Stephen R. Wilson; Robert C. Spencer

"Intense Personal Experiences: Subjective Interpretations, and After-effects"

Review by Tim Knepper, 2001

Wilson, Stephen R.; Spencer, Robert C. “Intense Personal Experiences: Subjective Interpretations, and After-effects.” The Journal of Clinical Psychology 46 (Sept. 5, 1990): 565-573.

Stephen R. Wilson and Robert C. Spencer’s “Intense Personal Experiences: Subjective Effects, Interpretations, and After-effects” presents the findings of two surveys, both of which were intended as means of evaluating Abraham Maslow’s claim that peak-experiences involved “moments of great joy” that led to therapeutic changes. In the first of these surveys, Wilson and Spencer compared intense positive and negative experiences with respect to three components: (1) the nature of the experience itself (the subjective effects of the experience); (2) the meaning or interpretation given to the experience (whether or not the experience was interpreted in mystical or religious terms); (3) the after-effects of the experience (whether or not the experience was perceived to have a lasting impact on the respondents’ lives). Subjects (of which 79% were college students) were asked both to describe their most intense positive and negative experiences and to respond to structured questionnaire items, the results of which showed that the negative experiences were perceived both as more intense than the positive experiences and as having a more lasting impact on the lives of the respondents than the positive experiences. Insofar as both positive and negative responses to the category “changes in the quality of perception” were low, the data also suggest “profound shifts in consciousness are rare.”  

At the end of the first phase of their research, Wilson and Spencer realized that they “still knew very little about those individuals who had full-fledged, genuine peak experiences of the type described by Maslow” (570). Therefore, they decided to administer the questionnaire used in the first experiment to residents of the Kripalu Ashram, respondents who Wilson and Spencer speculated might have had experiences more like Maslow’s ideal-type peak. The results of this survey (which asked only about positive types of experiences) were then compared with those of the first survey (both positive types of experiences and drug-related experiences). The most notable difference between the two surveys existed in the area “changes in consciousness” (changes in quality of perception, became more spontaneous, became more aware of bodily sensation, became aware of a new reality, felt of personality change). According to Wilson and Spencer, “[t]he ashram residents’ experiences consistently were described as involving an altered state of consciousness more frequently than the non-drug experiences of the non-residents” (570). Significant differences between ashram and non-ashram respondents also existed in the areas of “perceived after-effects” (experiences resulted in change in life) and “mystical/religious interpretations (experiences of oneness, in touch with divine or spiritual). Wilson and Spencer conclude that the ashram respondents’ experiences most closely fit Maslow’s “Perfect Peak Syndrome,” while the non-ashram respondents’ experiences were not describing true peak-experiences. Moreover, “for very few individuals are therapeutic or self-actualizing changes initiated by intense personal experiences. While some people may experience selected elements of the true peak, very few people come close to approximating the ideal-type described by Maslow” (572).