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Research delves into mental states of self-transcendent experiences

May. 25, 2017, 9:57 AM

Researchers have, for the first time, described the similarity of different self-transcendent experiences — mental states that range from being in love to spiritual enlightenment — along a common continuum and spectrum of intensity.

David Vago, Ph.D.

In an article published recently in the Review of General Psychology, David Vago, Ph.D., director of research at the Osher Center for Integrative Health at Vanderbilt, and colleagues explore the mechanisms behind self-transcendent experiences and their positive effect on wellbeing.

Vago and the other authors also make the point that not enough research has focused on the well-being effects from these states when people experience self-loss and focus less on themselves and, instead, feel a sense of unity.

“We created a model by which one can understand what the self-transcendent experience is like so we can better study it,” Vago said. “The two components are this sense of unity and this feeling of oneness. We refer to this as the dissolution of boundaries between the self and others, decreased self salience and increased connectedness.”

The mental states on this continuum are mindfulness, flow (engagement in an interesting and challenging task), positive emotions (love, awe), peak experiences (rare events that bring about intense emotions) and mystical experiences (spiritual enlightenment, afterlife or near-death experiences.)

“Although the constructs of self transcendence and spirituality are not often the focus of rigorous scientific investigation, people often talk about such experiences and science should not be afraid to investigate it,” Vago said.

The article notes that scientific and psychological literature has focused more on the psychopathological disorders associated with loss of self than its positive effects. They contend that self-loss should “be considered an alteration of consciousness with potentially pathological or positive consequences.”

The researchers are working to better understand how these life experiences increase well-being and what neural mechanisms make the positive reactions possible.

“Applications involving self-transcendent experiences are increasing at a rate faster than our understanding of their underlying mechanisms,” the article states. “Mindfulness, for example, is one of the fastest growing interventions in health care and psychotherapy. Yet, the extent to which intense or even pathological forms of self-loss occur in contemporary settings of mindfulness practice remain unclear.”

Vago, a neuroscientist, wrote the article with four other experts: Jonathan Haidt, Ph.D., a professor of social psychology at New York University; Ralph Hood Jr., Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Tennessee Chattanooga who specializes in the psychology of religion; Andrew Newberg, M.D., a radiologist who has studied experiences of unity using neuroimaging technology; and David Bryce Yaden, who studies positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

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