Return to: Spirituality and Well-Being ArticlesSpirituality and Paranormal Phenomena An Exploratory Study of the Effects of Paranormal and Spiritual
Experiences on Peoples' Lives and Well-Being
J.E. Kennedy and H. Kanthamani
(Original publication and copyright: The Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research,
1995, Volume 89, pp.249-265.)
ABSTRACT: Questionnaires were developed to investigate the effects that paranormal and transcendent/spiritual experiences have on peoples' lives. Data from a convenience sample of 120 people actively interested in parapsychology who reported having had at least one paranormal and/or transcendent experience showed that these experiences increased their interest and beliefs in spiritual matters and increased their sense of well-being. More specifically, the majority of respondents indicated that the experiences resulted in increased belief in life after death, belief that their lives are guided or watched over by a higher force or being, interest in spiritual or religious matters, sense of connection to others, happiness, well-being, confidence, optimism about the future, and meaning in life. They also indicated decreases in fear of death, depression or anxiety, isolation and loneliness, and worry and fears about the future. A large majority of respondents indicated that these effects resulted from a combination of more than one paranormal and/or transcendent experience. The magnitude of changes in well-being and spirituality were positively associated with the number of anomalous experiences. Measures of current well-being and current importance of spirituality were positively associated with reported changes in well-being and spirituality resulting from anomalous experiences. Although 45% of the respondents indicated that a paranormal experience had made them very afraid, this fear appeared to be temporary or mixed with positive feeling because only 9% indicated that their experiences have been scary with no positive value. Further research should investigate the extent to which the findings for this selected sample apply to other populations and the extent to which motivations relating to spirituality direct or underlie the occurrence of paranormal phenomena, including in experimental settings.
Recent research suggests that a world view that is open to aspects of life beyond the physical-materialistic realm can be conducive to health and well-being (Borysenko, 1993; Gartner, Larson, & Allen, 1991; Koenig, 1990; Larson, et al., 1992; Ornish, 1990). Interest in this research on mind-body medicine and the link between spirituality and health is rapidly growing.
Although one might expect that psychic experiences would promote this type of worldview,
The authors thank the referees for making valuable comments on an earlier version of this paper. We also want to thank Dr. K. Ramakrishna Rao for his encouragement and support of this project and Joann Romano for data entry. This study was supported in part by the Mary Fleig Research Fellowship Fund from the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man.
virtually no research has been done in parapsychology on the effects of psychic experiences on peoples' lives and worldviews. Several studies have found that near-death experiences induce positive changes or transformation in many people (Gallup with Proctor, 1982; Greyson & Stevenson, 1980; Ring, 1980; 1984), but this investigation generally has not been extended to other types of paranormal experiences. White (1990) and Blackmore (1988) have called for such research, and Milton (1992) reported a small initial survey of the effect of psychic experiences on people's lives. On the other hand, the fact that some people are disturbed by psychic experiences and may need counseling has often been discussed in parapsychology (e.g., Hastings, 1983; Siegel, 1986; Weiner, 1980), but the frequency of occurrence of negative reactions has not been quantitatively described.
Information on the effects of psi experiences also may provide insights into motivational factors that are widely presumed by parapsychologists to guide or underlie psi phenomena. Although motivational factors are thought to be pivotal for psi phenomena (Broughton, 1988; Stanford, 1974a, 1974b; Weiner and Geller, 1984), very little research has been aimed at investigating the overall effects of paranormal experiences. This type of research may provide one of the best windows to the motivations underlying the phenomena. Information on the effects of psi phenomena for people who volunteer for parapsychological research may be of particular interest to experimental researchers.
The purposes of the present study were (a) to develop questionnaires to evaluate the effects of paranormal and mystical/spiritual experiences on people's lives, and (b) to collect initial data with the questionnaires.
Questionnaires The development of the two primary questionnaires for this study was influenced by several factors, including published work, our previous experience with people reporting anomalous experiences, our preliminary explorations with various questionnaire strategies, and our personal anomalous experiences. One overriding goal of questionnaire development was to have short questionnaires that could be used in a wide variety of situations. The final questionnaires entitled the Index of Changes Resulting From Experiences and the Checklist of Effects of Experiences, are given in appendixes A and B respectively. These two questionnaires were administered along with the two-page Life Experiences Questionnaire,1 which is described
1 The Life Experiences Questionnaire will be given in a subsequent article (Kennedy & Kanthamani, in press), and an earlier and slightly modified and reformatted version is also being published in another report (Kennedy, Kanthamani, & Palmer, in press).
in other reports (Kennedy, Kanthamani, & Palmer, in press; Kennedy & Kanthamani, in pess). The Life Experiences Questionnaire contains measures related to current health status including well-being, meaning in life, and self-reported health. Results for the Life Experiences Questionnaire are reported separately (Kennedy & Kanthamani, in press).
These questionnaires focus on paranormal and transcendent experiences. Paranormal experiences were described as including psychic and out-of-body experiences, healing miracles, communication with the dead, apparitions, etc. This broad subject matter was selected because our initial explorations found that people described a wide variety of anomalous experiences as affecting their lives and sometimes reported interactions among different types of experiences. Transcendent experiences included profound mystical or spiritual experiences, which were characterized in the Life Experiences Questionnaire as an "overwhelming feeling of peace and unity with the entire creation, or profound inner sense of divine presence." For this project, we were more interested in the effects of the experience than a precise categorization of the type of experience. In this report, we use the term anomalous when referring to both types of experiences.
In addition to the two questionnaires on the effects of the experiences, the respondents were asked how many times they had each type (paranormal or transcendent) of experience and to describe briefly their most important experience. Some experiences may have both paranormal and transcendent features and were counted in both categories. Respondents were also asked their age at the time of the experience and were given the option of not sharing the details of the experience for personal reasons. Each author independently classified the experience descriptions as paranormal, transcendent, or both, and the discrepancies were resolved. If a respondent described separate paranormal and transcendent experiences, the classification "both" was used. Because we were primarily interested in the effects of the experiences, we accepted the respondents' interpretation of their experiences and did not exclude experiences that appeared to us to be doubtful or of poor quality.
Index of Changes Resulting From Experiences: This questionnaire asks the respondents whether their paranormal or transcendent experiences resulted in an increase, decrease, or no change for each of 21 feelings or characteristics. The development of this index began by selecting key items from Ring's (1984) work with near-death experiences. We added other items that more directly related to well-being and also added some negative items to make the items more balanced. After a few preliminary respondents commented that they had difficulty with the questionnaire because change should be measured relative to a baseline value, we added a response column asking to what extent the respondent had the feeling or characteristic prior to his or her anomalous experience(s). A final question asked whether the indicated changes were due primarily to one experience or to a combination of experiences. After initial use, three items were
replaced by other items and minor wording changes were made for a few other items. The varying sample sizes in the results reflect the items that were added later.
Checklist of Effects of Experiences (Appendix B): This questionnaire lists 20 statements of possible effects of paranormal or transcendent experiences and asks the respondent to check all those that apply to him or her. Although a variety of sources were used to develop this list of statements, the primary source was the detailed responses from over 30 people on an earlier, preliminary open-ended questionnaire about the full effects of their anomalous experiences. Here too, some items were replaced and others slightly modified after initial use.
In the questionnaire package the Index of Changes Resulting from Experiences was placed before the Checklist of Effects of Experiences. For about two thirds of the cases, the description of the most important experience was placed before the two questionnaires. This ordering allowed (forced) respondents to think about their experiences before filling out the other questionnaires. For about one third of the cases the description of the most important experience was placed after the two questionnaires to see if this order affected the return rate (which it did not). Initially, the two-page Life Experiences Questionnaire2 was used as a screening tool to identify people with experiences who were later sent the questionnaires about their experiences. However, due to poor response rates, we put all the questionnaires together in one five-page package. Over three-fourths of the data were obtained with the five-page package.
Respondents The questionnaires were administered to a convenience sample of people who were likely candidates to have had anomalous experiences. The great majority were actively interested in parapsychology and were typical of people who volunteer for parapsychological research. For the purposes of this initial study, we were interested in people with anomalous experiences, not a random sample from the general population. Only people who reported one or more paranormal or transcendent experiences were included in the analysis. The 120 respondents with experiences were: 7 drop-in visitors to the Institute for Parapsychology, 9 people who contacted the Institute by mail or phone, 9 participants in the 1994 summer study program at the Institute, 3 staff members of the Institute, 3 members of the Association for Research and Enlightenment (Edgar Cayce group)
2 Although the two-page Life Experiences Questionnaire initially asked about psychic experiences and was later modified to inquire about the broader category of paranormal experiences (Kennedy & Kanthamani, in press), the questionnaires described here that were used to obtain more information from those with experiences were developed later in the project and addressed solely the broader category of paranormal experiences.
who attended a talk on parapsychology, 13 college students from the mail survey that was described previously (Kennedy, Kanthamani, & Palmer, in press), and 76 respondents to questionnaires mailed to 1200 names on a mailing list of people who had ordered books or other products related to paranormal phenomena. These constitute all the responses we have obtained to date for these questionnaires.
The study sample represents people who are interested in paranormal phenomena and are motivated to participate in research. The findings from this group may not be typical of other groups.
Data Analysis The primary purpose of the study was to provide initial data identifying and describing the effects of the experiences. No statistical hypothesis tests were planned. All data were independently checked after data entry to verify accuracy.
The 120 respondents were 62% female. Mean age was 42 years and ranged from 16 to 84. The age distribution of the respondents, was: 22% under age 25, 23% aged 25 through 39, 35% aged 40 through 59, and 21% 60 or older.
Multiple Experiences The majority of respondents reported multiple paranormal and transcendent experiences. As shown in Table 1, 52% reported more than 10 paranormal experiences and about 27% reported more than 10 transcendent experiences. The higher percentage of paranormal experiences may reflect the fact that respondents were recruited based on interest in parapsychology and the paranormal. Approximately 96% of the respondents reported at least one paranormal experience, and 83% reported at least one transcendent experience. The obvious trend in Table 1 indicating that multiple paranormal experiences were associated with multiple transcendent experiences reflects a correlation coefficient of .52 between the number of each experience.
The effects of the experiences were generally due to a combination of experiences. On the Index of Changes, 86% of the respondents indicated that the changes were due primarily to more than one anomalous experience (excluding 17 respondents who did not answer this question). Likewise, on the Checklist of Effects, 71% of the respondents indicated that one or more of the effects checked was due to more than one anomalous experience.
Respondents with a larger number of experiences reported more effects from their experiences. The number of items checked on the Checklist of Effects of Experiences (excluding
Table 1. Number of Paranormal and Transcendent Experiences
Number of Transcendent Experiences
2 - 5
6 - 10
2 - 5
6 - 10
a The figures for the totals include missing values for the other variable and therefore are sometimes greater than the sum of the rows and columns. There were 118 cases without missing responses for the number of paranormal experiences and 115 cases for number of transcendent experiences.
the last two items) correlated (r=.51) with the number of paranormal experiences and (r=.49) with the number of transcendent experiences. The percentage of items marked as either increasing or decreasing on the Index of Changes Resulting From Experiences correlated (r=.36) with the number of transcendent experiences, but was not suggestively associated with the number of paranormal experiences (r=.14). This latter result suggests that many of the feelings and characteristics on the Index of Changes may be more influenced by transcendent than paranormal experiences.
The experience descriptions were classified as 55% paranormal, 13% transcendent, 19% both, and 5% as cases that appeared to be neither paranormal nor transcendent. About 8% of the respondents chose not to describe their most important anomalous experience.
Index of Changes Resulting From Experiences The Index of Changes Resulting From Experiences questionnaire (see Appendix A) indicated increased interest and belief in spiritual matters and increased well-being. As shown in Table 2, the most extreme changes were for spirituality-related items such as desire to achieve a higher consciousness, belief in life after death, and interest in spiritual or religious matters. A preponderance of positive responses were also found on well-being items such as feelings of happiness and well-being, sense of connection to others, optimism about the future, purpose or meaning for life, and motivation to maintain health. Reciprocal responses were found on the negative well-being items: feelings of isolation or loneliness, feelings of depression or anxiety, and worry and fears about the future.
For all but two items the changes resulting from the experiences were not related to the degree that the person had the feeling or characteristic prior to the experiences. The two exceptions were
Table 2. Results from Index of Changes Resulting from Experiences
aFactors are based on factor analysis. + means positive loading and ─ means negative loading.
"depression or anxiety" and "worry and fears about the future," which had greater decreases associated with reported higher levels before the anomalous experiences (r=.31 and .28 respectively).
Various exploratory factor analyses gave mixed results. Five factors are indicated in Table 2. The first factor includes key well-being measures and the third factor includes several items that may be related to spirituality. These two factors and the fifth factor (desire to have a high standard of living) were relatively distinct. The other two factors correlated with factor one and tended to vary with different rotations and numbers of retained factors. The scree plot did not suggest a clear number of factors. These results are probably not surprising because most items on the questionnaire were not intended to provide multiple indicators of underlying constructs. The relatively low ratio of observations to variables also may be a factor in these results.
Checklist of Effects of Experiences The results from the Checklist of Effects of Experiences (see Appendix B) confirm the impacts on spirituality and well-being. As shown in Table 3, 72% of the respondents indicated that they believe their life is guided or watched over by a higher force or being as a result of their experiences, 63% are certain there is life after death, 55% became significantly more spiritual or
religious, and 49% were helped to understand and accept death. Similarly, 56% became more happy and confident, and only 8% became more anxious and insecure.
More mundane beneficial effects were also common, but less prevalent than the spirituality-related effects. For example, 47% indicated that a paranormal experience helped them avoid
Table 3. Results from Checklist of Effects of Experiencesa
I have had one or more experiences that I am certain were paranormal, and not just coincidence or imagination.
As a result of my paranormal or transcendent experience(s), I believe my life is guided or watched over by a higher force or being.
One or more of the statements checked above was due to a sequence or combination of more than one paranormal and/or transcendent experiences. [at bottom of questionnaire]
As a result of my paranormal or transcendent experience(s), I am certain there is life after death.
A paranormal or transcendent experience was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life.
I have had paranormal and/or transcendent experiences since childhood.
My paranormal or transcendent experience(s) have made me more happy and confident.
I became significantly more spiritual or religious as a result of my paranormal or transcendent experience(s).
One or more paranormal or transcendent experiences helped me accept and understand death.
One or more paranormal experiences helped me avoid injury or avoid a serious personal or financial problem.
I have seen or experienced paranormal phenomena that made me very afraid.
I feel like I have a purpose or mission in life as a result of my paranormal or transcendent experience(s).
One or more paranormal or transcendent experiences seemed to confirm or reinforce that I was doing what I should be doing.
One or more paranormal or transcendent experiences played a role in helping me overcome a difficult personal problem.
One or more paranormal experiences played a role in helping me meet someone with whom I formed an important personal or professional relationship.
When I was thinking about making a major life change, one or more paranormal or transcendent experiences seemed to confirm or reinforce that I should make the change.
One or more paranormal or transcendent experiences motivated me to make a major life change that I was not previously thinking about making.
My paranormal and/or transcendent experiences have had little effect on my life so far.
My paranormal experience(s) have been scary with no positive value that I can find.
My paranormal or transcendent experience(s) have made me more anxious and insecure.
aAll statments have 119 responses, except three statements that have 95 due to changes in the questionnaire.
injury or avoid a serious personal or financial problem, 38% indicated that an anomalous experience confirmed that they were doing what they should be doing, 32% indicated an experience helped them overcome a serious personal problem, and 25% indicated an experience motivated them to make a major life change.
Relationship with Current Status The respondents' current well-being, importance of spirituality, and sense of meaning in life were positively related to the degree of change in these variables resulting from anomalous experiences. As shown in Table 4, the correlation between current well-being or mental health measured on the Life Experiences Questionnaire and change in well-being resulting from anomalous experiences (the first factor from the Index of Changes) was .50. The current importance of religion and spirituality as a purpose of life correlated (r=.34) with the item on interest in religious or spiritual matters on the Index of Changes. The correlation between current global meaning in life and the item on purpose or meaning for life on the Index of Changes was .40. The current levels of well-being, importance of spirituality, and meaning in life were also correlated with their corresponding values prior to the anomalous experiences (see Table 4). However, the partial correlations between current levels and changes resulting from experiences
Table 4. Correlations between Current Status and Changes Resulting from Anomalous Experiencesa
Meaning in Life
Correlation between current ratings and changes that resulted from anomalous experiences
Correlation between current ratings and levels prior to anomalous experiences
Partial correlation between current ratings and changes that resulted from anomalous experiences adjusting for levels prior to anomalous experiences
aFor all three variables, current measures were taken from the Life Experiences Questionnaire, which included a six-item mental health or well-being scale, one item asking the respondent to rate the degree that observing religious and spiritual beliefs were an important purpose of life for the respondent, and one item asking the respondent to rate the degree that he or she has found meaning and purpose for his or her life. These current measures were correlated with corresponding items from the Index of Changes Resulting From Experiences. The well-being measure was the score for the first factor indicated in Table 2. Spirituality was the rating for the item "Interest in spiritual or religious matters." Meaning in life was the rating for the item "Sense of purpose or meaning for my life." The levels prior to the experiences were taken from the corresponding items on the Index of Changes From Experiences.
remained at approximately the same magnitudes after adjusting for the values prior to the anomalous experiences.
The number of transcendent experiences was also correlated with current importance of spirituality (r=.43) and current meaning in life (r=.32), and marginally with current well-being (r=.19). On the other hand, the correlations between these three factors and number of paranormal experiences were .10 or less.3 Despite the overall positive effects, 45% of the respondents reported that they have seen or experienced paranormal phenomena that made them very afraid. However, only 9% indicated that their paranormal experiences have been scary with no positive value. Thus, the fear reactions were either a short-term effect or occurred simultaneously with positive effects.
The only convincing difference between sexes after adjustment for multiple analyses was that females indicated a greater certainty of life after death on the Checklist of Effects than males. This item was checked by 76% of the females and 41% of the males (which gives a correlation of .36). There were no convincing variations with age after adjustment for multiple analyses.
DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSIONS
People who are actively interested in parapsychology and have had experiences they interpret as paranormal or transcendent report that these experiences have enhanced their spiritual beliefs and well-being. These effects are generally a combined result of more than one anomalous experience and a larger number of experiences are associated with greater effects. Fear apparently is a relatively common initial reaction to paranormal phenomena, but the overall, long-term effects appear to be positive in this group.
These results support McClenon's conclusion that anomalous experiences promote well-being and spirituality (McClenon, 1994). McClenon based his conclusion primarily on recent and historical autobiographical accounts and field observations. The present results are also similar to findings from near-death experiences (Ring, 1980, 1984) and religious experiences (Hay, 1979), and suggest that different types of anomalous experiences may induce similar effects. (Only four of the experiences described in the present sample were near-death experiences.) These findings are also consistent with other studies that (a) found positive overall ratings for the effects of anomalous experiences but did not investigate what aspects of life were affected (Gabbard & Twemlow, 1984; Kennedy & Kanthamani, 1995; Kennedy, Kanthamani, and Palmer, in press;
3 The importance of artistic creativity as a purpose in life was positively correlated with number of paranormal experiences (r=.30) and number of transcendent experiences (r=.33). These results extend the findings in other reports that this artistic factor was positively associated with whether or not a person reported having at least one paranormal experience (Kennedy & Kanthamani, 1995; Kennedy, Kanthamani, & Palmer, 1994).
Richards, 1991), and (b) reported changes in various aspects of life, but did not report whether the changes were positive or negative (Palmer, 1979).
The reports of increased well-being and other positive effects resulting from anomalous experiences are consistent with the common assumption that paranormal phenomena are guided by motivations or needs (Broughton, 1988; Stanford, 1974a; 1974b; Weiner and Geller, 1984). Although spirituality-related effects were most prevalent, more mundane beneficial effects were also common. Of course, a psi experience with a relatively mundane benefit such as avoiding personal injury, could also enhance a person's spiritual perspective.
We believe that the present findings are reasonably representative of people who are actively interested in paranormal phenomena and who volunteer to participate in parapsychological research. Although this selected population is of interest in its own right, these findings, like the results of experiments using similarly recruited subjects, cannot be confidently extended to the general population. This population may be a self-selected group with unusually positive reactions to anomalous experiences. However, even with such a positive bias, the data may offer useful information about the relative prevalence of different positive effects and associated motivational factors, particularly for the population of people who volunteer for parapsychological research.
The fact that anomalous experiences apparently induce positive reactions in some people provides a strong impetus for additional research. The extent to which these findings generalize to other groups remains to be investigated. This line of research also has significant implications for better understanding those who volunteer to participate in parapsychological experiments and thus for better understanding the results of those experiments.
Suggestions for Future Research Under the traditional assumption that motivation directs psi phenomena, the beneficial effects reported here presumably are manifestations of the operative motivations and certainly merit further investigation. The present findings suggest that the most prevalent self-reported positive effects of anomalous experiences pertain to factors of spirituality and world view. Although researchers historically have thought that motivation guided psi phenomena, very little research has been carried out on motivations related to spirituality and world view. At a minimum, these factors could be routinely monitored in subjects volunteering to participate in psi experiments.
Research on the effects of anomalous experiences must also include a wide range of experiences. The present data confirmed previous findings that the occurrence of different types of anomalous experience tend to be correlated (Kohr, 1980; McClenon, 1994; Palmer, 1979; Ring, 1984). Our finding that the overall effects of anomalous experiences are generally a combined result of more than one anomalous experience implies that research efforts focusing on only one or
a limited range of experiences are likely to miss important effects. Also, the finding that the effects of anomalous experiences are correlated with the number of experiences suggests that the number of experiences is an important parameter that should not be simply dichotomized into those with and without experiences. Previous surveys by Greeley (1975) and Palmer (1979) also suggest that the distinction between those with many anomalous experiences versus those with few or none is more interesting than the distinction between those with versus without any experiences. At the same time, the hints in the present data that transcendent experiences may be associated with greater positive after-effects than psychic experiences is consistent with previous data (Kennedy, Kanthamani, & Palmer, in press) and suggests that different types of anomalous experiences should be distinguished and tracked in future research.
Future research should utilize questionnaires that more effectively addresses spirituality. To this end, we have developed a new version of the Index of Changes Resulting From Experiences that includes more aspects of spirituality and incorporates concepts and findings from research on the psychology of religion.
Revised questionnaires could be administered to various selected populations. Prime candidates include organizations of people interested in parapsychology, spiritual organizations, and organizations of skeptics. It may be efficient to focus on these selected populations before undertaking a random survey of the general population. In addition, questionnaires along the lines of the Index of Changes Resulting From Experiences can be administered for a wide variety of situations to compare the effects of different experiences. For example, if uniform questionnaires are used, the effects of meditation or spiritual development programs could be compared with the effects of spontaneous anomalous experiences.
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