restricted access Spiritual Experience and Psychopathology
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Spiritual Experience and Psychopathology

A recent study of the relationship between spiritual experience and psychopathology (reported in detail elsewhere) suggested that psychotic phenomena could occur in the context of spiritual experiences rather than mental illness. In the present paper, this finding is illustrated with three detailed case histories. Its implications are then explored for psychopathology, for psychiatric classification, and for our understanding of the concept of mental illness. It is argued that pathological and spiritual psychotic phenomena cannot be distinguished by 1) form and content alone (as in traditional psychopathology), 2) by their relationship either with other symptoms or with pathological causes (as in psychiatric classification), or 3) by reference to the descriptive criteria of mental illness implied by the “medical” model. The distinction is shown to depend, rather, on the way in which psychotic phenomena themselves are embedded in the values and beliefs of the person concerned. This in turn is shown to have implications for diagnosis (it shows the need for clinicians to attend to the values and beliefs of individual patients), for treatment (it points to a cognitive problem-solving model), and for research in psychopathology (especially as related to the emerging sciences of dynamic brain imaging and cognitive neuroscience).


first rank symptoms, schizophrenia, delusion, hallucination, thought disorder, religious experience, mystical experience


This paper explores some of the conceptual and practical implications of the finding that phenomena which in a medical context would probably be diagnosed as psychotic symptoms, may occur in the context of non-pathological, and indeed essentially benign, spiritual experiences.

The existence of non-pathological psychotic experiences of this kind (we will call them “psychotic phenomena” as distinct from “psychotic symptoms”—see also Endnote 1, terminology) was a key finding in a study carried out by one of us (MJ) at the Alister Hardy Research Centre (AHRC) in Oxford. Details are given elsewhere both of the overall empirical findings of the study, including the relationship between spiritual experience and personality variables, and of a hypothetical cognitive problem-solving model of these phenomena (Jackson 1991, and forthcoming a and b). In the present paper, 1) the background to the study is described briefly in relation to earlier work on the possible links between spiritual experience and psychopathology; 2) some of the psychotic phenomena identified are illustrated with three detailed case histories; 3) the significance of these phenomena is reviewed for our understanding respectively of psychopathology, of diagnostic syndromes, and of the concept of mental illness; and 4) some of the practical implications of the study for clinical work and research in psychiatry are indicated.


It has long been recognized that there are similarities between spiritual and psychotic experiences. [End Page 41] William James (1902), for example, argued that “in delusional insanity, paranoia as they sometimes call it, we may have a kind of diabolical mysticism, a sort of religious mysticism turned upside down” (426). Other commentators have noted a wide variety of phenomena, such as time distortion, synesthesias, loss of self-object boundaries and the transition from a state of conflict and anxiety to one of sudden “understanding,” all of which are reported in both spiritual and psychotic experiences (Buckley 1981; Watson 1982; Wapnick 1969; and Wootton and Allen 1983).

Yet the similarities notwithstanding, the distinction between these two kinds of experience can be crucially important. Spiritual experiences, whether welcome or unwelcome, and whether or not they are psychotic in form, have nothing (directly) to do with medicine (Fulford 1996a). It would be quite wrong, then, to “treat” spiritual psychotic experiences with neuroleptic drugs, just as it is quite wrong to “treat” political dissidents as though they were ill (Fulford, Smirnoff and Snow, 1993). Pathological psychotic experiences, on the other hand, or psychotic symptoms, are by definition a proper object of medical treatment, sometimes even against the wishes of the person concerned. Hence it would be both negligent and, as Wing (1978) put it, morally “repellent,” to leave untreated someone who is genuinely ill (244).

Given how much turns on the distinction between spiritual experience and psychopathology, it is perhaps not surprising that scholarly discussion of the relationship between them has at times...