Self-transcendent Experiences Linked With Mental Health

June 8, 2017

Many people report deep feelings of connection and self-loss while listening to music, meditating or during intense experiences of awe, an experience captured by the phrase, “I felt at one with all things” or “I was lost in the music.”

In psychology, feelings of oneness and self-loss are often described as symptoms of psychopathology, but might also they be associated with well-being? An interdisciplinary team of psychologists and neuroscientists thinks so. The team was put together by David Yaden, a research fellow and Ph.D. student in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.

In a recent article, “The Varieties of Self-transcendent Experience,” published in the American Psychology Association journal Review of General Psychology, the team identified a number of mental states that involve a sense of unity and self-loss which tend to be associated with positive mental states and outcomes, like well-being. These mental states are mindfulness, flow, some positive emotions such as “love” and “awe,” and even “peak” and “mystical” experiences.

While each of these mental states are the subject of on-going psychology and neuroscience research, the underlying similarity between them had not been previously described.

“In some sense we’ve been studying this phenomenon all along, it’s just been a little bit hidden,” Yaden said. “We found this self-transcendent aspect in these otherwise very different constructs.”

By identifying a common element in these mental states and positioning them along a common continuum, the researchers hope to learn more about how these experiences are capable of increasing well-being and what neural mechanisms make them possible.

The team of psychologists and neuroscientists is notable for their areas of research. Yaden, a doctoral candidate in Penn’s Positive Psychology Center studies the connection between certain mental states and well-being. Jonathan Haidt is a professor of social psychology at New York University. He has given a TED talk on the topic of self-transcendence. Andrew Newberg is a radiologist and focuses on experiences of unity using neuroimaging technology. David Vago is the director of research at Vanderbilt University’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine and studies mindfulness meditation. Ralph Hood is a professor at the University of Tennessee and an expert in “mystical” experiences.

“It was inspiring to have so much expertise on a topic from slightly different scientific perspectives,” Yaden said. “These researchers have spent many years of their lives thinking about these experiences. To work with people who understand why this topic is important and are inherently fascinated by it was very energizing.”

The team worked together to compile a broad range of research on self-transcendent experience from the fields of social psychology, clinical psychology and affective neuroscience.

“The constructs that we describe, like mindfulness, flow and awe, are all quite common,” Yaden said. “They already have their own research literature around them and researchers are actively working on them, but they’re sort of siloed. We see this paper as a way to connect the dots between these different research areas and show that there’s this underlying similarity in these disparate constructs.”

Yaden, who had an intensely self-transcendent experience in college, believes that it’s important to study these experiences because of their prevalence. Some studies have shown that about a third of the US population agree that they’ve had an experience where they “felt at one with all things.”

“I think that’s a surprisingly high number,” Yaden said. “That means we all know people that have had an intensely self-transcendent experience.”

In terms of the research, one aspect of it that Yaden is excited by is how certain fundamental faculties of consciousness are altered during these experiences

“The sense of time changes, the sense of space around one changes, and the sense of self changes,” he said. “I think we can learn a lot about the presence of these aspects of consciousness by studying instances in which they’re altered or absent, like during experiences of self-transcendence. Getting at how the mind and brain represent time, space and self are very deep questions in psychology, and I think that these experiences can help to illuminate those topics.”

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