Arthur J. Deikman

“Experimental Meditation”

“De-automatization and the Mystic Experience”

Review by Tim Knepper, 2001

Deikman, Arthur J. “Experimental Meditation.” Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 136: 329-343 (1963).

Deikman, Arthur J. “De-automatization and the Mystic Experience.” Psychiatry 29: 324-338 (1966).

Deikman’s 1963 article “Experimental Meditation” reports the results of an experiment designed to test three hypotheses regarding meditation and de-automatization: “1) that the procedure of contemplative meditation is a principle agent in producing the mystic experience; 2) that training in contemplative meditation leads to the building of intrapsychic barriers against distracting stimuli; and 3) that many of the phenomena described in mystic accounts can be regarded as the consequence of a partial de-automatization of the psychic structures that organize and interpret perceptual stimuli” (329). The experiment involved a ten-inch blue vase, a subject who was instructed to concentrate on the vase at the exclusion of other thoughts, feelings and sensations (“to see the vase as it exists in itself”), and the experimenter who used various prerecorded sounds (music, poetry, prose, etc.) in order to try to distract the subject. After each session (12 in total, each 5 to 15 minutes in length), the subject (8 in all, each a well-educated, middle-aged acquaintance of Deikman) described their experience of the session, the vase, the distracting sounds, etc. Deikman reports five types of phenomena experienced to some degree by all subjects: perception of the vase (darkening of hue, increased color saturation, loss of the third dimension, changes of size and shape, blurring or dissolving of outlines, and movement of the vase itself); time shortening; conflicting perceptions (contradictory reports due to the inadequacies of language); development of stimulus barriers; and personal attachment to the vase. Four additional phenomena were reported by a few of the subjects: merging (blurring of boundaries between the vase (or blueness of the base) and the subject); radiation (emission of heat, light, and motion from the vase); de-differentiation (resistance of stimuli to visual organization); and transfiguration (perception and description of visual objects in terms of pleasure, luminescence and movement). Deikman interprets these findings as confirmation of his three hypotheses, particularly of contemplative meditation as de-automatization.

Arthur J. Deikman’s 1966 article “De-automatization and the Mystic Experience” undertakes a psychological account of mystical experience – in particular, the facilitation of mystical experience by the techniques of meditation and renunciation – via the psychological concept of de-automatization. After categorizing mystical experience as threefold: (1) untrained sensate (an experience of intense affective, perceptual and cognitive phenomena by subjects untrained in religious-mystical techniques); (2) trained-sensate; and (3) trained-transcendent (an experience that transcends affective, perceptual and cognitive modalities), Deikman turns to the “basic mystic techniques” of contemplation and renunciation, two techniques that have been used to facilitate mystical experience. Rejecting a few of the more traditional psychological explanations of such phenomena, Deikman utilizes the concept of de-automatization to explain mediation and renunciation. Meditation qua de-automatization involves the “manipulation of attention” from abstract thought to a percept or action: “Cognition is inhibited in favor of perception; the active intellectual style is replaced by a receptive perceptual mode” (329). Mystics therefore frequently experience a “new vision,” a seeing of things as if for the first time (except in the case of trans-sensate mystical experiences, which Deikman understands to involve a perceptual experience outside of customary verbal or sensory reference). And renunciation, the withdrawal of the everyday self from the everyday world, is understood by Deikman as a weakening and disruption of the perceptual and cognitive structures that undergird an everyday experience of the world, thereby causing de-automatization. Deikman concludes his article by explaining the “five principle factors of the mystic experience” (realness, unusual percepts, unity, ineffability, and trans-sensate phenomena) via both the concept of de-automatization and the concomitant notions of reality transfer, sensory translation and perceptual expansion. The sense of realness that often accompanies mystical experience is the result of a shift of attention from objects to sensation and ideas that enter awareness during periods of perceptual and cognitive de-automatization (“reality transfer”). The unusual percepts of mystical experience are explained by Deikman as “sensory translation,” the experience of “the perception of a resynthesis taking place following de-automatization of the normal percept” (333-334). And an experience of unity is understood as “the awareness of new dimensions of the total stimulus array” (“perceptual expansion”).