Mysticism and Psychopathology

by John A. Speyrer

". . . alcoholics and heroin addicts had the highest incidence of mystical experiences of all the
studied groups, including neurotics, mental health professionals,
and individuals dying of cancer."

-- Stanislav Grof, M. D. and Joan Halifax, Ph.D. in The Human Encounter With Death (1977)

In an address to the International Congress of Psychology, held in Montreal in 1954, Canadian neurologist, Wilder Penfield, reported that our temporal lobe is the only part of the brain from which one could elicit, by physical stimulation alone, a feelingful memory reaction accompanied by the possibility of an interpretative response (The Role of the Temporal Cortex in Certain Psychical Phenomena).

An example of the operation of such a split in consciousness also occurs in those who are in a deep regressive-type therapy session. The observing ego is almost always present during the reliving of an pre-natal, peri-natal and early childhood event and is what makes possible the interpretative response. At first Penfield called the temporal lobe along with the hippocamus and the amyglada (closely related structures) "memory cortex" but later was to acknowledge that the memories the temporal lobe accessed could be stored in other areas of the brain.

He came to believe that the brain's temporal lobe was the location of the key hole or entry point to the release of "referenced material" from other sections of the brain. The temporary removal of temporal lobe inhibition is what allows a large variety of "psychic" or "spiritual" phenomena to become conscious, including out-of-body and near-death experiences, alien abductions, past lives experiences, one's earlier repressed traumatic memories and the mystical or God experience.

These brain state productions are all susceptible to multitudinous sources of disinhibitory influences and those of us who have a higher than average ability to be so influenced are often found to have one or more of the following characteristics:
They are more likely to:
  1. experience déjà vu frequently,
  2. sense the presence of spirits,
  3. often feel that they are not alone,
  4. keep a diary or journal,
  5. have a history of hallucinogenic/psychedelic drug use,
  6. be in menopause,
  7. have lots of sex or none at all,
  8. write poetry,
  9. frequently engage in repetitive prayers,
  10. have limbic epileptic seizures,
  11. do bodywork,
  12. do vipassana meditation,
  13. have kuldalini-type experiences,
  14. think often of suicide,
  15. find that being in love is all consuming,
  16. have been sexually or physically abused as children,
  17. be homosexual,
  18. be under deep hypnosis,
  19. have anxiety attacks,
  20. have a seemingly disproportionate fear of death, and
  21. fast frequently.

All, with these characteristics and others, find it easier to have spiritual feelings. (See Todd Murphy's Spiritual Aptitude Test ). It would seem that there is a positive co-relation between overt neurosis and ease of spiritual access.
The circumstances would also include those

  • who have endured recent sleep loss,
  • starvation, or who
  • are on their death bed, as does
  • being at high altitudes, as there is less oxygen there. (Remember how cartoons often show gurus residing on tops of mountains? ) Having less oxygen than normal available to breathe helps to induce spiritual and regressive experiences, as does,
  • physical aging of the brain and
  • having had a traumatic birth. This particular circumstance has a close causal relationship with items 14, 19, and 20 above.

At times, the ability to enter these states of unordinary consciousness are preceded by intense physical and emotional pain, depression and feelings of loss. As one's sensory inputs are stimulated, one may hear voices, or smell non-existent odors.

These effects are excitingly ecstatic but sometimes can be frighteningly horrid. Psychiatrist Stanislav Grof writes that these non-ordinary states of mind can be the beginning phases of emergences of spirituality. These spiritual emergences can become emergencies when they take on the characteristics of functional psychoses. Many such patients are often given large doses of anti-psychotic medication to stop their symptoms instead of being given an opportunity to regress and feel the real origins of their sufferings. The recent DSM IV manual distinguishes between such functional psychoses and florid schizophrenia. (See book review of Grof's, The Stormy Search For the Self ; For an individual's personal recounting of her spiritual emergence see A Personal Experience With Primal Therapy by Bernadette Murphy)

Ten years ago, I experienced olfactory hallucinations which were accompanied by depression and a severe fear of dying. The fear was triggered when I read that the physical symptoms I was having were typical of those with a brain tumor and when my physician recommended I consult a neurologist. The MRI and catscan revealed I did not have a brain tumor, but the repressed trauma of almost dying during my birth had become unrepressed due to my fear of having a brain tumor. I began suffering from severe anxiety / depression, with a quirky symptom of experiencing hallucinogenic odors. The olfactory hallucinations occurred about twice each week during a six weeks' period until I had been able to bring down my psychiatric symptoms with primal-oriented regression therapy.

I had begun smelling ether, freshly baked bread, cake, acetone and other non-existent odors. I surmise that the "kitchen" odors were disinhibited temporal lobe memories from my childhood and the ether/acetone odors were associated with childhood traumas of two early surgeries as well as perhaps from olfactory memories of my mother's use of nail polish remover respectively. They were fearful at the time because I thought I was experiencing brain tumor symptoms, but now I wish I could have had a more exciting hallucination than the more mundane "smells" hallucination described in Todd Murphy's chart below. (See On The Fear of Death: Dying in the Birth Canal )

The psychiatric disorder of depressive bi-polarism can closely resemble episodes of transcendent consciousness, with sudden "appearances" of deities and demons and subsequent spontaneous or even serial religious conversion experiences. (See the chapter, The Psychobiology of Transcendence: God in the Brain by Psychiatrist, Arnold J. Mandell a chapter in The Psychobiology of Consciousness Edited by Richard J. Davidson and Julian M. Davidson, Plenum Publishing, 1980, p. 400).

Temporal lobe epileptic patients can sometimes be triggered into recalling and even reliving painful repressed memories from very early in their lives as well as hearing voices and viewing detailed scenes while reliving earlier biographical events when they may feel, for example, a lack of love from significant caregivers. They may be able to feel infantile humiliations of being unwanted at birth or even having insightful intrauterine experiences of being distressed by the knowledge that they were unwanted and perhaps held in contempt by their parent(s).

While the disinhibited temporal lobes and its structures allow for the access of early traumas and automatic understandings of the origins of one's personality characteristics, the opportunity to intensify the extraordinary potential for the God or Jesus, Allah or Vishnu experience seems to be a built-in characteristic of brain function. It has been hypothesized that the use of the temporal lobe potentials may make it possible, in the future, for developing selective activations as specific treatments for psychiatric disorders. Spontaneous healings of long existent emotional and physical ills are commonly reported in the autobiographies of medieval mystics and well as in the lives of more modern ones. (For theoretical observations of neurological "special treatments" see Religious and Mystical Experiences as Artifacts of Temporal Lobe Function: A General Hypothesis by Michael A. Persinger, Ph.D., Perceptual and Motor Skills, 1983, 57, 1255-1262.)

Some psychotics may resent the moments of clarity which sometimes intrude into their lives. Nobel mathetician prize-winner, John Nash, Jr. was quoted in his biography, A Beautiful Mind: "Rational thought imposes a limit on a person's concept of his relation to the cosmos." Probably more than one founder of a religion have echoed that sentiment.

"Since the temporal lobe contains the projection areas for the experience of hearing and the sensation of movement, transients within this portion of the brain should be predominated
by auditory or vestibular experiences. No doubt these experiences could contain
visual, olfactory, or taste images. . . . In general, the more severe
the disturbance, the more intense the God Experience."

-- Michael A. Persinger. Ph.D.

The effect also occurs during religious conversion experiences when both insight and ecstasy can combine in a powerful way. At that moment the hippocamus loses its "comparator function" and alternative answers become greatly diminished or eliminated completely. Newly acquired attitudes can remain permanently or for a very long time. The same effects can have their source in other transcendental experiences such as out-of-body feelings, near-death experiences and even by the electrical stimulation of the brain's temporal lobes. (See review of Penfield's The Role of the Temporal Cortex in Certain Psychical Phenomena ).

Such anomalous events, such as, the aforementioned NDEs and OOBEs, apparitions of deceased loved ones, appearances of ghosts or demons, alien abductions, etc. are all associated with temporal lobe disinihibitions but as mentioned are not all wondrous, joyful, and exciting. Some such events can be quite disconcerting. Some who experience negative near death experiences truly believe that they are having a foretaste of the literal hell which awaits them. (See, on this website, the conclusion of Dr. C. Bache's article, A Perinatal Interpretation of Frightening Near-Death Experiences whose explanation may be reassuring to those who have experienced negative near-death scenarios after critical surgeries or other close encounters with death.) [For an interesting short explanation on how near death experiences can be prevented in a medical surgery setting, see this short article by Dr. Douglas Fields ]

As mentioned, stimulation of the temporal lobe and its related structures by the anomalous events listed above, can also allow us to tap into our very early memories of painful material such as traumatic birth and other early and later traumas. (See article on the intergenerational transmission of such feelings. )These may be re-experienced as the congruous event itself or when emotionally overloaded, felt in a symbolic manner. (See, on this website, Neuro-Electromagnetic Fields, Osama bin Laden and the Regression Psychotherapies)

Severe early traumatic experiences can sometimes be too scary to experience while alone as they often have a death-like quality. In such cases, one's ego prevents their connection to one's consciousness. Less frequently, regressions can take on a quality of joy and ecstasy with feelings of bliss often derived from intrauterine memories (e.g., floating in the amniotic sac). Early memories, such as near death during the birth process, can later be projected metaphorically on acquired symbols of extreme dread. These feelings of terror or of death can trigger an out-of-body near-death experience, which sometimes happens during critical surgeries, and in life endangering incidents, such as in automobile accidents when severe injuries occur. Usually the feeling content of the death terror is derived from much earlier near-death experiences. (See Resurrection on Highway 111).

Fearful, negative near-death experiences can be so realistic that the experiencer becomes convinced that he has already died and is in hell. Alien abduction scenarios, in particular, are often particularly painful to experience. Again the feeling source of these and other paranormal events is accessed and subsequently filtered via the temporal lobe, the amyglada and hippocamus.

The power of the God Experience shames any known therapy. . . .
With it comes the personal conviction of truth and the sense of self-selection. . . . In the God Experience
. . . (n)ext to 'feeling the presence of God, ' Hearing God' is probably the most common mode of experience. . . .

-- Michael A. Persinger, Ph.D.

The Visitor Experience

One such experience, which is an essential element in mysticism, is "The Visitor Experience" when the subject develops a feeling that someone else is present nearby, the subjective evidence for which may be enhanced by one or more sensory inputs. The full blown positive visitor experience is the God experience, but instead may include visits from holy persons of the past or other spiritual entities such as angels or even malevolent demons. On occasion the feeling may be so fleeting that it cannot be remembered or recounted, but the experiencer nonetheless remains convinced that something very significant or wonderous has occurred. Sometimes, the short experience seems to last for hours and is accompanied by detailed religious revelations which can inspire the experiencer to found a new religious sect or becomes convinced that he was in communication with God.

The experiencer might even feel assured that he has become privy to the secrets of the universe, and/or to the presence of a deity. What happened feels so real that he cannot be talked out of his experience. Some may kill if so commanded by the appearing entity. What he perceived is sometimes very detailed with sensory inputs particularly from hearing a voice and having visions but he may also experience movement, smells, etc. Here are some possibilities, both negative and positive which may be experienced by one having what is called by some, the "visitor experience":

Body seems to
burn or have
"I am worthless"
Sulphur, stale
Seeing a
Words that
inspire fear
screams, etc.
Tours of hell.

Near Death

Bliss, Ecstacy
Being uplifted
'Body Tingles'
"I am worthy of
unconditional love"
Seeing an
angel or
Words of
salvation, healing, safety
Ethereal Music
Interacting with

Source: Todd Murphy's Spirituality and the Brain - Website.

A single positive experience in such a state of consciousness can sometimes result in lifelong positive changes, or conversion, e.g., Billy Graham. Long periods of being and feeling "saintly" may result. Instantaneous triggers to one's early traumas (the source of act outs and act ins) may become inoperative. The alcoholic may no longer have a need to struggle for sobriety as he no longer craves alcohol or drugs. The sinner may repent of his dissipated life. History books are filled with examples of extraordinary changes wrought by the God experience in the lives of the saints, e.g., Paul of Damascus, Ignatius Loyola and Jeanne D'Arc.

"One may reasonably ask: 'Why does a complete re-experience of early Pain have a curative effect?' The answer is that partially felt Pain in infancy and childhood is "partial" because of blocking, a gating (higher threshold) to protect the organism from excessive Pain. The energy of the Pain does not go away. It remains sequestered in the system, and is the origin for acting out in neurosis, and acting in, in neurosis; the later represented by increased EEG amplitude and (all) psychosomatic symptoms. When the Pain is felt in its entirety, in Primals, blocking is no longer necessary, and neurosis dissolves.'
-- E. Michael Holden, M.D. - Primal Man: The New Consciousness (co-authored with A. Janov, Ph.D.)

The brain is ever ready to meld the elation and relaxation of the physiological and psychological moment of insightful connection after the repressed memory becomes conscious for the first time, after a lifetime of its being repressed and hidden. During this time a large reduction of one's vital signs often occurs - when the pulse rate, systolic and disastolic blood pressure readings in hypertensives make rapid descents into very low territories, and when core body temperature may plunge as much as over four degrees below normal.

The temporal lobe, which is the portion of the brain which mediates the sense of self, the sense of the visitor experience, the religious experience, and one's own previously repressed biographical memory with its accompanying emotion - has been named by some as the very seat of the God impulse. (Here is an example of a very positive and joyful "union with God" experience I had, triggered during a holotropic breathwork session. For a description of a literally hellish, negative session see the account of my second breathwork experience many years later.

The occasional intrusion by "demons" reported by some mystics is a reasonable and expected occurrence when one takes into account the disinhibition of the temporal lobe. Elements of the visitor experience, as shown in the chart above, and described in the paragraph immediately above, can consist of both positive and negative elements. If you have a positive visitor experience (e.g., Christ) you open yourself up to have negative demonic ones as well - hence the persistence of demonic entities.

Throughout history mystics have reported being tormented by demons.The bible recounts harassments of Jesus by Satan on three separate occasions. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, during a decades long "dark night of the soul" trial, towards the end of her life, requested and received an exorcism from the Catholic church. Demonic "presences" are not surprising and in no way negatively reflects on the person having the experience. It is a normal and natural happening to a disinhibited temporal lobe and is usually proportional to the severity of repressed traumatic material (which temporarily becomes less well defended). Some institutionalized temporal lobe psychotics have daily communications with negative and positive spiritual entities.

Seeming attempts by malevolent "demonic spirits" to sabotage the prayer life of mystics can and do occur. These minor and major trials consist of negative "sensed presences" and are self interpreted as demonic influences, e.g., Martin Luther throwing an inkwell at a demon. Sometimes they arise during the healing journey of the mystic as they continue their quest for an intimate experience with the deity or with holy persons. Their presence is added evidence that mystical experiences are being accessed.

Many major mystics have had to temporarily endure profoundly disconcerting states of mind and body during their spiritual trials. Some had completely lost their ability to pray, others suffered continuous severe psychosomatic physical pains and illnesses and endured periods of painful alienation from God. ( For recountings of such sufferings by two well known mystics, see on this website, Dr. Christopher M. Bache's, A Reappraisal of Teresa of Avila's Supposed Hysteria and Mysticism and Psychedelics: The Case of the Dark Night [St John of the Cross] )

"As St. John of the Cross has shown, the path to mystical union with God passes through two phases, an active and a passive. During the active phase, self-discipline mortifies the errant senses and the wayward spirit. It is in the second or passive dark night of purgation that the mind tends to be invaded by its own stored interior contents. These, accord to the 'Mystical Doctor', are made up of all the evils that the soul has suffered
or taken part in, and concealed from its earliest days. If holiness is to possess the soul, these elements
must be extruded."

-- Frank Lake, M.D., Clinical Theology: A Theological and Psychiatric Basis to Clinical Pastoral Care, pps.832-3

I've never used a spiritual technique with my own self-primal therapy, although some have used their spiritual journeys to that end. My access to repressed memories was "grooved" or kindled in a certain way from the very beginning of my regressions (which began automatically as a result of group gestalt therapy combined with transactional analysis) and I find that my usual techniques for accessing early traumas usually remain the same. I wish that I would be able to make those intentional explorations of my beginnings to consciously trace early traumas but, for me, that particular technique does not work.

In my case, I recognize a feeling of tension, of anxiety, of the need to feel/regress, occasionally due to a recent emotional upset; I then lay down, listen to feelingful music (often classical religious music) and let my mind wander while waiting for a connection to an infantile, child or birth feeling, to develop.

Can severe early trauma predispose one to have easier access to spirituality, religiosity and the God experience? Many who have studied this question answer in the affirmative. In a study of such correlations, Isabel Clarke, in Psychosis and Spirituality, p. 24, referred to an article by D. Mungus in the Archives of General Psychiatry 39: 108-111, to wit: "The real issue in the study is that neuropsychiatric illness is the variable factor whose existence led to higher rates of mystical experiences." On this website, see articles of others who are in agreement with this conclusion: Farber, Atlas and Frenken

"Against data, social opinion, and sometimes direct confrontation that the experience was a lie,
people will still persist (in the) validity of their own perceptions. . . . I cannot overemphasize
the importance of the sense of conviction produced by these experiences. Following these
small alterations in the temporal lobe, the person becomes convinced that what he or
she has experienced is absolutely right. No amount of rational conversation or data
can sway the opinion."

-- Dr. Michael A. Persinger,

Therefore, those who have had mystical experiences will often insist that the source of their experience was God. Their certainty is overwhelming. All humans have temporal lobes and are, therefore, to some degree, susceptible to their own particular temporal lobe characteristics.

It was noted that it is also possible to have a moment of "truth" or of "clarity" experience apart from re-living an early traumatic feeling and without being in a primal, breathwork or other type of deep feeling-oriented regressive psychotherapy. Even without an opening to insightful knowledge of the "so that's whys" of our different behaviors and a deep understanding of the origins of our personality both of which are usually gained through regressions, such instantaneous and transforming changes can nonetheless occur. Indeed, these shortcuts to cure are probably the most common extant, although their mechanisms probably use the same entry point of the temporal lobe as the more traditional pathways to healing.

These events are similar to St Paul's epiphany on the road to Damascus. Sometimes those moments deal with religion and sometimes they have nothing to do with religion. On occasion, a scene of natural beauty, such as a waterfall, or a painting, or listening to music, is all that is needed. The downside is that one cannot enter into a specific environment, therapy or study in order to induce these remarkable life changing emotional earthquakes, but yet, a spiritual practice can lay the groundwork for these life changing events to occur.

Although not typical of the therapy, a psychiatric resident, describes, years after a primal therapy session, such a one-experience personality-shift: "I had changed. Back at the institution, I suddenly had a much less tense jaw, and was no longer cracking the bit of pipe after pipe. Also, I was no longer so fearful and defensive in the presence of those in authority. These changes lasted; I had had a transformative experience." Aesthema, Issue Nr. 4, My Transformative Experience by Raymond Leibl, M.D.

Thus, the one-time life-changing event can happen unexpectedly. For Dr. Leibl the event took place during a primal therapy session. Such instantaneous cures, however, are the exception in primal therapy. Most primalers simply have an opening to their traumas and much additional work over long periods of time is required to resolve their ever unfolding issues and psychosomatic diseases.

However, instant transformative events have both various depths and length of time of symptom removal varies widely. Over the ages these touches by the divine have been called by many names: Ecstatic moment, mystical experience, God experience, transcendental unconsciousness, getting it, felt shift, objective consciousness, absolute tao, satori, peak experience, deep knowing, shamanic ecstasy, intensity experience, overmind, unclouded vision, divine intuition, luminosity, samadhi, peak state, mystic vision, divine hallucination, divine revelation, flash point, gestalt formation, spiritual epiphany, cosmic consciousness, and born-again experience.

The list of their names is endless but these experiences all have the same origin. Their building blocks comprise our earliest selves. A dose of a psychedelic drug, such as LSD, could also permanently shift our balance into the sublime, but with proper stimulation our own brain chemicals can suffice to loosen our unconscious mind's shackles and thereby transport and transform us.

These wonderous consciousness shifts are sometimes powerful enough to extinguish the old conditioned responses of the person undergoing the moment of transcendence. The usual motivations and negative drives can be erased and the person can unintentionally becomes "saintly" and "holy."

Sociopaths may acquire moral consciences. Some individuals even lose their normal interest in sexuality as the prurient no longer holds their attention. The brain has become washed and the old way of life no longer beckons them to follow its previously alluring, but compulsive, act outs. Magnanimity replaces self-centeredness. Brain circuits are rerouted or physically changed and enjoy a new way of looking at life - a way often encompassing sudden insights and revelations. For some, the changes are much less dramatic than having a God experience, but the changes they perceive in themselves are nonetheless rewarding, undoubtedly, both to themselves and to their families.

Psychiatrist A. Mandell believes these changes might be ". . . manifestations of the drive-arrest-release sequence in biogenic amine inhibitory systems, releasing temporal lobe limbic, hippocampal-septal hypersynchrony that lasts for long periods of afterdischarge. They all may reflect the neurobiological mechanisms underlying transcendence, God in the brain."
Arnold J. Mandell, M.D., ibid., p. 439

For other articles on this subject, see on this website, The Psychology of Mysticism

Return to the Primal Psychotherapy Homepage