Book Review - Varieties of Anomalous Experiences

Cultic Studies Review, 1, (2), 2002.

Varieties of Anomalous Experiences

Frank MacHovec Ph.D.

Center for the Study of the Self

Gloucester, Virginia

Varieties of Anomalous Experiences: Examining Scientific Evidence 

Edited by Etzel Cardena, Steven Jay Lynn, and Stanley Krippner. 

Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 2000, 320 pages. $39.95.

This book is a pleasant and welcome surprise to those who fought to have “mental processes” added to the definition of psychology. Until the 1960s psychology was “the science of behavior” limited to overt, observable, empirically demonstrated behavior. That the American Psychological Association (APA) has published it adds to the surprise because its journals for decades rejected submissions on this subject and still does. In the introduction the book’s editors observe that traditional psychology “long neglected or derided” anomalous experiences because they “fell between the cracks of contemporary mainstream psychology.” But, they add, “Psychology has achieved enough maturity and breadth it can take a serious look at these unusual but important experiences.” Skinner surely would have cringed at such an admission.

The editors describe their goal as inviting “recognized international authorities” to evaluate “empirical support” for anomalous phenomena “in an even-handed manner” and “do justice to the experiences themselves.” They cite the need to “address topics relevant to clinicians” to help them differentiate the anomalous from the pathological and “evaluate the impact in the lives of their clients.” They also cite the importance of exploring the role of these experiences in optimal development, and the need to see them in socio-cultural context. For example, a near-death experience in the East might be seen as a karmic error but in the West as a life-changing, mystic experience. The editors cite the need to “satisfy readers who want a ‘state of science account’” of the phenomena. In a refreshing departure from mainstream psychology, the editors conclude, “The time has come for psychologists and other social and behavioral scientists to seriously consider the varieties of anomalous experiences and integrate them into theory, research, and clinical practice.” Wow!

The book is a collection of 12 articles by a variety of authors on “anomalous experiences” defined as “strange, extraordinary, and unexplained experiences and encounters with the unknown” that “hold great significance for those who have them.” The editors clarify their use of the word “anomalous,” taken from Greek for “irregular, uneven, or unequal … deviation from the usually acceptable explanation of reality” or “an uncommon experience,” but one that might occur in “a substantial amount of the population.” The book’s focus is experiential and “not on testing consensual validity.” Anomalous experiences, according to the editors, are not altered states because they might be part of the “ordering” and not altering of consciousness, and such experiences are not necessarily psychopathological.

Content is presented in two uneven parts. Part 1 is short, with two chapters on conceptual and methodological issues. Part 2 consists of Chapters 3 through 12, each about a different subject. The chapters are well referenced but with some omitted relevant material. The book contains two useful, two-column indices, a 17-page author index, and a 16-page subject index.

Chapter 1 describes the complexity of the material, and the difficulties of researching the topic of anomalous experiences. These experiences vary individually, are multifactoral and multidimensional, and can be plotted on qualitative and quantitative continua. The authors point out the need for clearer criteria to differentiate normal variants from the pathological. They suggest that longitudinal studies yield more useful data than those that are cross-sectional. Because essential factors are not necessarily dimensional, they recommend non-linear, unconventional methodology, such as intensive case studies, depth ratings, and thought sampling, and that these methods should be cross-cultural to be free of cultural artifact.

Chapter 2 observes that science is “based on the subjective experience of scientists,” their “epistemological assumptions,” and that “philosophical tastes have taken precedence over an informed and careful consideration of the evidence.”

Therefore, validity of “so-called objective and subjective data is one of degree rather than kind.” The task, then, is to validate anomalous experiences even though they are highly individualistic and embedded in “introspective report” and “subjective awareness.” The authors suggest phenomenology (“the direct apprehension of reality”) as a way to gather valid data. They are aware that individual “assumptions and predispositions can distort one’s apprehension of the things themselves,” and to overcome such distortions they recommend more detailed data gathering and data processing. Psychophenomenology is what they call this approach, described as a way of applying “traditional psychological measurement and statistical approaches.” Suggested methods include in-depth interviews with detailed life histories that are collated, interpreted, and correlated with others, then generalized; concurrent event reports, or “thinking out loud”; thought sampling; depth ratings to quantify experiences on standardized continua; retrospective reports by interview, structured self-report, case study, diaries, and content analysis; and psychological tests to assess how individuals later integrate and interpret their experiences.

Chapter 3 begins the nine-chapter reconnaissance of a variety of anomalous experiences. This chapter explores “the psychological mechanisms of hallucination,” from Esquinol (1832) to the DSM-IV (2000), and observes that the mechanisms “vary in form and content” and can occur with or without a mental disorder. A continuum model is suggested as a possible and practical method of classifying and quantifying this phenomenon. Coping styles and tactics, and biological markers such as brain localization by neuro-imaging and activation of speech muscles (subvocalization), can provide useful data. Culture, environment, stressors, and inner speech are other operative variables.

Chapter 4 explores synesthesia, defined as a “curious” perception of sensed imagery or “qualities of one modality” that are “transferred to another modality” such as a food or beverage taste, or musical selections being “seen” in various distinctive colors. Weak (literary) and strong (perceptual) synesthesias are differentiated, the former occurring more frequently. This phenomenon does not correlate with intelligence and is reported often in artists, musicians, and writers. Synesthesia is intermodal, consistent, and reliable; “associations are often well-organized and even rulebound,” and such incidents might involve distinct neurological pathways, frontal-lobe inhibition, and multiple physiological processes.

Chapter 5 explores lucid dreams, which are identified by one’s being aware of dreaming while in the dream state. Lucid dreaming includes degrees of awareness, from detachment to active participation occurring in REM sleep. Contributing factors to lucid dreams are high pre-sleep activity, interrupted sleep cycle, emotional arousal, meditation, or intensive psychotherapy.

Content analysis research has been limited but suggests more sensory involvement and sense of control in lucid dreams than in other dream states. Some data suggest lucid dreaming is a cognitive skill, or a function of sensory and/or self-awareness in a highly activated brain. Tibetan Buddhist dream theory is cited, in which the awake state is as illusory as dreaming and is a way of attaining higher consciousness.

Chapter 6 reviews out-of-body experiences (OBEs), in which one perceives being outside of the body. OBEs have been reported in fantasy-prone or imaginative people, schizophrenics, the hypnotizable, as a side effect to street drugs, and in those with body-image distortion or those who have experienced a traumatic childhood event. Most of the data from parapsychology has been difficult to validate. Research done while individuals are experiencing an OBE shows lower EEG frequency, suggesting low arousal, and high theta and delta and low alpha levels, more like stage 3 sleep. Causation is not clear and might be due to temporal lobe pathways, sensory-based reality perception, or somatic perception based on attenuated sensorium.

Chapter 7 considers ESP and psi-related experiences such as telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, and psychokinesis. Although popular, these topics are based on “personally significant and usually compelling” experiences that are difficult to research. Psi phenomena can be an intuitive impression, realistic as in dreams and visual imagery; unrealistic as in fantasy; or hallucinatory, with feelings of anxiety, euphoria, or depression. Possible contributing or causative factors for such experiences include high drive state; dissociative tendency; mental disorder (brief psychosis, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia) or schizotypal personality; temporal lobe activity; meditative state; and high hypnotizability. Psi experiences can be positive cognitively and affectively, but they are also open to misinterpretation by the subject and the researcher or therapist. And meta-analysis of data has not been helpful.

Alien abduction experiences (AAE) are the subject of Chapter 8. While an AAE is a rare individual experience, research on hundreds of cases suggests common elements such as capture, examination, sometimes a UFO tour and communication involving spiritual topics (theophany), and re-entry aftereffects. Also reported is a sense of missing time, slowed response or partial paralysis, and even impregnation and alien births. The authors conclude that AAEs are “dynamic, elaborate involved experiences rich in contextual detail with considerable perceptual, psychological, cognitive, and physical concomitants.” There are also cross-cultural variables. Hypnosis and hypnagogic sleep research has duplicated many AAE features. Researchers differ on their views of AAE susceptibility in fantasy-prone, imaginative, hypnotizable, or mentally disturbed persons. There is insufficient evidence to support any of the explanatory hypotheses for AAEs.

Chapter 9 examines past-life experiences (PLE), “experiences or impressions of oneself … in a previous time or life.” The focus in this chapter is on spontaneous and experimentally induced PLEs, and the material omits those PLEs coincident with hypnosis that could involve suggestion or cryptamnesia. PLEs occur more frequently in those who believe in reincarnation. Most research is limited to one source (Stevenson), and independent replication is needed to confirm any of several explanations, ranging from reincarnation to ESP and socio-cultural interpretation. Interviewer effect, fantasy, chance, and hypnotizability need to be further studied, and with a valid rating system.

Near-death experiences (NDEs), “profound psychological events with transcendental and mystical elements,” are the subject of Chapter 10. According to the material presented here, many individuals who have had an NDE see a brilliant white light as if through a tunnel. Others see and speak with deceased persons. These phenomena occur in about one-third of near-death or severe stress situations. Such experiences often alter the “experient’s attitudes, beliefs, and values.” Common aftereffects on those who have experienced NDEs are increased spirituality, sense of mission or destiny, social concern, appreciation of life, and a decrease in death anxiety and materialism. There are many explanations and no consensus about the NDE: ego defense vs. mystical consciousness; right hemisphere and visual cortex activity vs. awareness of alternate realities; hypoxia or anesthesia aftereffect; fantasy proneness; post-stress artifact; or the DSM’s “religious or spiritual problem.”

Chapter 11 focuses on healing experiences such as the shamanic and those that occur in the context of alternative therapies. A problem of definition exists: healing vs. curing; spontaneous remission or partial improvement, and what caused it; “personal myth” or “consensual reality”; spiritual or psychological? Positively motivated, cortically aroused people, the fantasy-prone, and the hypnotizable show more improvement than the “stoic” or “hopeless” in reported healing experiences. The “placebo effect” is an example of the power of positive perception. Alternative methods can be detrimental if they replace medical or psychiatric treatment, and such methods cost time and money.

Chapter 12 concludes the book with a review of the mystical experience that “diverges in fundamental ways from ordinary conscious awareness” and with a “strong impression” that the person has encountered a higher reality or consciousness. There are individual differences among mystical experiences. Such experiences can be spiritual or even sexual, might quickly fade or persist, can be drug-induced or drug-free, and those having such experiences can clearly perceive or transcend external reality. Variables reported include religious conversion or belief in the paranormal, subliminal consciousness, mediating brain structure and neural pathways, regression in service of ego, pre-egoic formless self, and self-actualized transcendence.

The authors conclude that “mysticism eludes empirical study,” and they question “assumptions, methods, and modes of thought of Western scientific investigation.”

Those who have “worked in the vineyards” of anomalous experiences for decades might ask why it took the APA so long to acknowledge these mental processes. That might be a valid question, but this book more than makes up for the delay with its clear description of the variety of anomalous experiences and its concise summary of alternative explanations and their research bases. I highly recommend this book.