale illustrates the continuous nature of feelings of unity (Aron, Aron,
& Smollan, 1992).
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(Davidson et al., 2003; Kabat-Zinn, 1994), for example, is a very
different mental state than awe (Keltner & Haidt, 2003). However,
according to theoretical writings on and scales meant to measure
these constructs, both share a subjective sense of decreased self-
salience and an increased sense of connectedness with other people
and one’s environment.
Each of the following constructs meet four criteria. First, the
construct must be relatively common in psychological research,
cited at least 1,000 times. Second, the construct must describe a
mental state (not, e.g., a behavioral trigger). Third, a self-
transcendent aspect must have been explicitly described in theo-
retical writing about the construct. Fourth, a common scale used to
measure the construct must include one or more items that explic-
itly mention reduced self-salience and/or an increased sense of
environmental or social connection. While each of the following
constructs meet this criteria, they are otherwise quite distinct;
however, we propose that they share a family resemblance (Wit-
tgenstein, 1953), and are related to one another due to their shared
self-transcendent aspect. Furthermore, these constructs have been
associated with more positive than negative outcomes in empirical
research; none are included in the DSM. For each of these so-called
“varieties of self-transcendent experience,” we define and describe
each construct, identify its self-transcendent aspect, and briefly
review research on its outcomes.
In contemporary contexts, the state of mindfulness is commonly
defined as moment-to-moment, open, nonjudgmental awareness,
with formal and informal practices associated with its cultivation
(Davidson et al., 2003; Jha, Krompinger, & Baime, 2007; Kabat-
Zinn, 1994). The self-transcendent component of mindfulness has
recently been more explicitly acknowledged with the “S-ART”
framework of mindfulness, an acronym that includes “self-
awareness” and “self-regulation” and, crucially, “self-transcendence”
(Vago & Silbersweig, 2012).
Vago and Silbersweig (2012) describe how the practices asso-
ciated with cultivating the state of mindfulness lead to changes
across dimensions of self-processing, such as the development of
self-other relations that transcends self-focused needs and in-
creases prosocial skills like empathy and altruistic behavior. The
feeling that one is an outside observer to one’s own self is some-
times referred to as “decentering” in the mindfulness literature
(Brown, Ryan, & Creswell, 2007; Holzel et al., 2011; Vago &
Silbersweig, 2012), allowing the meditation practitioner to reduce
strong identification with thoughts and emotions. Vago and Zeidan
(2016) further elaborate on this self-transcendent aspect by de-
scribing how advanced mindfulness practitioners may experience
states of nondual awareness, in which the self-other distinction is
dissolved. The Toronto Mindfulness Scale (Lau et al., 2006) asks
participants to rate the extent to which they agree with the state-
ment “I experienced myself as separate from my changing
thoughts and feelings.” Holzel et al. (2011) elaborate on this
component of mindfulness: “In place of the identification with the
static self, there emerges a tendency to identify with the phenom-
enon of ‘experiencing’ itself.”
The state of mindfulness can be cultivated through meditation
practices taught in the context of mindfulness-based interventions
(MBIs) such as mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR; Da-
vidson et al., 2003). Such MBIs are associated with a number of
psychological benefits, including improved well-being and self-
regulation (Baer, 2003; Davidson & McEwen, 2012; Goyal et al.,
2014). Furthermore, Mindfulness training has been shown to in-
crease prosocial behavior (Condon, Desbordes, Miller, & DeSteno,
2013; Leiberg et al., 2011; Weng et al., 2013). For example,
Condon, Desbordes, Miller, and DeSteno (2013) demonstrated that
a session of mindfulness practice increased the likelihood of an
altruistic response to a suffering stranger.
Flow is a mental state of focused absorption in an interesting
and challenging task (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991; Moneta & Csik-
szentmihalyi, 1996). In flow, the self is said to fade away while
merging with the activity one is engaged in and then to re-
emerge having benefited from the experience (Csikszentmi-
halyi, 1991). In the “loss of self-consciousness” factor of the
Flow State Scale (Jackson & Marsh, 1996) the following item
appears: “I was not worried about what others may have been
thinking of me.” To this point, Csikszentmihalyi (1991) writes
“one item that disappears from awareness deserves special
mention, because in normal life we spend so much time think-
ing about it: our own self” (p. 62).
Flow can be elicited by tasks that are perceived by participants
as both interesting and challenging (Ghani & Deshpande, 1994).
Despite (or perhaps because of) the element of challenge, the state
of flow is often described as “autotelic”—an enjoyable end unto
itself (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991; Peterson, 2006)—and is featured
prominently in well-being theory as a component of “engagement”
(Seligman, 2011). While flow is generally described as devoid of
emotion, it often prompts positive emotion afterward (Csikszent-
mihalyi & LeFevre, 1989; Jackson, 2000; Rogatko, 2009). The
regular experience of flow has been associated with higher self-
determination and intrinsic motivation (Kowal & Fortier, 1999).
While flow may represent an exception to the general tendency of
STEs to increase prosocial behavior, this has not yet been tested.
However, one study showed that people enjoy experiencing flow
with others more than alone, implying that it is not antithetical to
social connection (Walker, 2010).
Self-Transcendent Positive Emotions
Positive emotions are mental states associated with genuine,
“Duchenne” smiling (Ekman, 1992), approach behavior (Ca-
cioppo, Gardner, & Berntson, 1999; Davidson, 1993), and are
usually felt to be enjoyable (Fredrickson, 2001). A subset of
positive emotions has a self-transcendent quality. These “self-
transcendent positive emotions” (sometimes also called “moral
emotions” or “other praising emotions”) are: elevation, compas-
sion, admiration, gratitude, love, and awe (Algoe & Haidt, 2009;
Haidt, 2003a, 2003b; Haidt & Morris, 2009; Van Cappellen &
Rimé, 2014). Scales measuring positive emotions, such as the
modified Differential Emotion Scale (Fredrickson, Tugade,
Waugh, & Larkin, 2003) often simply provide the name of an
emotion (e.g., “joyful,” “grateful,” “love”) and participants are
asked to rate the degree to which they felt this emotion. Other
research (e.g., Waugh & Fredrickson, 2006) provides the link
between positive emotions and self-other overlap (Aron, Aron, &
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Smollan, 2002). In a discussion of the self-transcendent aspect of
positive emotions, Fredrickson (2009) observes “feelings of one-
ness are often tied to other people—but not always. We can also
feel oneness with nature” (p. 71).
In laboratory settings, self-transcendent positive emotions are
often elicited using mood induction stimuli such as watching a
short film (Westermann, Spies, Stahl, & Hesse, 1996). Self-
transcendent positive emotions have been shown to increase social
connectedness and some, such as gratitude, compassion, and ele-
vation, have been shown to increase the desire to help others
(Algoe & Haidt, 2009) and to cause altruistic behavior (Schnall,
Roper, & Fessler, 2010). In one study of students entering college,
the quantity of positive emotions was associated with the degree of
connection students felt toward their new roommates, as measured
by Aron’s Inclusion of Other in the Self Scale (Figure 1; Waugh &
Fredrickson, 2006). When generated through the practice of
“loving-kindness” meditation, self-transcendent positive emotions
can also play a role in reducing depression and increasing well-
being (Fredrickson, Cohn, Coffey, Pek, & Finkel, 2008).
Awe, also considered a self-transcendent positive emotion, can
have a particularly intense self-transcendent quality. Awe includes
notable perceptual changes, for example it has been shown to alter
one’s sense of time (Rudd, Vohs, & Aaker, 2012). Awe may result
from the perception of, and need to accommodate, vastness (Kelt-
ner & Haidt, 2003). This vastness can come in a perceptual form,
like viewing the northern lights, or a conceptual form, like one’s
first encounter with a theory that seems to explain almost every-
thing (Yaden et al., 2016a). Participants of one study by Piff,
Dietze, Feinberg, Stancato, and Keltner (2015) were administered
items to assess how awe changes the sense of self with items such
as “I feel small or insignificant,” and “I feel the presence of
something greater than myself.” Piff et al. (2015) summarize
research on awe and the sense of self as such: “These lines of
research on awe, self-categorization, and feelings of smallness
indicate that awe can significantly alter the self-concept, in ways
that reflect a shift in attention toward larger entities and diminish-
ment of the individual self.”
Awe can be induced through proximity to physical vastness. For
example, studies have used stimuli such as groves of tall trees to
elicit experiences of awe in participants (Piff, Dietze, Feinberg,
Stancato, & Keltner, 2015). Virtual reality can also be used to
simulate proximity to vastness (Chirico, Yaden, Riva, & Gagglioli,
2016; Chirico et al., in press). Other induction methods include
reading or writing about experiences of awe (Shiota, Keltner, &
Mossman, 2007, listening to music, or viewing awe-inspiring
images (Prade & Saroglou, 2016). Altruistic behavior and well-
being can result from the experience of awe (Rudd, Vohs, &
Aaker, 2012; Van Cappellen et al., 2013). In one series of studies,
participants who received awe inductions experienced a diminish-
ment of the self and an increase in prosocial concerns and behav-
iors, including generosity on an economic distribution task (Piff et
al., 2015).
Peak Experiences
Peak experiences were named by Maslow (1964) to describe
STEs and other transformative experiences reported during inter-
views with individuals classified as highly functioning, or “self-
actualized.” Peak experiences typically include a feeling of merg-
ing with the universe (which may or may not include God or other
supernatural concepts). Maslow effectively continued the intellec-
tual tradition exemplified by Bucke’s (1901) “cosmic conscious-
ness,” of demonstrating that experiences involving intense feelings
of self-transcendence can be interpreted in secular as well as
religious/spiritual terms. The Peak Scale (Mathes, Zevon, Rotter,
& Joerger, 1982) includes items related to self-transcendence such
as “I have had an experience that made me extremely happy and,
at least temporarily, helped me to appreciate wholeness, unity, and
integration to a greater degree than I usually do.” This self-
transcendent aspect is often primary in descriptions of the peak
experiences of self-actualized individuals: “These same people, the
strongest egos ever described and the most definitely individual,
were also precisely the ones who could be most easily ego-less,
self-transcending . . .” (Maslow, 1968, p. 155).
Peak experiences are typically measured over the course of a
lifetime, as they are rather rare events. Most research, following
the popular conception of peak experiences, has focused on intense
positive emotion (i.e., Panzarella, 1980) but Maslow clearly de-
scribed a dimension of self-transcendent unity in these experiences
(Davis, Lockwood, & Wright, 1991; Wuthnow, 1978). While
positive emotion and unity are both often described as aspects of
peak experiences, the unity component of peak experiences has
been described as more primary than positive affect (Mathes,
Zevon, Rotter, & Joerger, 1982). Besides Maslow’s hypothesized
association of peak experiences with self-actualization, peak ex-
periences have been empirically shown to positively correlate with
well-being (Margoshes & Litt, 1966; Mathes et al., 1982), meaning
in life (Magen, 1996), and empathic behavior (Olson et al., 1998;
Wilson & Spencer, 1990).
Mystical Experiences
Mystical experiences are a particularly intense variety of STE.
Some people report that during mystical experiences the sense of
self can fall away entirely, creating a distinction-less sense of unity
with one’s surroundings (Hood, 2002; James, 1902; Newberg &
d’Aquili, 2000; Stace, 1960), though descriptions of mystical
experiences also appear to vary across cultural contexts (Katz,
1978). James (1902) noted that mystical experiences involved:
transiency (they are brief), ineffability (they are difficult or im-
possible to fully describe in language), passivity (they feel over-
whelming), and have a noetic quality (they feel real; Yaden et al.,
2017). In addition to the dramatic changes to one’s sense of self,
mystical experiences can change other fundamental aspects of
consciousness, such as the senses of time and space (Hood, 1975;
James, 1902; MacLean, Leoutsakos, Johnson, & Griffiths, 2012;
Newberg & d’Aquili, 2008).
Despite their esoteric connotations and supposed ineffability,
mystical experiences are measurable through several methods.
Written accounts of mystical experiences have been analyzed
using qualitative (Belser, in press) and quantitative means (Yaden
et al., 2015). Several single item questions have been used in
large-scale surveys over the years (e.g., Gallup), which focus on
different aspects of mystical experiences (Hood, Hill, & Spilka,
2009). Scales have also been developed to standardize the measure
of mystical experiences. Foremost among these is the Mysticism
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Scale (M-Scale; Hood, 1975), which operationalizes James’s char-
acterization of mystical experiences and includes items such as “I
have had an experience in which I realized the oneness of myself
with all things.” Hood (1975) describes the “Ego Quality” factor of
this scale as referring to “the experience of a loss of sense of self
while consciousness is nonetheless maintained. The loss of self is
commonly experienced as an absorption into something greater
than the mere empirical ego (p. 31).”
More recently, the Mystical Experience Questionnaire (MEQ;
MacLean et al., 2012) was developed to measure single mystical
experiences facilitated by the psychedelic substance psilocybin in
laboratory settings. Both Hood’s and MacLean’s scales rely heav-
ily upon James’s (1902) and Stace’s (1960) phenomenological
elucidation of mystical experience, and the two significantly pos-
itively correlate with one another. Given the strong correlation
between these two measures it appears that experiences occasioned
by psilocybin are comparable with those that occur in other set-
tings whether deliberately facilitated or occurring apparently spon-
taneously (Hood, 2014; Yaden et al., 2016b).
Psychopharmacology research is making breakthrough progress
on inducing mystical experiences in laboratory settings. Research-
ers at Johns Hopkins University (Griffiths, Richards, McCann, &
Jesse, 2006, 2008) replicated Pahnke’s (1966) classic “Good Fri-
day Experiment,” in which students were administered psilocybin
during a Good Friday religious service, with the rationale that such
substances have been used for centuries in many cultures to induce
intense experiences that were typically interpreted through a reli-
gious worldview (Grob & de Reios, 1994; Grob et al., 2011).
Griffiths, Richards, McCann, and Jesse (2006) improved on
Pahnke’s study by utilizing a double-blind, between groups, cross-
over design with an active control. In this study, two thirds of
participants who were administered psilocybin met the criteria for
a mystical experience. Additionally, about two thirds of the par-
ticipants rated their experience among the top five most meaningful
moments of their entire lives (alongside events like childbirth and
marriage; see Figure 2). We suggest that the frequently observed
increase in the sense of meaning in life is an important and
understudied outcome that many STEs may have in common.
Psychological outcomes associated with mystical experiences
(elicited by psilocybin) include increased positive attitudes about
one’s life and self, positive mood, altruistic social effects, positive
behavior change, meaning in life, and life satisfaction (Griffiths et
al., 2008, 2006; Streib & Hood, 2016; Yaden et al., 2016b). These
beneficial effects have been shown to last at least 18 months after
a laboratory session (Griffiths et al., 2008). Indeed, the empirical
evidence supports James’s supposition that mystical experiences
are often lasting, positively transformative moments that rank
among the most meaningful of one’s life (Miller & Bacag, 2001).
A growing body of evidence suggests that STEs can consist of
deeply meaningful and positively valenced moments; however,
research has also identified pathological manifestations of self-loss
worth considering.
Figure 2. About two thirds of participants who received psilocybin reported a mystical experience that ranked
among the top five most meaningful moments in their lives.
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Positive and Pathological Experiences
STEs are often associated with positive outcomes; however,
pathological instances of self-loss have also been studied and
codified into diagnostic categories. This relationship is most ap-
parent under the DSM dissociative cluster in “Depersonaliza-
tion”—the sense of detachment from one’s usual sense of self
(Michal et al., 2011; Simeon et al., 2014). While depersonalization
episodes involve changes to one’s sense of self that can also
involve one’s bodily and self boundaries, such episodes (which are
not rare in the normal population) typically involve a sense of
remoteness and alienation from other people and one’s environ-
ment (Sierra, Baker, Medford, & David, 2005). In other words,
depersonalization episodes may involve the annhilational aspect
but not the relational aspect of STEs, although this supposition has
not yet been tested empirically.
A sense of self-loss is also apparent in some cases of schizo-
phrenia (Ferri et al., 2012) and in certain psychotic states (e.g.,
Atwood, Orange, & Stolorow, 2002). In these cases, the usual
sense of one’s self seems to fade away in the context of distress,
producing maladaptive consequences frequently requiring thera-
peutic care. Notably, in these and other diagnostic categories, the
sense of self is not technically defined. There are, of course,
hundreds of definitions for the self in the psychological literature
(Baumeister, 1991), including important cross-cultural differences
(Mosig, 2006)—yet diagnostic categories involving the self seem
to rest more on self-reports from patients about their “sense of
self” feeling diminished or absent. Further conceptual and empir-
ical work is warranted regarding what is meant by “self” in such
While these instances of psychopathology seem to also involve
the subjective sense of self-loss, it is as of yet unclear how they
relate to other, more positive experiences of self-loss, such as the
varieties of STE described previously. It has been shown, however,
that individuals who report mystical experiences are no more
likely to have tendencies toward psychoticism or neuroticism than
the normal population (Caird, 1987). Self-loss should thus be
considered an alteration of consciousness with potentially patho-
logical or positive consequences. As pathological instances have
received much more attention, our focus here is on positive in-
Pathological and positive forms of STE can also overlap, blur-
ring the lines between these usually too-simple categories (Lukoff,
Lu, & Turner, 1992; see Figure 3). STEs can, for example, play a
part in healing or resolving periods of suffering (Pargament, Koe-
nig, Tarakeshwar, & Hahn, 2004). Constructs such as posttrau-
matic growth (PTG) and postecstatic growth (PEG) make clear
that psychological growth is possible after extremely positive
(Roepke, 2013) or extremely negative experiences (Roepke, 2014;
Tedeschi & Calhoun, 1996, 2004)—and the more intense forms of
STEs represent visceral subjective events that could potentially fall
into either category. Clear classification of intense STEs is difficult
in cases that contain both anxiety-provoking and growth-
promoting content, leaving some experiences with qualified pos-
itive outcomes—as in cases in which the experience was difficult,
yet ultimately positive.
Additionally, the reduced self-salience during STEs has led to a
misconception that they may undermine one’s sense of agency
(Deikman, 1977, p, 214). This view, however, generally rests on a
misunderstanding of agency. Agency does not consist of a constant
focus on and reification of the self, but rather is defined by the
belief in one’s capacity for action (Bandura, 1989). This nuance
supports the perspective that agency is theoretically orthogonal to
the changes to one’s sense of self during STEs. Although, some
researchers have claimed that the relationship between STEs and
agency is better understood as one of reciprocal reinforcement
insofar as STEs can enhance agentic behavior and agency may
enhance the capacity for STEs—a pattern that might be called a
virtuous cycle (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991; Haimerl & Valentine,
2001; Leary & Guadagno, 2011).
An underdeveloped area of research is how one’s belief-based
interpretation of their STE may influence its effects. Some scholars
have suggested that religious or spiritual interpretations may make
such experiences more profound or easier to integrate into one’s
life (e.g., Zaehner, 1961), while others downplay any interpreta-
tions as a mere linguistic gloss, mostly lacking in causal efficacy
(e.g., Forman, 1998). The precise roles that interpretation, beliefs,
and cultures play in moderating outcomes of STEs are unknown.
It is clear, however, that the impact of the interpretation or mean-
ing one ascribes to their experience is an important area for further
empirical research and essential for a robust understanding of
STEs and related intense subjective experiences.
The DSM obliquely acknowledges another potential pathologi-
cal manifestation of STEs through a diagnostic code for “religious
and spiritual problems” (diagnostic code V62.89; Lukoff, Lu, &
Turner, 1992). However, this code focuses more on conversions or
questioning related to one’s belief system, so would only apply in
cases where STEs alter one’s belief system, resulting in maladap-
tive behavior.
In general, the positive psychological potential of STEs apparent
in the self-transcendent constructs reviewed in the previous sec-
tion, has yet to be adequately empirically elaborated or explained.
Positive psychology, the study of well-being (Gable & Haidt,
2005; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000), which includes inves-
tigating salutogenic mental states, may offer a useful lens through
which to explore and empirically inquire into the relationship
between aspects of STEs, well-being, and other aspects of mental
Figure 3. Positive and pathological forms of STE are generally distinct,
yet they can also overlap (Lukoff, Lu, & Turner, 1992).
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health. The next section discusses candidate mechanisms through
which some effects of STEs may be mediated.
Dimensions of Unity
Research in psychology and affective neuroscience can help
explain the triggers, neurobiological underpinnings, and outcomes
of STEs. As described here, STEs contain two subcomponents: (a)
reduced self-salience—fading bodily and social boundaries and
(the “annihilational component”); and (b) connection to other
people and things in the environment beyond the self (the “rela-
tional component”). Logically, these two components seem re-
lated, as when a raindrop falls into the ocean it simultaneously
ceases to be a single drop when it becomes part of the ocean.
However, it may be possible that experiences can occur with more
of one aspect than another, or perhaps with only one aspect—this
is, we suggest, an important area for future empirical study. Fur-
ther, the annhilational and relational components likely convey
psychological benefits of STEs through different processes and
underlying neurobiological systems. Specifically, we suggest that
the annhilational component may reduce negative aspects of ex-
cessive self-focus while the relational component likely involves
processes related to perceived social connection.
The Annhilational Component
The annhilational component describes the subjective experi-
ence of self-loss. As noted previously, “the self” is a classically
difficult to define concept in psychology (Baumeister, 1991).
Phenomenologically speaking, however, many people report that
their “sense of self” and/or self-boundaries temporarily disappear
during their STEs. The term hypoegoic state (Leary & Guadagno,
2011) captures well the reduced self-salience of the annhilational
component of STEs, as hypoegoic states are defined by a relative
lack of self-awareness, self-differentiation, and self-centered mo-
tives. This emphasis on self-loss is motivated by a view that the
self is often a source of anxiety, as articulated in The Curse of the
Self (Leary, 2004).
Substantial clinical research supports the view that excessive
self-focus is associated with a number of negative outcomes. This
is apparent in the self-centered ruminations of depression (Ingram,
1990; Lemogne et al., 2010; Lyubomirsky & Nolen-Hoeksema,
1995; Pyszczynski & Greenberg, 1987; Watkins & Teasdale,
2001), the hyper self-awareness of anxiety (Epel et al., 2009;
Mellings & Alden, 2000; Woody, Chambless, & Glass, 1997), and
the narrow self-focus of negative emotions (Fredrickson, 2001).
Excessive self-focus is also present in the so-called “self-conscious
emotions” of shame and guilt (Lewis, 2000) as well as the bodily
boundary reinforcing functions of disgust (Rozin, Nemeroff,
Horowitz, Gordon, & Voet, 1995). Thus, STEs may confer some
of their benefits by reducing excessive self-focus.
Neuroimaging research is converging on certain brain regions
and network interactions that may mediate the subjective sense of
self-loss. For example, decreased metabolic activity in the superior
parietal lobe was observed in advanced meditators and nuns who
reported intense feelings of unity while being scanned using single
photon emission computed tomography (SPECT; Newberg et al.,
2001; see Figure 4). Evidence from both meditation and psyche-
delic research suggest that a GABA-mediated inhibition of tha-
lamic regions could result in a deafferentation (reduction of neural
flow) to these parietal regions, which are associated with spatial
body awareness (Newberg et al., 2001; Newberg & Iversen, 2003).
Inhibition to such parietal regions could reduce the brain’s capac-
ity to represent bodily boundaries, as these regions are typically
associated with modeling one’s egocentric position in space and
distinctions between self and nonself (Farrer & Frith, 2002).
Other imaging studies on subjects reporting mystical-type ex-
periences have likewise found decreases in (superior and inferior)
parietal functioning (Azari et al., 2001; Beauregard & Paquette,
2006; Johnstone et al., 2012). So-called “out of body experiences”
have been shown to be associated with alterations in the nearby
temporo-parietal junction (TPJ; Blanke & Arzy, 2005). Addition-
ally, lesions in the (inferior) parietal regions and right angular
gyrus increase the propensity for self-transcendent experience
(Urgesi, Aglioti, Skrap, & Fabbro, 2010; see Figure 5). The role of
the parietal lobe in representing self-other boundaries and egocen-
tric spatial awareness, as well as the findings implicating this
region reviewed above, suggest this region is critically involved in
In general, evidence from clinical psychology demonstrates
certain negative aspects of excessive self-focus—and neuroscience
research suggests that STEs are at least partly mediated by inhib-
iting the superior and inferior parietal cortices, regions responsible
for modeling bodily and self boundaries. STEs may, then, confer
some of their benefits by providing a temporary reprieve from the
sense of one’s self. This line of reasoning emphasizes how most
fears and anxieties come from the prospect of damage to one’s
physical or social self. Therefore, when the self temporarily dis-
appears, so too may some of these fears and anxieties.
The Relational Component
The relational component of STEs describes the subjective
sense of connectedness with other people and objects in one’s
environment. As previously mentioned, self/other overlap de-
scribes states of interpersonal connection (Aron & Aron, 2000) and
is commonly measured by the Inclusion of Other in Self Scale
(IOS; Aron, Aron, & Smollan, 1992; see Figure 1). This instru-
ment presents respondents with two circles that overlap to varying
degrees (the first labeled “self” and the second labeled “other”).
Figure 4. SPECT brain scans of advanced meditation practitioners at
baseline and while meditating. During peak feelings of unity while medi-
tating, decreased activation was observed in parietal regions such as the
posterior superior parietal lobe (Newberg et al., 2001). See the online
article for the color version of this figure.
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Participants are then asked to indicate how connected they feel to
other people. This construct is informed by “self-expansion the-
ory” (Aron & Aron, 2000), which postulates that one’s sense of
self can be expanded to include, or feel a sense of unity with, other
people and one’s environment. While it is usually used in a more
cognitive, long-term sense of expanding one’s sense of identity to
include close others into one’s sense of self, in STEs a similar
process may occur in a brief, viscerally subjective manner.
Self/other overlap indicates a perception of social connection
with other individuals or other groups. On the individual level,
Aron, Aron, Tudor, and Nelson (1991) has shown that when
subjects are asked to anonymously distribute money, they do so
about equally between themselves and others with high self/other
overlap, but more selfishly with those with less self/other overlap.
The degree of self/other overlap reported also predicts closeness
and intimacy in romantic relationships (Aron & Fraley, 1999).
Inclusion of others into the self can also extend to groups of people
(Smith, Coats, & Walling, 1999; Tropp & Wright, 2001), with
implications for turning other individuals from out-group to in-
group members. This group-level self/other overlap and has been
put forth as a key factor in reducing racial prejudice (Davies,
Tropp, Aron, Pettigrew, & Wright, 2011). This sense of connect-
edness to a group comports well with the deep sense of connect-
edness with others described during STEs.
Substantial clinical research supports the view that isolation and
social exclusion—the complete lack of self/other overlap—is as-
sociated with negative outcomes such as anxiety, depression, and
suicide (Baumeister & Tice, 1990; Cacioppo et al., 2006). Per-
ceived social connection, on the other hand, has been proposed as
a basic human drive and linked with a number of beneficial mental
and physical health outcomes (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Gable,
Reis, Impett, & Asher, 2004; Seppala, Rossomando, & Doty,
2013). Social connectedness figures prominently in several theo-
ries of well-being, including “relatedness” in Ryff’s theory of
well-being (Ryff & Keyes, 1995) and “positive relationshipsin
well-being theory (Seligman, 2011). Processes related to perceived
social inclusion and connection through self/other overlap may
represent primary mechanisms through which the psychological
benefits of STEs are conferred.
Neuroscience and psychophysiology research are converging on
brain regions and physiological processes related to self/other
overlap and perceived social connection. For example, the neuro-
peptides oxytocin (OXT) and arginine vasopressin (AVP) have
been associated with perceived social connection, though the mag-
nitude of this effect and how wide the scope of this social con-
nection extends are the subject of ongoing debate (Heinrichs, von
Dawans, & Domes, 2009). Some researchers suggest these neuro-
peptides may underlie STEs due to their proliferation in brain
Figure 5. Brain lesions from removing cancerous tumors in patients resulted in increased self-transcendence
(as measured by the TCI) when parietal (but not anterior) regions were affected (ST self-transcendence; Urgesi
et al., 2010). See the online article for the color version of this figure.
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regions associated with STEs (Grigorenko, Warren, Lerner, &
Phelps, 2011; Landgraf & Neumann, 2004). Silvers and Haidt
(2008) found that lactating women who watched a morally elevat-
ing video were more likely to secrete breast milk (a physiological
process associated with oxytocin release) and to nurse their infants
than were lactating women in the control group (who watched a
comedy video).
Furthermore, oxytocin release may be tied to vagal tone (Kok &
Fredrickson, 2010), which has been implicated in a wide range of
outcomes related to perceived social connection (Carter et al.,
2008; Kemp et al., 2012). The vagus nerve is activated during
self-transcendent positive emotions like awe, compassion, grati-
tude, and love, suggesting a potential mechanism underlying STEs
(Kok et al., 2013; Kok & Fredrickson, 2010; Porges, 2007; Thayer
et al., 2012). Keltner (2009) observes that those with healthy vagal
tone are more other-focused, and “showed an increased propensity
for transformative experiences of the sacred” (p. 242).
Neurologically, STEs may also activate social–cognitive pro-
cesses related to theory of mind, mentalization, and mind percep-
tion. These cognitive processes are involved in, roughly speaking,
perceiving (mind perception), prioritizing (mentalization), and rep-
resenting (theory of mind) the mental states of other people.
Parietal regions associated with STEs, like the inferior parietal
lobe and tempero-parietal junction, have been closely connected to
theory of mind and mentalization (Decety & Chaminade, 2003;
Frith & Frith, 2012). Further, brain regions that represent the self
and brain regions that represent other people are largely shared,
leading some (i.e., Zaki & Ochsner, 2011) to theorize that self/
other overlap could occur through alterations to these shared
underlying brain networks. While speculative, STEs may gain
some of their prosocial outcomes through activation in these
regions related to social cognition. Theoretical work linking mind
perception, theory of mind, and mentalization to altruistic behavior
(e.g., Batson et al., 2003; de Waal, 2008) is supported by recent
cognitive neuroscience research (Amodio & Frith, 2006; Van
Overwalle & Baetens, 2009). For example, activation of brain
regions associated with mentalization predicts donation behaviors
(Waytz, Zaki, & Mitchell, 2012) and other forms of costly pro-
social behavior (Telzer, Masten, Berkman, Lieberman, & Fuligni,
2011). Furthermore, mentalization is associated with processes
related to social connection such as liking other people and seeing
other people as more similar to one’s self (Kozak, Marsh, &
Wegner, 2006; Zaki, & Ochsner, 2012). The connective compo-
nent of STEs may be mediated by some of these processes.
In general, some of the benefits of STEs may derive from
increased perceived social connection. This may occur through
two major mechanisms. First, increased self/other overlap accom-
panied by neuropeptides like oxytocin and vasopressin as well as
alterations to parasympathetic activity and vagal tone. Second,
social–cognitive processes related to mind perception, theory of
mind, and mentalization may be increased. These candidate pro-
cesses could potentially lead to more perceived similarity to and
connection with other people, thus increasing well-being and
Social and Spatial Unity
The relational component of STEs may extend beyond interper-
sonal domains to include one’s spatial environment. The theory of
“allo-inclusive identity” (Leary, Tipsord, & Tate, 2008) suggests
that people can experience self/other overlap with their spatial
environment, in some cases including all of existence. Supporting
this view, a linguistic analysis study investigating written descrip-
tions of mystical experiences found that participants who scored
highest on a mystical experience measure used more “inclusive”
language, with words indicating social connection (we, both, to-
gether) and spatial connection (close, all, everything; Yaden et al.,
2015). Additionally, neuroimaging studies have found that tempo-
ral, spatial, and social distance may be mediated by very similar
brain processes (Parkinson, Liu, & Wheatley, 2014). In other
words, during STEs, people may feel deeply connected to other
people (their social environment) as well as objects around them
(their spatial environment).
This feeling of unity may result in attributing social qualities to
one’s spatial environment - a social/spatial conflation. The theory
of “existential theory of mind” (Bering, 2002) describes the ten-
dency for people to perceive mind and intention in—or mental-
ize—the world at large. Notably, this kind of perception of “mind-
at-large” has been indirectly observed during a number of STEs.
For example, mindfulness practitioners reported an increase in
spiritual beliefs after mindfulness meditation training (Shapiro,
Schwartz, & Bonner, 1998). Participants who experienced self-
transcendent positive emotions were more likely to endorse items
about the essential benevolence of the universe (Saroglou, Buxant,
& Tilquin, 2008; Van Cappellen & Rimé, 2014; Van Cappellen &
Saroglou, 2012). Likewise, awe has been shown to increase agency
detection in ambiguous stimuli (Valdesolo & Graham, 2014). Peak
experiences are theoretically associated with beliefs about the
goodness of the world (Maslow, 1968) and mystical experiences
are correlated with higher levels spirituality (Yaden et al., 2017).
Addressing this general finding, Hood (1994) writes “The fact that
both self and nonpersonal objects can be united leads to the claim
of an inner subjectivity to all, itself extensively discussed in the
conceptual literature on mysticism” (p. 289).
Blurring the lines between the social and the spatial, or perceiv-
ing the social in the spatial, may be another way to increase
perceived social connection—and thus increase well-being. While
the tendency to overperceive mind in one’s environment in this
way is sometimes associated with schizotypy (Gray, Jenkins, He-
berlein, & Wegner, 2011), perceiving social connection in one’s
spatial environment may nonetheless have underexplored positive
outcomes. For example, William James observed that one outcome
from mystical experiences can be the feeling of being at home in
the universe (as cited in Sagan & Druyan, 2011, p. 333). Similarly,
Einstein remarked that one of the most important questions that
one can ask is whether the universe is a “friendly place” (Goldman,
2002). STEs may provide both a temporary, yet emphatic “yes!” in
answer to Einstein’s question and turn, for a while, a threatening
universe into a warmer and more inviting home.
Evolutionary Considerations
The selflessness, connectedness, and prosocial feelings that
STEs often promote raise the question of whether the human
capacity for experiences of self-transcendence is an adaptation
shaped by natural selection, or whether it is a byproduct or “span-
drel” that emerged as evolution was shaping human nature in other
ways. And if it is an adaptation, is it an adaptation that helps
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individuals compete with other individuals, or an adaptation that
helps groups compete with other groups?
On the individual level, STEs would seem, on their face, to
make individuals weaker and more vulnerable. One could imagine
a number of scenarios in which one is left defenseless and inca-
pacitated or open to manipulation by an excess of fellow feeling.
This view is compatible with the perspective that religion and
spirituality are “memes,” or ideas that prey like parasites on
aspects of human psychology (Barrett, 2000; Boyer, 2003; Guth-
rie, 1993). According to this perspective, STEs are merely “sen-
sory pageantry,” or unusual sensory experiences that happen to
reinforce religious and spiritual beliefs by making their presenta-
tion more memorable (Barrett, 2000). This line of reasoning would
lead to the conclusion that STEs are a spandrel—a byproduct of
another adaptation which conferred no advantage of its own.
The main survival advantage that STEs may have conferred on
individuals, as suggested by the existing literature, is that they may
have helped individuals to change their relationships, or learn
about potential relational partners, in ways that optimized an
individual’s social investments and alliances (Henrich & Gil-
White, 2001). For example, the capacity to feel the self-
transcendent emotion of elevation might lead one to be more
trusting toward people who are indeed trustworthy. Additionally,
the capacity to feel gratitude does seem to motivate people to act
in ways that strengthen beneficial relationships (Algoe, Haidt, &
Gable, 2008). However, we grant that this is highly speculative,
and we doubt that STEs evolved by the ordinary sort of evolution-
ary processes often said to have shaped other emotions that con-
ferred survival advantages on individuals (for a review, see: Kelt-
ner, Haidt, & Shiota, 2006).
The benefits to groups are easier to trace: STEs often foster trust
and group cohesiveness. In his study of Aborigines, Durkheim
(2013) concluded that experiences like STEs form an important
core of tribal life. Anthropologist Fiske (1992) suggests that rituals
that produce self-transcendent experiences of commonality may
have helped to facilitate communal sharing, a fundamental form of
social life. Multilevel selection theory acknowledges the highly
social, group-ish qualities of human beings by positing that selec-
tion occurs at the individual (within-group) and group (between-
groups) levels (Wilson & Wilson, 2007).
Extending this literature explicitly to STEs, Haidt (2012) pro-
posed “The Hive Hypothesis.” According to this view (which
builds on Wilson, 2002), STEs may have emerged originally as
spandrels or neurological accidents, but once present, they con-
ferred an advantage on groups that developed cultural innovations
that harnessed them, such as forms of group ritual and religious
worship that increased trust and the ability to engage in coordi-
nated action within a group or tribe. That is, the temporary “all for
one, one for all” subjective quality of STEs may have helped foster
more cohesive groups, which outcompeted less cohesive groups.
Several authors have argued that religions evolved (culturally) and
spread in part because they conferred such advantages on groups
(Wilson, 2002; Wright, 2010). On this view, the human capacity
for STEs may have been shaped by a process of multilevel selec-
tion, including some degree of group level selection. However,
whether the group-level process (if it occurred at all) involved
exclusively cultural group selection (Atran & Henrich, 2010) or
cultural group selection that had some effect on genes as well
(Haidt, 2012) cannot be known at present.
Future Directions
Applications involving STEs are increasing at a rate faster than
our understanding of their underlying mechanisms. Mindfulness,
for example, is one of the fastest growing interventions in health
care and psychotherapy (Vago & Silbersweig, 2012); yet, the
extent to which intense or even pathological forms of self-loss
occur in contemporary settings of mindfulness practice remains
unclear. Self-transcendent positive emotions, flow, and awe are
promoted as avenues to increased well-being (Fredrickson, 2009;
Keltner, 2009; Seligman, 2011). Intense, mystical experiences can
now be induced in laboratory settings through psychopharmaco-
logical interventions (Griffiths et al., 2006, 2008). STEs can also
be induced through various meditation and prayer practices (New-
berg et al., 2001), retreats (Hood, 1975), and perhaps eventually,
through noninvasive brain stimulation (Yaden, Iwry, & Newberg,
2016). Further research is necessary in order to establish efficacy,
contraindications, and implications of STEs for therapeutic pur-
STEs, like many psychological constructs, are likely nonmono-
tonic (Grant & Schwartz, 2011). In other words, as with most
psychological constructs, there can be too much of a good thing.
Practical wisdom (Schwartz & Sharpe, 2010) is required to sensi-
bly study or facilitate STEs, especially in light of failings of
common sense and professional ethics in decades past, specifically
related to early psychedelic research (Baumeister & Placidi, 1983).
However, some have argued that the relative lack of settings for
the facilitation of STEs in contemporary secular society is histor-
ically anomalous (Ehrenreich, 2006; Grob & de Reios, 1994;
Haidt, 2006). This view, combined with the promising outcomes
outlined through this review, provide some justification for testing
the application of STEs in a sensible and evidence-based manner.
Finally, STEs represent instances in which basic aspects of
consciousness are profoundly affected. The senses of time, space,
mind perception, and self can all be influenced during STEs.
Perhaps we can understand more about the presence of these
fundamental aspects of consciousness by studying instances of
their alteration or absence.
STEs are more than mere psychological anomalies; they are
often reported to be profoundly positive. On the surface, there is
little reason to suspect that losing one’s sense of self would be
anything other than negative—terrifying even. Indeed, there is
some variability in the emotional valence and outcomes associated
with these experiences. Pathological manifestations of STEs exist
and are codified in the DSM, such as depersonalization disorder
and psychotherapeutic care is sometimes required to integrate
particularly intense STEs. However, a qualified consensus has
emerged that positive instances of STEs are common and worthy
of further investigation.
More intense STEs, like peak or mystical experiences, appear
capable of generating positive effects on well-being and altruistic
behavior that can last for many months (e.g., Griffiths et al., 2008).
Compared with, to cite just one example of small and short-lived
intervention effects, the generally poor record of moral education
courses lasting a semester in causing measurable change (e.g.,
Waples, Alison, Murphy, Connelly, & Mumford, 2009), these
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reported long-lasting changes are striking, and potentially impor-
In closing, we suggest that an element of self-transcendent
experience can be found in a number of common psychological
constructs and that while pathological manifestations of this kind
of experience exist, STEs appear also to be potent sources of well-
being and prosocial behavior. Experiences of self-transcendence,
then, do seem to provide some of life’s most positive and meaningful
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Received December 4, 2016
Revision received February 9, 2017
Accepted February 19, 2017
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... We proposed that awe enhances inspiration via self-transcendence. Selftranscendence refers to the mental state characterized by reduced self-salience and intensified connectedness with the surrounding context (Chirico & Yaden, 2018;Reed, 1991;Yaden et al., 2017). Maslow (1971) indicated that self-transcendence allows individuals to relate selfconsciousness to themselves, to significant others, to human beings in general, to other species, to nature, and to the cosmos. ...
... Awe has also been theorized as being a self-transcendent emotion (Chirico & Yaden, 2018;Stellar et al., 2017;Yaden et al., 2017). Awe leads people to transcend their daily mundanities (Shiota et al., 2007) and allows people to integrate themselves into larger groups . ...
... In addition, virtues require self-awareness, perspective taking, as well as an awareness of the complexity of a situation, and the ability to be aware of or anticipate long term consequences of one's actions. In addition, emotion regulation that allows for awareness, reflection, and judgment, as well as upregulating emotions, provide motivating effects found in awe, gratitude, and elevation (Yaden et al., 2017) are both necessary for moral action. ...
In order to offer a theological perspective of virtue development, we treat virtues as habitus, moral habits that are cultivated in local communities with transcendent belief narratives. Virtues are dependent on traditions to inform their purpose or telos and to give definition to the good life. Although psychology offers a conceptualization of virtues focused on the self-system—including characteristic adaptations and transcendent narrative identity—psychology is less clear on how virtues are shaped and informed by the beliefs and practices of their contextualized communities. An exploration of specific features of theological systems offers insight into virtue-enriching ecologies. Informed by Relational Developmental Systems metatheory, we propose a Virtues System framework and offer a researchable understanding of the embodied self-system embedded in multilevel contextual systems, with these systems being dynamically linked by meaning-making. We argue that meaning-making allows virtues to be enacted with the agility necessary to exhibit coherent moral agency across settings. Virtue Systems provide an integrative framework through which theology challenges psychology to consider a more holistic view of virtue development, to recognize religious and spiritual diversity, and to consider the importance of telos for informing sets of virtues. The Virtue Systems framework highlights how theological systems can be catalysts or obstructions to human thriving and flourishing societies, and offers an agenda for research that furthers the cultivation of virtue for the public good.
... Last but importantly, we focused on awe in the current research. It is worth examining whether other self-transcendent experiences, such as mindfulness, ow, and peak experiences 12 , have similar effects on feeling alone and positive attitudes toward solitude. Along with addressing these limitations, future research could also extend these ndings to people of other ages and cultures. ...
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Research in psychological science has predominantly focused on the importance of social interaction to health and well-being, neglecting how solitude relates to optimal functioning. Although solitude is sometimes perceived as an aversive state associated with loneliness and ostracism, solitude can also serve as a time for self-reflection and spiritual awakening. The aim of the current set of studies was to examine if the experience of awe might serve as an important state influencing people’s attitudes toward solitude. We propose that experiencing awe makes people feel alone but not lonely—dispelling the myth that solitude incurs loneliness—and, importantly that awe leads to positive attitudes toward solitude. Seven studies, using complementary designs (big data analytics, experiments, experience sampling, and intervention), tested these hypotheses. We found that awe changes people’s preference for solitude via self-transcendence. Furthermore, we probed the downstream consequences of this effect, showing that a brief awe intervention enhanced spiritual well-being and peace of mind by augmenting positive attitudes toward solitude.
... In the case of intense experiences, which can be perceived in the modes of peak experience (Maslow, 1962(Maslow, , 1994, flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975a(Csikszentmihalyi, , 1975b, or also in the less frequent descriptions of nadir experience (Thorne, 1963), vivid experience (Margoshes & Litt, 1966), or peak performance (Boniface, 2000;Privette, 1983), but also the more sustained attunement of plateau experience (Gruel, 2015;Maslow, 1994), or other self-transcending experiences (Yaden et al., 2017), we emphasise in particular their transformative character. Our results indicate that some participants discovered or glimpsed new life horizons. ...
... From church services to rock concerts, music has been linked to feelings of selftranscendence, including awe and oneness with others (Eurich, 2003;Van Cappellen, 2017;Yaden et al., 2017). Raney et al.'s national survey (2018) found that, when asked when they last experienced a media situation that elicited self-transcendent emotions, 90.5% of respondents reported that they felt moved when listening to music. ...
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This narrative review aims to contribute to the scientific literature on awe by reviewing seven perspectives on the evolutionary function of awe. Each is presented with accompanying empirical evidence and suggestions for research investigating unanswered questions. Based on the existing perspectives, this review proposes an integrated evolutionary model of awe, postulating the evolutionary selection of awe through three adaptive domains: (1) social cooperation, (2) reflective processing, and (3) signaling suitability as a potential mate.
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The psychological mechanisms of action involved in psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy are not yet well understood. Despite a resurgence of quantitative research regarding psilocybin, the current study is the first qualitative study of participant experiences in psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy. Semistructured interviews were carried out with 13 adult participants aged 22 to 69 years (M = 50 years) with clinically elevated anxiety associated with a cancer diagnosis. Participants received a moderate dose of psilocybin and adjunctive psychotherapy with an emphasis on the process of meaning-making. Verbatim transcribed interviews were analyzed by a five-member research team using interpretative phenomenological analysis. General themes found in all or nearly all transcripts included relational embeddedness, emotional range, the role of music as conveyor of experience, meaningful visual phenomena, wisdom lessons, revised life priorities, and a desire to repeat the psilocybin experience. Typical themes found in the majority of transcripts included the following: exalted feelings of joy, bliss, and love; embodiment; ineffability; alterations to identity; a movement from feelings of separateness to interconnectedness; experiences of transient psychological distress; the appearance of loved ones as guiding spirits; and sharing the experience with loved ones posttreatment. Variant themes found in a minority of participant transcripts include lasting changes to sense of identity, synesthesia experiences, catharsis of powerful emotion, improved relationships after treatment, surrender or “letting go,” forgiveness, and a continued struggle to integrate experience. The findings support the conclusion that psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy may provide an effective treatment for psychological distress in cancer patients. Implications for theory and treatment are discussed.
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Awe, a complex emotion composed by the appraisal components of vastness and need for accommodation, is a profound and often meaningful experience. Despite its importance, psychologists have only recently begun empirical study of awe. At the experimental level, a main issue concerns how to elicit high intensity awe experiences in the lab. To address this issue, Virtual Reality (VR) has been proposed as a potential solution. Here, we considered the highest realistic form of VR: immersive videos. 42 participants watched at immersive and normal 2D videos displaying an awe or a neutral content. After the experience, they rated their level of awe and sense of presence. Participants’ psychophysiological responses (BVP, SC, sEMG) were recorded during the whole video exposure. We hypothesized that the immersive video condition would increase the intensity of awe experienced compared to 2D screen videos. Results indicated that immersive videos significantly enhanced the self-reported intensity of awe as well as the sense of presence. Immersive videos displaying an awe content also led to higher parasympathetic activation. These findings indicate the advantages of using VR in the experimental study of awe, with methodological implications for the study of other emotions.
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This chapter will review religion and spirituality from the perspective of neuroscience. First, it will characterize religion and spirituality and describe how they can be understood through a neuroscientific approach. Next, it will review some of the basics of neuroscience, including methods of study and chemicals of particular importance to the nervous system. Lastly, it will review major findings in this area, highlighting those that might lead to breakthroughs in the near future. The goal of this chapter is to provide the reader with an understanding of why neuroscience matters for the scientific study of religion and spirituality.
Aristotle proposed that to achieve happiness and success, people should cultivate virtues at mean or intermediate levels between deficiencies and excesses. In stark contrast to this assertion that virtues have costs at high levels, a wealth of psychological research has focused on demonstrating the well-being and performance benefits of positive traits, states, and experiences. This focus has obscured the prevalence and importance of nonmonotonic inverted-U-shaped effects, whereby positive phenomena reach inflection points at which their effects turn negative. We trace the evidence for nonmonotonic effects in psychology and provide recommendations for conceptual and empirical progress. We conclude that for psychology in general and positive psychology in particular, Aristotle’s idea of the mean may serve as a useful guide for developing both a descriptive and a prescriptive account of happiness and success.
Emotions in Sport is the first comprehensive treatment of how individual and team emotions affect athletic performance. Edited by renowned Olympic advisor, researcher, and teacher Yuri Hanin, the book provides you with -a comprehensive understanding of emotional patterns such as anxiety, anger, and joy, as well as their impact on individual and team performance; -solid methods for determining the optimal emotional state of individual athletes; -innovative strategies for avoiding overtraining, burnout, and fatigue, while helping enhance performance; -an overview of injury management and the positive emotional states that can actually accelerate the healing process; and -a long-overdue look at exercise, emotions, and mental health. Created and developed by Dr. Hanin during 30 years as a sport psychologist, the Individual Zones of Optimal Functioning (IZOF) model is the key conceptual framework in Emotions in Sport. The model can help you describe, predict, and explain the dynamics of emotion/performance for individual athletes and provides you with strategies for creating optimal emotional states and enhancing athletic performance. Appendixes to the volume include a reproducible IZOF model form and step-by-step data collection instructions for your use. Emotions in Sport incorporates the insights, wisdom, and experience of authorities worldwide to give you a new perspective on this important subject and its impact on athletes.
Extrapolating from B. L. Fredrickson's (1998, 2001) broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions, the authors hypothesized that positive emotions are active ingredients within trait resilience. U.S. college students (18 men and 28 women) were tested in early 2001 and again in the weeks following the September 11th terrorist attacks. Mediational analyses showed that positive emotions experienced in the wake of the attacks - gratitude, interest, love, and so forth - fully accounted for the relations between (a) precrisis resilience and later development of depressive symptoms and (b) precrisis resilience and postcrisis growth in psychological resources. Findings suggest that positive emotions in the aftermath of crises buffer resilient people against depression and fuel thriving, consistent with the broaden-and-build theory. Discussion touches on implications for coping.
Reactions to claims of near-death experiences (NDE) range from the popular view that this must be evidence for life after death, to outright rejection of the experiences as, at best, drug induced hallucinations or, at worse, pure invention. Twenty years, and much research, later, it is clear that neither extreme is correct.