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2003 - 2005: University of California - Los Angeles

Awe-Inspiring Experiences: Natural, Unnatural, Supernatural


2003-2004 Lectures and Activities
2002-2003 Lectures and Activities
Project Leaders
Organizing Committee/Working Group
Additional Information



Across time and space, apparently regardless of culture, some human beings report having profoundly awe-inspiring experiences involving direct perception of the sacred. They describe a unifying vision of the world, bound together by a living presence, in which nothing “really” dies; feelings of blessedness, peace, joy, and happiness; and a sense of paradoxicality. Some of these experiences are life-changing; a few are world-changing, resulting in the foundation of spiritual traditions or of organizations ranging from the Society of Jesus to Alcoholics Anonymous. Awe-inspiring experiences share some characteristics with less extreme spiritual, aesthetic, and emotional experiences, but they have enormously greater power.

Most writing and thinking on this topic comes from mystics: those who, having had one or more such experiences, find their consciousness of themselves and their world permanently and beneficially changed by it, and write to convey their new vision to others. That literature naturally presupposes that the experiences were of Something "real," or of Something that grounds ordinary reality itself.

A newer and narrower literature, more psychologically or sociologically oriented, implicitly assumes that such experiences occur entirely in the minds of those who undergo them, and tries to explain them, or explain them away, as the result of particular brain processes or social settings.

We intend to start from neither position; the ontological status of the content of various awe-inspiring experiences is one of the topics of inquiry. Nor do we assume that the answer to that inquiry will be the same for all experiences. Oases and mirages have many structural features in common and look the same from a distance, but that does not make sand as thirst-quenching as water.

Awe-inspiring experiences are at once natural, unnatural, and supernatural. Each guise raises its own set of questions for exploration. They are natural in that the ability to experience awe seems to be a human universal. Looking at societies and periods that vary widely on just about every imaginable dimension, we find substantial overlap in the reports both of religious mystics, who repeatedly achieve a state of awe through meditation or by other means, and of ordinary people struck by single moments of sudden religious awakening or insight. Mystical experiences seem to vary far less than do popular creeds or theological doctrines.

What is it in the human brain that supports the experience of awe? What happens in the brain before and during the experience? What is the range of emotion and cognition associated with such experiences? What traces do they leave? How do they compare to less intense experiences with similar emotional valence, and to comparably intense experiences not involving awe? What internal or external factors trigger, intensify, or prevent such experiences? What might be the evolutionary function of the underlying capacity to perceive the world in this extraordinary way?

From another viewpoint, awe-inspiring experiences are unnatural. The sense of self is basic to ordinary human functioning. The process of development from baby to child to adult is largely a process of acquiring a sense of “I, me, mine.” A person missing that sense would ordinarily be considered mentally ill and would certainly have a hard time negotiating his or her way around the social world.

Awe-inspiring experiences are often described as involving a dissolution of the sense of self: “ego death.” Yet the result is often experienced, and described by others, as an improvement in mental health and social functioning. It is as if a ship’s sailing were improved by being hulled below the waterline.

What is the range of aftereffects – individual and social – of awe-inspiring experiences? How often do they result in greater happiness? In greater capacity or willingness to serve others (or serve larger goals) when that service involves apparent cost or risk? How do those aftereffects vary with the other characteristics of those who are awe-struck? What importance attaches to the social surround, the extent and nature of preparation, the triggering stimulus (or absence of any apparent stimulus), and the receptivity of existing religious traditions and institutions to mystical insight? How helpful is the presence of a group to which the one who has been awe-struck can report the event and get help in interpreting it and integrating its insights into daily life? Do the structure and pace of modern societies tend to decrease the prevalence of such experiences, or the capacity to benefit from them? What would the consequences be, in our society, of an increased prevalence of such experiences? What, if anything, ought to be done about it?

But if awe-inspiring experiences are natural or unnatural as seen by others, they appear to those who undergo them as supernatural. They are felt as direct encounters with realities not confined by natural laws, and superior to them. Even in recollection, their paradox is not seen as nonsense, but as a sense transcending ordinary logic. As the Lady Julian writes, “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well.”

How consistent are mystical insights with one another? With the dogmas of institutional religion? With a variety of sacred texts? With scientifically grounded views of the cosmos, the social world, and the brain? Are the apparent paradoxes genuine, or can an appropriate analysis of concepts reconcile them with standard logic? When mystical insight appears to conflict with "logic," "reason," or "science" as those terms are ordinarily understood, which should give way, or are productive syntheses achievable? How should claims about reality made on the basis of such experiences be evaluated by those who have not undergone them?

We propose to gather a community of scholars to explore the natural, unnatural, and supernatural aspects of awe-inspiring experiences. The members of our group are drawn from departments of Anthropology, Chemical Engineering, Communication Studies, East Asian Languages and Religion, History and Religion, Neurobiology, Neuropsychiatry, Political Science, Policy Studies, Psychiatry, and Psychology. We seek to understand how awe-inspiring experiences work and why human beings have the ability to experience awe. We will explore the religious, cultural, political, social, and policy implications of that ability.



2003-2004 Lectures and Activities

October 16, 2003
Conference: "Awe-Inspiring Experiences"

Maps of meaning: The architecture of belief
Jordan Peterson, University of Toronto Department of Psychology

The alpha factor and religion: On the display of power and altruism in the sixteenth-century conquest of Mexico
Abel Alves, Ball State University Department of History

Altruism and awe: A research proposal
Chair: William Grassie, Metanexus Institute
Speaker: Mark Kleiman, UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research
Speaker: Susanne Lohmann, UCLA Department of Political Science

The circle of bliss: Buddhist meditational art
Tour of exhibition, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

October-November, 2003
Series: Buddhist art history and meditation
Los Angeles County Museum of Art

October 25: Mindfulness meditation and the Buddhist arts of India and Southeast Asia
November 1: Visualized meditation and the Buddhist arts of the Himalayas
November 8: The circle of bliss: Buddhist meditational art
November 15: Devotional meditation and the Buddhist arts of China and Korea
November 22: Zen meditation and the Buddhist arts of Japan

April 30, 2004
Conference: The Neurobiology of "The Good Life"

Taking Joy in the Way: A Confucian Meditation on Embodied Morality and Modern Neuroscience
Speaker: Edward Slingerland, University of Southern California, Departments of Religion and East Asian Languages & Cultures
Chair: Bob Jesse, Council on Spiritual Practices

Embodiment and Language Comprehension: Event-related Brain Potential Studies
Speaker: Seana Coulson, UC San Diego, Department of Cognitive Science
Chair: Mark Kleiman, UCLA, School of Public Policy and Social Research

Chaos, Order, and Paradise Lost
Speaker: Jordan Peterson, University of Toronto, Department of Psychology
Chair: Bridget Agabra Goldstein, Co-founder of Goldstein's Bagel Bakeries and President of the Board of the Walden School in Pasadena

Towards a Science of Well-being
Speaker: Daniel Kahneman, Professor of Psychology, Princeton University and Nobel Laureate in Economics
Chair: Michael Intriligator, UCLA, Departments of Economics, Political Science, and Policy Studies

Wax Fruit: The Promise and Disappointment of Created Worlds
Speaker: Mark Terrano, Microsoft
Chair: Scott Hutchinson, UC Extension

The Neurobiology of Trust
Speaker: Paul Zak, Claremont Graduate University, Department of Economics and Center for Neuroeconomics Studies
Chair: Maria Jimakas, psychologist in private practice

July 10, 2004
Conference: "Awe to Action: A Day of Exploration & Dialogue"
First Unitarian Universalist Church in San Francisco, California

Morning Keynote: Huston Smith
Breakout Session I: "Awe"
Afternoon Keynote: Larry Harvey, John Perry Barlow
Breakout Session II: "Community"
Breakout Session III: "Action"
Screening of Radiance, a film by keynote speaker Dorothy Fadiman
Evening Keynote: Dorothy Fadiman, James Fadiman
Performance: Sufi Zikr

For more details on the conference see



2002-2003 Lectures and Activities

August 14, 2002
Lunch seminar with Amitai Etzioni

October 15, 2002
Conference: "Awe-Inspiring Experiences and the Saintly Life"

Awe-inspiring experiences: Learning about them, learning from them
Mark Kleiman, UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research Department of Policy Studies

From awe to saintly lives: Developing a research agenda
Robert Jesse , President, Council on Spiritual Practices and editor of Code of Ethics for Spiritual Guides

Darwin’s cathedral: Evolution, religion, and the nature of society
David Sloan Wilson, State University of New York, Binghamton Departments of Biology and Anthropology

Virtual Romanesque Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela
John Dagenais, UCLA Department of Spanish and Portugese
Pieter Lechner, Coordinator, UCLA Academic Technology Services Visualization Portal

Pantheists and panentheists
Abel Alves, Ball State University Department of History

Awe and political legitimacy
Carlo Tognato, UCLA Department of Political Science

Practical and problematic revelations: Coupling complex individual behavior to collective social dynamics
Norman Johnson, Los Alamos National Laboratory

November 14-15, 2002
Conference: "The Self and the Sacred"

Tour of the Getty Museum's exhibition "The Medieval Bestseller: Illuminated Books of Hours"

Welcoming Remarks
Scott Bartchy, Professor of Christian Origins & History of Religion and Director of the Center for the Study of Religion, UCLA
Mark Kleiman, UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research

The Common Core thesis reconsidered: Measurement of a uniform expression of mysticism and its empirical correlates and consequences
Ralph W. Hood, Jr., University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Department of Psychology

Experimental manipulation and assessment of awe
Roland Griffiths, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

They say, ‘Transcend the Self,’ but what is a Self that it can be transcended?
David Galin , University of California San Francisco and Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute

Loss of self and religious ecstasy in early Daoism
Edward Slingerland, University of Southern California Departments of East Asian Languages and Cultures and Religion

Why mystical experience reconfigures ordinary cognition: The view from evolution
David Kydd, Pacifica Graduate Institute, Santa Barbara Department of Clinical Psychology and practicing psychoanalyst

Insight and metacognition: How to survive the simulating brain
Francis Steen , UCLA Communication Studies Program

February 7, 2003
Conference: "The Experience of Awe: Catalysts, Occasions and Consequence"

We invite you to join us in an exploration of the experience of awe.  At the center of interest are the occasional astounding, life-changing, sometimes world-changing experiences of what is encountered as ultimate truth: Moses at the burning bush, Saul on the road to Damascus, the Buddha under the Bodhi tree.  Alongside such instances of "full mystical states" are the more common encounters with awe: watching a sunrise, childbirth, prayer, among many.
The forthcoming day-long conference, the third in a series on the experience of awe, will focus on external catalysts of awe, including shamanic practices, the entheogenic ("God evoking") use of certain psychoactive plants and chemicals, and sensory isolation tanks.  Our focus, however, will not be on these catalysts alone, but also on the preparation, guidance, philosophical training, community, and other circumstances that can help convert peak experiences into lastingly changed lives.  We will also address the challenge of assessing the outcomes, helpful or harmful, of such encounters with awe. 
The February 7 conference will include a participatory session of shamanic journeying using drumming as catalyst.



Project Leaders

Susanne Lohmann is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for Governance at UCLA. She was James and Doris McNamara Fellow at Stanford University in 1991/92, Olin Fellow at the University of Southern California in 1996, Fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences in 1998/99, and Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation in 2000/01. She has published numerous articles on collective action and central banking and is completing a book on How Universities Think. Her current research interests include ethics and governance (as in "why some groups work and others fail").

Mark Kleiman is Professor of Policy Studies and Director of the Drug Policy Analysis Program in UCLA's School of Public Policy and Social Research. His teaching and research cover drug policy, crime control policy, theories of imperfect rationality, and methods of policy analysis. Before entering academic life, he worked on Capitol Hill, as Special Assistant to Edwin Land at Polaroid, as Deputy Director of Management and Budget for the City of Boston, and as Director of Policy and Management Analysis for the Criminal Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. He is also the editor of the Drug Policy Analysis Bulletin and the Chairman of BOTEC Analysis Corporation, which provides policy advice to governments at all levels on drugs, crime, and health. His books include Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control and Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results. He is currently at work on Getting Deterrence Right: Crime Control Policy in the Light of Game Theory and Behavioral Economics. Before moving to UCLA, he taught at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, where he received his Master's and Ph.D. degrees in public policy.

Francis Steen is Assistant Professor of Communications Studies at UCLA. He is interested in phenomena relating to mental simulations, such as animal and children's play, fictional narratives, movies, art, and religion. His research projects include collaborative parent-child learning strategies, the cognitive basis of art, and the evolutionary history of popular entertainment.

Robert Jesse serves as president of the Council on Spiritual Practices (CSP), which sponsors research on primary religious experience and its consequences. He lead the development of CSP's Code of Ethics for Spiritual Guides.



Organizing Committee/Working Group

  • Scott Bartchy, Department of History, UCLA and Director of the UCLA Center for the Study of Religion
  • Leslie Brothers, Verizon, formerly Neuropsychiatric Institute, UCLA
  • Warren S. Brown, Graduate School of Psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary and Director of the Travis Research Institute
  • Michael Chwe, Department of Political Science, UCLA
  • Daniel Fessler, Department of Anthropology, UCLA
  • Alan Fiske, Department of Anthropology, UCLA
  • David Galin, University of California San Francisco and Langley Porter Neuropsychiatric Institute
  • Charles S. Grob, Department of Psychiatry and Pediatrics, School of Medicine, UCLA and Director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center
  • Michael Harrington, writer
  • Keith Holyoak, Department of Psychology, UCLA
  • Robert Jesse, Council on Spiritual Practices (Co-chair)
  • Maria Jimakas, clinical psychologist in private practice
  • Norman Johnson, Los Alamos National Laboratory
  • Timothy Ketelaar, New Mexico State University Department of Psychology
  • Mark Kleiman, School of Public Policy and Social Research, UCLA (Co-chair)
  • Peter Kollock, Department of Sociology, UCLA
  • David Kydd, Pacifica Graduate Institute, Santa Barbara Department of Clinical Psychology and psychoanalyst in private practice
  • Susanne Lohmann, Department of Political Science, UCLA and Director of the UCLA Center for Governance (Co-chair)
  • David E. Presti, Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, Division of Neurobiology, University of California, Berkeley
  • Albert Sattin, Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, UCLA
  • Darren Schreiber, Department of Political Science, UCLA
  • Charles R. Schuster, Director of the Clinical Research Program on Substance Abuse, Wayne State University School of Medicine
  • Edward Slingerland, Departments of East Asian Languages and Cultures and Religion, University of Southern California
  • Leon Sones, Department of Psychiatry, UCLA
  • Francis Steen, Communication Studies Program, UCLA
  • Carlo Tognato, Department of Political Science, UCLA
  • Colleen Turner, Lt. Colonel, Air Force and Senior Programs Advisor for Human Resources in the Space and Missile Systems Center



Additional Information

UCLA Working Group on Awe-Inspiring Experiences



Susanne Lohmann, Ph.D.
University of California Los Angeles
Political Science
4289 Bunche Hall
Box 951472
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1472

Work: 310.825.1277
Fax: 310.825.4331

Mark Kleiman , Ph.D.
University of California Los Angeles
Public Policy and Social Research
3250 Public Policy Building
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1656

Work: 310-825-6148
Fax: 310-206-0337




1616 Walnut Street, Suite 1112, Philadelphia, PA 19103 USA
Voice: + 1 484.592.0304 Fax: +1 484.592.0313