On mental states, mindfulness, and self-transcendent experiences

Many people report deep feelings of connection and self-loss while listening to music, meditating, or during intense experiences of awe—an experience captured by the phrase, “I felt at one with all things” or, “I was lost in the music.”

In psychology, feelings of oneness and self-loss are often described as symptoms of psychopathology, but might they also be associated with well-being? An interdisciplinary team of Penn psychologists and neuroscientists thinks so. The group was put together by David Yaden, a research fellow in the Positive Psychology Center and Ph.D. student in the Department of Psychology in the School of Arts & Sciences.

In a recent article “The Varieties of Self-Transcendent Experience,” published in the American Psychology Association journal Review of General Psychology, the team identified a number of mental states that involve a sense of unity and self-loss that tend to be associated with positive mental states and outcomes, like well-being. These mental states are mindfulness, flow, some positive emotions such as love and awe, and even peak and mystical experiences.

While each of these mental states are the subject of on-going psychology and neuroscience research, the underlying similarity between them had not been previously described.

“In some sense we’ve been studying this phenomenon all along, it’s just been a little bit hidden,” Yaden says. “We found this self-transcendent aspect in these otherwise very different constructs.”

By identifying a common element in these mental states and positioning them along a common continuum, the researchers hope to learn more about how these experiences are capable of increasing well-being and what neural mechanisms make them possible.

The team of psychologists and neuroscientists is notable due to their background in relevant areas of research. Yaden is interested in the connection between these mental states and well-being. Jonathan Haidt is a professor of social psychology at New York University and has given a TED talk on the topic of self-transcendence. Andrew Newberg is a radiologist at Jefferson University Hospital who has studied experiences of unity using neuroimaging technology. David Vago is the director of research at Vanderbilt’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine and studies mindfulness meditation. Ralph Hood is a professor at the University of Tennessee and an expert in mystical experiences.

The team worked together to compile a broad range of research on self-transcendent experience from the fields of social psychology, clinical psychology, and affective neuroscience.

Yaden, who had an intensely self-transcendent experience in college, believes that it’s important to study these experiences because of their prevalence. Some studies have shown that about a third of the U.S. population agrees that they’ve had an experience where they “felt at one with all things.”

“I think that’s a surprisingly high number,” Yaden says. “That means we all know people that have had an intensely self-transcendent experience.”

In terms of the research, one aspect of it that Yaden is excited about is how certain fundamental faculties of consciousness are altered during these experiences.

“The sense of time changes, the sense of space around one changes, and the sense of self changes,” he says. “I think we can learn a lot about the presence of these aspects of consciousness by studying instances in which they’re altered or absent, like during experiences of self-transcendence. Getting at how the mind and brain represent time, space, and self are very deep questions in psychology, and I think that these experiences can help to illuminate those topics.”