Awe-Inspring Experiences

Tuesday, October 01, 2002

Thanks to the generosity of the Templeton Foundation, a team of scholars centered on UCLA is engaged in a three-year process of exploring the world of awe-inspiring experience: also called mystical experience or primary religious experience. We invite your suggestions and your participation. Please send email to Mark Kleiman at

Awe-inspiring Experiences:
Natural, Unnatural, and Supernatural


Across time and space, apparently regardless of culture, some human beings report having profoundly awe-inspiring experiences involving direct perception of the sacred. They describe a unifying vision of the world, bound together by a living presence, in which nothing “really” dies; feelings of blessedness, peace, joy, and happiness; and a sense of paradoxicality. Some of these experiences are life-changing; a few are world-changing, resulting in the foundation of spiritual traditions or of organizations ranging from the Society of Jesus to Alcoholics Anonymous. Awe-inspiring experiences share some characteristics with less extreme spiritual, aesthetic, and emotional experiences, but they have enormously greater power.

Awe-inspiring experiences are at once natural, unnatural, and supernatural. Each guise raises its own set of questions for exploration.

They are natural in that the ability to experience awe seems to be a human universal. Looking at societies and periods that vary widely on just about every imaginable dimension, we find substantial overlap in the reports both of religious mystics, who repeatedly achieve a state of awe through meditation or by other means, and of ordinary people struck by single moments of sudden religious awakening or insight. Mystical experiences seem to vary far less than do popular creeds or theological doctrines.

What is it in the human brain that supports the experience of awe? What happens in the brain before and during the experience? What is the range of emotion and cognition associated with such experiences? What traces do they leave? How do they compare to less intense experiences with similar emotional valence, and to comparably intense experiences not involving awe? What internal or external factors trigger, intensify, or prevent such experiences? What might be the evolutionary function of the underlying capacity?

From another viewpoint, awe-inspiring experiences are unnatural. The sense of self is basic to ordinary human functioning. The process of development from baby to child to adult is largely a process of acquiring a sense of “I, me, mine.” A person missing that sense would ordinarily be considered mentally ill and would certainly have a hard time negotiating his or her way around the social world.

Awe-inspiring experiences are often described as involving a dissolution of the sense of self: “ego death.” Yet the result is often experienced, and described by others, as an improvement in mental health and social functioning. It is as if a ship’s sailing were improved by being hulled below the waterline.

What is the range of aftereffects – individual and social – of awe-inspiring experiences? How often do they result in greater happiness? In greater capacity or willingness to serve others (or serve larger goals) when that service involves apparent cost or risk? How do those aftereffects vary with the other characteristics of those who are awe-struck? What importance attaches to the social surround, the extent and nature of preparation, the triggering stimulus (or absence of any apparent stimulus), and the receptivity of existing religious traditions and institutions to mystical insight? How helpful is the presence of a group to which the one who has been awe-struck can report the event and get help in interpreting it and integrating its insights into daily life? Do the structure and pace of modern societies tend to decrease the prevalence of such experiences, or the capacity to benefit from them? What would the consequences be, in our society, of an increased prevalence of such experiences? What, if anything, ought to be done about it?

But if awe-inspiring experiences are natural or unnatural as seen by others, they appear to those who undergo them as supernatural. They are felt as direct encounters with realities not confined by natural laws, and superior to them. Even in recollection, their paradox is not seen as nonsense, but as a sense transcending ordinary logic. “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”

How consistent are mystical insights with one another? With the dogmas of institutional religion? With a variety of sacred texts? With scientifically grounded views of the cosmos, the social world, and the brain? Are the apparent paradoxes genuine, or can an appropriate analysis of concepts reconcile them with standard logic?

We are working to gather a community of scholars to explore the natural, unnatural, and supernatural aspects of awe-inspiring experiences. The members of our group are drawn from Anthropology, Chemical Engineering, Communication Studies, East Asian Languages and Religion, History and Religion, Neurobiology, Neuropsychiatry, Political Science, Policy Studies, Psychiatry, and Psychology. We seek to understand how awe-inspiring experiences work and why human beings have the ability to experience awe. We will explore the religious, cultural, political, social, and policy implications of that ability.


Let us learn to dream, gentlemen, and then perhaps we shall find the truth. But let us beware of publishing our dreams till they have been tested by the waking understanding.

—Friedrich August von Kekule
(Kekule intuited the ring structure of benzene after a dream in which he saw a snake biting its own tail)


Awe-inspiring experiences show up in some of the earliest written records of the human race. In the modern world, they appear to be less prevalent than previously. (Or perhaps what has changed is the willingness of people to acknowledge having had such experiences, and the capacity of the broader culture and the dominant religious traditions to accommodate them.) The last half-century has brought a resurgence of interest in transcendent experiences and a growing tendency to reject what William James called a premature closing of the books on reality.

Historically, awe-insiring experiences arrived either seemingly unbidden (St. Paul on the road to Damascus, Ignatius Loyola on his sickbed) or as the result of demanding practices such as prolonged fasting, solitude, silence, or wakefulness; years of intense meditation or repetitive prayer; ecstatic dancing in the Sufi or Hasidic traditions; the deliberate frustration of the logical mind by Zen koan. In our time, the repertoire of techniques that free the mind from consensus reality has been extended and now includes innovative methods of breath control, the flotation tank, which radically reduces sensory input, and, according to some reports, electromagnetic stimulation of certain brain regions. The ingestion of plant and chemical preparations intended to facilitate such experiences – a practice that dates back at least as far as the Eleusinian Mysteries, but has been, until now, either esoteric or restricted to isolated small-scale cultures – has also enjoyed a resurgence, symbolized most dramatically by an Act of Congress authorizing the use of peyote in Native American rituals.

Coincidentally, it is only now that advances in neuroscience have made it possible to study scientifically what happens in the brain in connection with awe-inspiring and related experiences. At the same time, cognitive scientists and evolutionary psychologists are creating conceptual frameworks and research techniques that are improving our understanding of the development and function of specific human mental capacities, of which the capacity to experience awe is one.

We plan to gather an interdisciplinary community of scholars to study awe-inspiring experiences in a series of three annual conferences and many smaller gatherings, formal and informal.

Ours is first and foremost a research endeavor: the phenomenon of awe-inspiring experiences is of great intrinsic interest; studying it will point the way to deeper insights about human mental and social functioning; and it is ripe for the application of new scientific tools such as brain mapping.

But we also think of our project as having a practical dimension. If less demanding means of experiencing profound awe become more widely available, we will all — individuals, social groups, religious bodies, and governments alike — face difficult and important choices. Less effortful means of encountering awe need not be less dangerous means; the reverse might be true. Nor is awe itself free of personal and social risk, especially when it is encountered by those who have not prepared themselves to meet it. (The legend of the Quest of the Holy Grail is a cautionary tale; as Malory tells it, Percival achieves the quest, but the Arthurian fellowship is destroyed.) The history of mysticism has more than its share of false prophets and false Messiahs, from Sabbatai Zvi to Timothy Leary. There is no promise that techniques which might bring enlightenment will not be used instead for mind control.

Whether and how to seek the mystical vision may become a live question for an increasing proportion of the population. If so, existing congregations and denominations will have to decide what to say to their members, and how, if at all, to support those who choose to make the attempt. Governments will then confront some uncomfortable decisions, of which the Chinese crackdown on the Falun Gong illustrates one possible resolution. In the context of the enormous personal and social damage done by drug abuse, the use of plants and chemicals as means of creating awe raises especially tricky questions; thinking clearly about them will require getting past the slogans of drug warriors and drug legalizers alike.

New and systematic knowledge, if kept relatively free of disciplinary parochialism, might usefully inform decisions at all of these levels. Our group, which has expertise in policy analysis and drug abuse control as well as neurobiology and religion, is well-placed to make a contribution.

We need to confront squarely the question of the nature and value of awe-inspiring experiences, and the insights that come out of them. To assume away the possibility of spiritual realities, as so much of the “scientific” study of religion has done, would be as unscientific as accepting without investigation the sincerity of mystics’ reports as conclusive evidence about the structure of the cosmos.


Below is a list of subjects we intend to cover. This list reflects an early, and very preliminary, stage of our thinking, and it is likely to be modified once we start meeting regularly. And it should be borne in mind that “A fool can ask more questions in an hour than a sage can answer in a lifetime.” We do not anticipate that we will find answers to all the queries below; we merely intend to be guided by them in our explorations.

Neurobiology What happens in the brain to trigger awe-inspiring experiences? What happens in the brain while they are taking place? What brain structures or subsystems are involved? Can particular neurotransmitter/receptor systems, or even particular receptor subtypes, be identified as giving rise to such experiences? What is the relationship between variations in measurable characteristics of brain activity and variations in reported subjective experience? How do measurable brain events vary across triggering stimuli?

Technology What is the range of external triggers and preparatory exercises that can intentionally bring about such experiences or that carry some probability of bringing them about without conscious intention? To what extent do different triggers or different preparations lead to different subjective experiences? To different consequences?

Phenomenology What is the range of subjective experience on such dimensions as imagery, cognitive content, intensity, and affective valence? Are there recognizable subtypes? How valid are claims of consistency in experience across cultures and creeds? How, if at all, do such experiences vary with the nature of the trigger or the prior preparation? With the characteristics of the subject? With the characteristics of the cultural surround?

Comparative religion and anthropology How does the prevalence of awe-inspiring experiences vary cross-culturally and over time? In particular, are such experiences less prevalent in industrial than in pre-industrial societies? What is the range of variation in the interpretation put on such experiences? (For example, how much of what the diagnostic manuals call schizophrenia would be called enlightenment in, say, Bali?) How do various religious communities and indigenous peoples incorporate such experiences, the practices leading up to them, and the insights emerging from them?

Outcomes What effects do such experiences have on subsequent emotion, cognition, and behavior? Insofar as virtues such as courage and magnanimity have objective correlates, is it the case that awe-inspiring experiences tend to help its subjects grow in virtue? In happiness? In cognitive function? What effects do awe-inspiring experiences have on the sense that life is purposeful and worth living? Again, what is the range, and what are the correlates, of variation? What is the frequency of bad outcomes? How closely do the evaluations of outcomes by the awe-struck individuals match reports from families, friends, co-workers, and fellow congregants? What activities subsequent to the experience influence outcomes, and how? How important is the existence of a religious (or other) community ready to support the awe-struck individual in the aftermath of the experience?

Health What are the likely effects of such experiences, their triggers, and follow-up activities on mental and physical health? Can their potential preventative or curative properties be harnessed, and with what accompanying risks? How does awe affect the experience of pain? Of stress?

Thanatology What effects do such experiences have on the fear of dying, both spread over the life course and as death approaches? What are the effects, in turn, of decreased fear of death? Is the experience of profound awe preparation for a serene death?

Epistemology What is the proper interpretation of mystical experiences? Are they potential sources of knowledge? If so, knowledge of what? How, if at all, can such knowledge-claims be validated or challenged?

Theology and metaphysics Mystical insight often clashes with established creeds and with non-theistic philosophical systems. Is the claimed consistency of mystical experience across cultures evidence for the reality of the spiritual realm? If Sufis, Tibetan Buddhists, and Christian mystics all see the same reality, what does that imply about the status of differences in creed across religions?

Aesthetics What effect does awe-inspiring experience have on the perception of beauty and order, both in nature and in art? What effect does it have on artistic (and other kinds of) creativity? What role does art (and perhaps especially architecture) play in bringing about awe-inspiring experiences? (We have Chartres Cathedral in mind.) What is the relationship between the ability to feel awe and the sense of beauty? Do they make use of the same, or closely related, brain functions? Do they share evolutionary origins?

Language What is the impact of awe-inspiring experiences on linguistic functioning, both during the experience and thereafter? For example, do people who have undergone such experiences make greater or less use than before of metaphor and other expressive techniques? What takes place in the language centers of the brain during awe-inspiring experiences? What metaphors are used to describe awe-inspiring experiences, and why? What effect does the reported inexpressibility of mystical experience have on subjects’ general attitudes about the relationship between language and the world it describes? What are the brain mechanisms of “speaking in tongues,” and how closely are they related to those of awe-inspiring experience?

Ethics What impact do awe-inspiring experiences have on values and modes of moral reasoning? How is that impact modified by the conditions under which such experiences take place? If awe-inspiring experiences change behavior, to what extent is that effect mediated by changes in values and modes of moral reasoning, as opposed to non-cognitive changes such as increased self-command or decreased fearfulness?

Sociology If changes in attitudes or in the availability of relevant technologies increased the prevalence of awe-inspiring experiences, what would be the impact on contemporary American society? On other societies, both rich and poor? How would those effects vary with the social conditions under which the experiences take place? With the social roles of the awe-struck?

Politics Political processes tend to be factional (“us” versus “them”), adversarial, ideological, and interest-driven. Does the mystical experience of transcending ordinary categories of division manifest itself in political magnanimity? Do awe-inspiring experiences have the potential to change political attitudes, opinions, and behavior? How do awe-inspiring experiences interact with sectarian political strife, e.g. in India, Bosnia, or Northern Ireland? Conversely, how do publics and elites react to the idea of awe-inspiring experiences? What political reactions might be expected were the prevalence of such experiences to rise?

Law Potential triggers of awe-inspiring experiences include plants and chemicals. How do current laws about pharmaceuticals on the one hand and controlled substances on the other deal with these issues, and what changes might offer themselves in the light of new knowledge? How does, and how should, the Food and Drug Administration deal with pharmaceutical products designed to improve normal performance rather than to treat disease? Can a substance be “safe and effective” in producing mystical visions? Does the Religious Freedom Restoration Act apply, and, if so, how? Are traditional indigenous practices entitled to special protections? Does offering such protections on an ethnically limited basis violate equal protection? Can Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause claims be reconciled?

Policy What should be done? Are there personal and social benefits from increasing the prevalence of awe-inspiring experiences? Can we increase the prevalence of such experiences? What are the risks of doing so? Of different means of doing so? How can those risks be managed?