‘‘The greatest attainment of identity, autonomy, or self-hood is going beyond and above selfhood”
Think about any moment in your life when you have felt full of joy, happiness, and presence. Maybe it was moment spend with a loved one, a moment of connection with the nature or a moment of deep meditative state where your senses merged. You may have had a Peak Experience, a moment of elevated state of consciousness which places a really important role in the healthy human psyche.
This articles cover
- What are Peak Experiences and why are they important for the health
- How are Peak Experiences different ftom Flow and Peak Performance
- How are Peak Experiences similar to Mystical Experiences
What is Peak Experience?
Peak Experience is an unique emotional and cognitive state of mind which anyone can experience spontaneously during an especially beautiful moment of life. It is described as an emotional state of pure joy and heightened wellbeing accompanied by a sense of unity, freedom from worries and sometimes ego dissolution. It can be experienced, for example, during an awe-inspiring nature experience (like watching an amazing sunrise or sunset), an intimate moment with another person, during peak athletic performance, in a deep meditative state, during a moving musical experience, or during a psychedelic experience. The Peak Experience itself is relatively short-lasting, from some minutes to hours, but the Effects of Peak Experience seem to last after the experience itself and can increase wellbeing, mood and health to more positive for weeks, months or even years. (S, S, S)
Peak Experiences (PE) are classified as Altered States of Consciousness (ACS) that everyone can experience during life. However, using the word “altered” might be misleading, since during these moments people, in fact, report feeling “more real” than in a “normal state of consciousness”. Nevertheless, these special PE-moments are significantly different from normal everyday waking state; they are filled with pure joy, fulfillment, unity, and awe and may even take you ‘outside from yourself”. In other words, you might feel like your ego is temporarily dissolute and all boundaries and separation from the world seem to disappear. You feel loving and accepting of all beings. (S, S)
Peak Experiences are moments of a heightened sense of truth and reality
A famous psychologist Abraham Maslow coined the term Peak Experience (1969) and devoted a great proportion of his scientific career to studying these unique moments of heightened wellbeing and human potential. He interviewed hundreds of people about their experienced PEs trying to find the common characteristic words and sensations linked to these interesting top moments. In general, people reported that during Peak Experiences they were able to see the “reality as it is”, feeling no separation from the surroundings. Like all the senses all the sudden would be working sharply. This does not mean it changes the reality, so it’s not same as hallucinating, rather the world is sensed more real, truer – as if all the inhibitions, self-doubts, biases and fears are melted away and all that remains is pure non-judgmental awareness and acceptance. Interestingly, people also report feeling a heightened sense of truth and goodness – the so-called “eternal values” or “eternal verities” that supports healthy human psyche and are valued in different cultures across the history, and amongst the most respected leaders and laws.
Maslow believed that we all have the possibility to feel Peak Experiences in our daily lives, but people who are more emotionally healthy have better chance to have PEs more frequently. Peak Experiences can happen during precious moments in life, for example (1) when a woman gives a birth or holds the newborn baby in her arms, (2) when having a burst of creativeness, insight, or discovery, (3) having a moment of fusion with the nature (in a forest, mountains, or seashore), or (4) skydiving, skin-diving, and so on. Maslow reported that a person can feel heightened wellbeing in ordinary, everyday moments such as exceeding one’s capacities and reaching one’s maximal human potential. One story of Peak Experience that he described was:
“A young man working his way through medical school by drumming in a jazz band reported years later, that in all his drumming he had three peaks when he suddenly felt like a great drummer and his performance was perfect.”
Peak Experiences are different from Flow or Peak Performance
Just before Abraham Maslow died, he was rigorously studying Peak Experiences, a momentary state of heightened wellbeing and ecstatic joy. At the time he was also in the process of writing his latest book The Father reaches of Human Nature. There is still a lot more to understand Peak experiences and how PE is different from or similar to other unique states of consciousness both (1) phenomenologically and (2) neurobiologically. For example, PE share similar qualities to (but are not the same than) Peak Performance or Flow. The difference is that whereas PE is described as a mystic, transpersonal, and affective (state of mind), Peak Performance means optimal functioning, is more variable/transactional and does not have all the qualities of PE. Also, PE is different from flow, which is characterised as fun – a quality that at least Maslow did not include with PEs. However, all three share the same characteristics of absorption, valuing, joy, spontaneity, and a sense of power. (S)
However, we should also keep in mind that we are talking about subjective phenomenological states, and there is no biomarker for any of these states. Instead, the research is based on interviews and conducted by intrinsically biased humans, all which creates ambiguity to the systematic classification of the states. In addition, undoubtedly individuals will experience and report slightly different subjective experience during all of these states and thus, the differentiation should not be made too artificial.
Peak Experiences in comparison to Mystical Experiences
In addition to flow and Peak Performance, Peak Experience is sometimes compared to Mystical Experiences (ME), which have gotten a lot of attention within the past 20 years in the field of clinical and neuropsychology. MEs share many similarities with Peak Experience and the terms are used interchangeably. (S). Actually, Maslow believed that Mystical Experience is just another form of Peak Experience.
The mystical experience described states that have sacred, spiritual or even religious tone. In a recent systematic review Mystical Experiences are told to hold a sense of (1) unity, (2) transcendence of time and space, (3) deeply felt positive mood, (4) sense of sacredness, (5) noetic quality, (6) ineffability, and (7) transient experience with persisting changes in personality. In his time, Maslow proposed that there is no distinction between PE and ME. He believed that all “mystic” states are perfectly natural human experiences without any mystical (as in mysterious, supernatural or unnatural) characteristics and can be scientifically studied in the same way than any other conscious state of mind. He concluded that those ‘religious’ and other ‘mystical illuminations’ can all be submerged under the head or Peak Experiences or ‘Ecstasies’ which have two types:
(1) relative: person still feels ‘sense of self’ but has extended the experience of awareness
(2) absolute: a person feels ego-dissolution and pure unity with the world
The view of Maslow is getting support from the recent neurobiological findings which have found that many of the “supernatural” qualities of MEs can be explained as altered brain activation patterns. (S). Mystical Experiences are described in religious experiences and currently, they are reported in psychedelic research in clinical psychology. Mystical Experiences are linked to the positive outcomes of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy in the treatment of addiction, depression, PTSD and anxiety (S)
In some of his research trials where Maslow studied PEs he would also use LSD with music, visual stimuli, and suggestion to provoke these states. For example, in one trial with 105 alcoholic patients, he used the aforementioned method to study how Peak Experiences relate to clinical improvements in addiction. Examining this group Maslow concluded that the main component of PE is affect, i.e. heightened wellbeing and ecstatic happiness. (p. 104). From this and other PE studies, Maslow ended up producing a list describing the characteristics of PE, which includes truth, beauty, wholeness, dichotomy-transcendence, aliveness-process, uniqueness, richness, justice, order, simplicity, perfection, playfulness, and effortlessness. Recent clinical psychological research using psilocybin and other serotonergic hallucinogens that reports clinical improvements in depression, anxiety, addiction, and PTSD, have described participants experiencing Peak Experiences per se (instead of Mystical Experience). (S) (S). However, it can be that a big part of this dichotomy is just a question of terminology. Peak Experiences and Mystical Experiences have shown to share many similar components, especially the heightened joy, truth, and feeling of unity and equanimity, which surely play an important role in human mental wellbeing.
Taken all this together,
it seems that there is a state of consciousness, which can be described Peak Experience (or in some cases Mystical Experience), which takes the mind into a state of ecstatic joy and happiness and has significant value to our mental health and balance. These states can be experienced during normal everyday life, but they are relatively short-lived. They can, however, elevate mood, and improve health for a long period of time. Mentally healthier individuals seem to experience these states more. They can happen (e.g.) after a deep experience of flow, having a significant social moment or in experiencing a deep connection with nature.
This article was a brief overview of peak experiences and described:
- How Maslow founded and described Peak Experiences (PE)
- What kind of qualities PE’s have according to Maslow
- How PEs are different from flow and Peak Performance
- How PEs are (possibly) similar to Mystical Experiences (ME)
- What neuropsychology and clinical psychology has found about PEs and MEs
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