What a ‘Transcendent Experience’ Really Means

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Photo: F. Roy Kemp/Getty Images

Several years ago, I met a woman named Janeen Delaney who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Janeen, who grew up in a Christian household, had drifted away from religion over the years; when she received her diagnosis in 2005, the absence of a spiritual system in her life suddenly seemed like a big existential hole. She suddenly felt like she was living in a “wasteland.” Without a belief in something bigger or an afterlife, death meant annihilation, the absolute end — and that frightened her.
Knowing she was going to die, she said, made her question what meaning her life had.

Then, one day in 2008, she learned about a study at Johns Hopkins University looking at people facing imminent death. The research team, led by psychiatrist Roland Griffiths, wanted to know whether having a major transcendent experience — induced by psilocybin, the active ingredient in so-called magic mushrooms — would help people like Janeen face death with peace rather than despair. So they brought terminal cancer patients into the lab, administered psilocybin to them in a private, controlled setting, and then later assessed how having a mystical experience affected their attitude toward dying. Janeen signed up.

This study is part of a growing body of work on what psychologists call “self-transcendent experiences.” A new paper in the Review of General Psychology, “The Varieties of Self-Transcendent Experience,” defines these states as transient moments when people feel lifted above the hustle and bustle of daily life, their sense of self fades away, and they feel connected to something bigger. In such states, people typically report feelings of awe and rapture; of time stopping; and of feeling a sense of unity with other people, nature, God, or the universe.

That was Janeen’s experience on psilocybin: “There was not one atom of myself,” she said, “that did not merge with the divine.”

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Transcendence is a fundamental part of the human experience. Since the dawn of our species, people have been losing themselves in ritualistic prayer, song, and dance. Even so, for a long time, the prevailing consensus in psychology was that such experiences were pathological rather than natural. Freud believed that “oceanic feelings of oneness” were neurotic memories of the womb and the signs of a deranged mind.

But according David Yaden, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and the lead author of the self-transcendence paper, the current research paints a very different picture. Along with his co-authors, Yaden has found that self-transcendent experiences can in fact have a profoundly positive effect on the human psyche.

“A consensus has emerged from the contemporary research data,” Yaden told me, “that Freud was wrong.”

The person who got transcendence right, Yaden says, is William James, the great American psychologist of the 19th century who wrote Varieties of Religious Experience. James was fascinated by transcendent states — so fascinated he took nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, to “stimulate the mystical consciousness” in himself. Though a meticulous scientist, James admitted to experiencing “the strongest emotion” he’d ever felt under the influence of the drug. Based on that experience, he concluded that during transcendent states, we slip into an altered state of consciousness different from our ordinary waking or rational consciousness. “No account of the universe in its totality,” he wrote, “can be final which leaves these other forms of consciousness quite disregarded.”

Mind-altering substances are one path to transcendence, but they’re not the only one. You can lose yourself in love, or feel awe watching a lightning storm from your porch. You can get into a state of flow at work, or take a break from the rush of everyday life by meditating. And these experiences exist on a spectrum, as Yaden points out: There are “major transcendent experiences,” where your sense of self completely dissolves and you feel at one with the universe — which is what Janeen experienced. And then there are more everyday experiences, like when you step outside of your head while listening to a beautiful piece of music, taking a walk through the woods, or attending a religious service. According to Yaden, most people have had some sort of transcendent experience at some point in their lives — and about a third of the population has had “intense experiences of unity.”

And these experiences can change you in lasting ways. In one study from 2014, students looked up at a towering grove of 200-feet-tall eucalyptus trees for just one minute — but after that awe-inspiring encounter with nature, they reported felt less self-centered, and they even behaved more generously when given the chance to help someone. Other research shows that after transcendent experiences, people feel more satisfied with their lives and rate their lives as more meaningful. They also have higher levels of oxytocin — the hormone that promotes bonding between two people —coursing through their blood.

Yaden himself has had some firsthand experience with these states. His own brush with transcendence, he says, happened one day in college, as he was lying on his dorm-room bed. It was spontaneous — he wasn’t high, or drinking, or meditating. But suddenly, he recalls, he “felt a deep sense of unity,” and “afterward, I felt more open to other people and more engaged in my life.” His curiosity about the experience followed him to graduate school, where he focused his studies on the psychology and neuroscience of  transcendence.

His research has led him to believe that the magic of transcendence lies in its “annihilational” aspect, or the way it induces a feeling of self-loss. Neuroscience research shows that during transcendent states, there is decreased activity in the posterior superior parietal lobe, the area of the brain that locates the self in space and distinguishes it from everything else. When the neuronal inputs to this part of the brain decrease, the brain can no longer separate the self from the surrounding environment — which is why people feel their sense of self diminish, while also feeling connected to everyone and everything around them.

It’s also why transcendent experiences often lead people to feel better about their lives. So many of us spend so much time ruminating and worrying about problems large and small: What’s going to happen if I lose my job? What if he dumps me? I’m worthless. Nothing I do matters. How come she brushed me off? One day I’m going to die ... In most cases, a transcendent experience washes these destructive thoughts out of our minds. “When the self temporarily disappears,” Yaden and his colleagues write, “so too may some of these fears and anxieties.”

Transcendent experiences, in other words, bring perspective, helping us to  abandon the conceit that we are at the center of the world. “We can experience union with something larger than ourselves,” as William James put it, “and in that union find our greatest peace.”

That’s exactly what happened with Janeen. After she took the psilocybin capsule, she relaxed onto a sofa in a cozy room in the lab and listened to a soundtrack designed by the researchers. The session lasted eight hours; the most dramatic moment, she recalls, came during Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” She was focused on how beautiful the music was when she noticed that the pace of her breathing was following the melody. As the music came to its climax, and the notes reached higher and higher, Janeen suddenly held her breath.

“And then the song was over and, in that moment,” she says, “I realized it was okay not to breathe anymore. It was a strange revelation. Being aware that it was okay to stop breathing — that was huge for me.” Like many of the other cancer patients in this study, Janeen’s fear of death melted away. “I just had to remind myself of what I said: That when you get to the end, it’s okay not to breathe.”

But why? What had happened to lead her to this realization? Only Janeen knows the full details of her mystical state. The rest of us know only that the experience left her reassured about her place in the universe, whether she was alive or dead. It brought her peace. And that was why, when the time came, it was okay for her to stop breathing. Janeen passed away in 2015.

Emily Esfahani Smith is a writer and author in Washington, D.C. The story of Janeen Delaney appears in Smith’s book The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters

What a ‘Transcendent Experience’ Really Means