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Describing the Indescribable: Jefferson Researcher Explores Language of Mystical Experiences

10/15/15

(PHILADELPHIA) – Mystical experiences are frequently labeled as indescribable or ineffable. However, new research suggests that when prompted, people who have had a mystical, spiritual or religious experience can describe the event. Researchers surveyed the public and collected hundreds of descriptions of personal, spiritual experiences and then used linguistic analysis to find common underlying features. The authors shared their first findings from this one-of-a-kind database in Psychology of Religion and Spirituality.

“We decided to survey the public about their spiritual experiences because the profoundly positive feelings of well-being associated with mystical experiences makes them worthy of scientific investigation,” said Andrew Newberg, M.D., senior author and Professor of Emergency Medicine and Radiology in Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University and Director of Research at the Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine at Jefferson. “By analyzing the language of mystical experiences, our study begins to identify shared features of these experiences.”

Dr. Newberg and his team studied the reports of 777 individuals who have had a spiritual or religious experience. Through computational linguistic analyses, patterns emerged. Individuals who have had mystical experiences, as defined by the Death Transcendence Scale, used more inclusive language like “everything,” “with” and “one-ness.” The same group also used less religious language like “Christ,” “religious,” “holy,” and “hell.”

These findings are consistent with Dr. Newberg’s previous neuroimaging research which found that mystical experiences are associated with alterations in brain areas related to spatial boundaries.

“We are performing ongoing analyses of this incredible database of spiritual experiences,” Dr. Newberg said. “We hope to learn more about the nature of these experiences, how they are perceived and how they affect people. We also plan to tie this information into what we know about the human brain.”

Article Reference: Yaden D. B., Eichstaedt, J. C., Schwartz, H. A., Kern, M. L., Le Nguyen, K. D., Wintering, N. A., Hood, R. W., Jr., & Newberg, A. B. (2015, July 27). The Language of Ineffability: Linguistic Analysis of Mystical Experiences. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/rel0000043

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