The Psychology of Mysticism Index

Articles and Book Reviews from the Primal Psychotherapy Page

"The Vision of St. Bruno" - Sebastiano Ricci (1659-1734)

"In. . . (Persinger's). . . view the brain areas responsible for religious experiences
are exactly those areas that also mediate 'sense of self' general emotional
responses, and autobiographical memory."

-- David C. Noelle, Ph.D.

"I suspect that much of the ill health reported by many mystics may be
peri-natal in origin."

-- Christopher M. Bache, Ph.D.

". . .(M)ysticism can increase the effectiveness of psychotherapy and
deepen our understanding of human life."

-- Arthur J. Deikman, M.D.

"It is no great accomplishment to hear a voice in the head.
The accomplishment is to make sure that it is telling you the truth."

--Terence McKenna


There are many thousands of articles on the internet relating to mysticism, but much fewer on the psychological origins of this spiritual/religious phenomenon.

The most common definition of mysticism is the consciousness of the transcendent or ultimate reality or God or the experience of such communion with God or with lesser spiritual beings. Neuropsychologist Michael A. Persinger defines the word simply as the "God experience."

My interest in mysticism began In the early sixties when I attended a religious retreat called the Cursillo. It was purportedly a course of instruction in the Catholic faith, but turned out to be a form of emotionally deep religious conversion experience aimed at returning fervor into the spiritual lives and spousal relationships of its participants. The two day week-end "course" began on Friday night when our sponsors personally delivered us to the Cursillo Center. This had made it difficult for the participants to change their mind about the week-end course they had agreed to attend!

It had been my first experience of a religious conversion experience, and was the beginning of my interest in the psychological underpinnings of such experiences. Little sleep combined with very long lectures, community singing and prayer, worked ecstatic magic on many of us.

Thereafter, I read many books on religious conversion and kindred subjects, searching for an explanation of what and why we had felt and experienced during that intense weekend. After a few weeks my excitement lessened but my interest in the psychology of religious conversion and mysticism had been ignited.

One observation by various investigators kept coming to the forefront. Throughout history, the relationship of the brain's temporal lobe to epileptic seizures had been emphasized. Such seizures, in some, induced mystical religious raptures.

As psychedelic drugs (e,g., LSD) became popular during the 1960s, many reported having had spiritual experiences under their influence. It was obvious to researchers that the entheogens drugs had somewhat of the same effect as had temporal lobe lesions in others.

The Cursillo was the closest I had come to a mystical feeling until I experienced such a feeling at a holotropic breathwork workshop in New Orleans during the late 1980's conducted by the Czech-American psychiatrist, Stanislav Grof.

In subsequent decades, books on the neuro-psychology and neuro-physiology of the God experience proliferated as scientific investigators into the origins of mysticism began studying those parts of the brain related to intense religious feelings.

Later, a number of neuro-scientists began to hypothesize that there also was a connection between the content of the mystical experience and the repressed and forgotten traumas of birth, infancy and early childhood. My twin interests in primal therapy and the origins of mysticism had become joined.

-- John A. Speyrer, Webmeister, The Primal Psychotherapy Page

On This Website

  1. Beyond All Reason
    - by Morag Coate - Book Review by John A. Speyrer
  2. Beyond Death - The Gates of Consciousness
    - by Stanislav and Christina Grof - Book Review by John A. Speyrer
  3. Childhood and Fantasies of Medieval Mystics
    - by Ralph Frenken, Ph.D.
  4. Dark Night, Early Dawn
    - by Christopher M. Bache, Ph.D. - Book Review by John A. Speyrer
  5. Ecstatic Journey: The Transforming Power of Mystical Experience - by Sophy Burnham - Book Review by John A. Speyrer
  6. Mysticism and Psychedelics: The Case of the Dark Night
    - by Christopher M. Bache, Ph.D.
  7. Mystisches Erleben
    - by Ralph Frenken, Ph.D.
  8. Neuropsychological Bases of God Beliefs
    - by Michael A. Persinger, Ph.D. - Book Review by John A. Speyrer
  9. Neuro-Electromagnetic Fields, Osama Bin Laden, and The Regressive Psychotherapies
    - by John A. Speyrer
  10. Parents, The Image of God, and Mysticism: Reflections on Some Writings of Michael Persinger
    - by John A. Speyrer
  11. Psychosis, Mysticism, and Feelings
    - by John A. Speyrer
  12. A Reappraisal of Teresa of Avila's Supposed Hysteria
    - by Christopher M. Bache, Ph.D.
  13. Stormy Search For the Self, The - by Christina and S. Grof, M. D.
    - Book Review by John A. Speyrer
  14. Strange Encounters: Near Death Experiences and Birth Memories
    - by John A. Speyrer
  15. Tape Transcription of Primal and Born Again Christian Experiences
    - by E. Michael Holden, M.D.
  16. Divinely Inspired: The Spiritual Awakening of a Soul,
    - by Jerry J. Pollock, Ph.D. Book Review by John A. Speyrer
  17. Ecstatic Stigmatics and Holy Anorexics: Medieval and Contemporary
    - by Sharon K. Farber, Ph.D.
  18. The Evolution of Childhood, Personality Structure and Superego in Germany (1200-1700)
    - by Ralph Frenken, Ph.D.
  19. Understanding Medieval Mystics' Lives as Self-Medication for Childhood Abuse - Achieving Divine Experience as a "Reward" for Damaged Personalities
    - by Jerrold Atlas, Ph.D.
  20. Die Evolution von Kindheit, Persönlichkeitsstrukturen und Überich in Deutschland - eine Skizze
    - von Ralph Frenken, Ph.D.
  21. An Interview With Chris M. Bache, Ph.D.
    - by John A. Speyrer
  22. Transcendent Sex: When Lovemaking Opens the Veil,
    - by Jenny Wade, Ph.D. Book Review by John A. Speyrer
  23. Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ
    - by Henry Lawton
  24. Mysticism and Psychopathology
    - by John A. Speyrer
  25. The Ultimate Journey: Consciousness and the Mystery of Death
    - by Stanislav Grof, M.D., - Book Review by John A. Speyrer

Also see index of articles on the Religion and Spirituality section of this website.

"The real issue in the study is that neuropsychiatric illness is the variable factor
whose existence led to higher rates of mystical experiences."

-- Article - by D. Mungus in Archives of General Psychiatry
39: 108-111, referred to - by Isabel Clarke
in Psychosis and Spirituality
p. 24

"Our most venerable religions were based on the teachings of people overwhelmed by what would now be considered a hallucinatory psychosis."
-- John E. Nelson, M.D. in Healing the Split

"It is difficult to describe natural mystical experience in common speech
(because it represents) the return to consciousness during
adult life of infantile experiences which are pre-verbal,
pre-rational and pre-transitional."

-- Frank Lake, M.D. in, Clinical Theology (1966)

"In the course of his own therapy sessions, one of Jung's colleagues, the Prague psychiatrist Stanislav Grof, came across those same collective, prototypical images that Jung called archetypes. At first Grof worked with LSD, then with hyperventilation or accelerated breathing. By these means, participants are able to reach an altered state of consciousness and to experience once again the trauma of their birth, with all the anxiety and trepidation that accompany the unborn child as it makes its way into the light of the world.

Grof expressly mentions apocalyptic visions in his account of the various images that are sighted on such a journey. Dragons, for example, may appear, or angels and devils in deadly combat, right up to the final release from all anxiety, with a great deal of light and radiant colors, as in the last two chapters of John's Apocalypse, where the bride of the Lamb comes down from heaven in the form of a golden city with twelve pearly, glittering gates.

Grof makes no sharp distinction between psychotic disturbance and mystical ecstasy. He simply accepts the ability to integrate one's experiences into everyday life as the boundary line between a clinical and a religious episode. According to Grof, the "transpersonal" sphere includes both saints and madmen. This conclusion is theologically acceptable too."

-- Adolf Holl, The Left Hand of God: A Biography of the Holy Spirit (1998)

"Whether revelatory or psychotic, hallucinations occur in states of consciousness that are outside of clearheaded wakefulness, such as dreaming, psychedelic drug trips, prolonged sensory deprivation from solitary confinement, delirium from fever
or alcohol withdrawal, epileptic seizures in the limbic system, deep hypnosis,
religious ecstasy brought about by fasting and repetitive prayer,
and the near-death condition."

-- John E. Nelson, M.D.

The boundaries of the mystic's ego are "strong enough to encompass and contain
the energies of the prenatal dimension. But if these boundaries are not strong
enough they will break and the result is a psychotic."

-- G. H. Graber. in Pranatale Psychologie (1974)

". . . alcoholics and drug addicts seem to have easier access to the perinatal realm
of the unconscious than individuals with psychoneurotic problems. . .

-- Stanislav Grof, M.D. in Realms of the Human Unconscious (1975)

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