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A new survey framework aims to give researchers better tools to compare extraordinary human experiences.

What constitutes a religious experience? It depends, of course, on who you ask. Even among academics who study religion and psychology, whether an experience is regarded as religious rather than simply unusual depends on the expectations of both the one who asks and the one who answers — one person’s mystical trance may be another person’s psychotic episode.

Over the past several years, religious studies professor Ann Taves of the University of California, Santa Barbara, psychologist Michael Barlev, and ethnographer Michael Kinsella have developed a set of cross-cultural data-gathering tools to assess extraordinary experiences and the ways that such experiences are categorized by individuals and by cultural groups. Now, funded in part by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation, Taves and her colleagues are working to validate the Inventory of Non-Ordinary Experiences (INOE) through a series of tests of the experiences and interpretations reported by thousands of participants in the United States and India.

Taves and her colleagues began developing the INOE while researching near-death experiences (NDEs) for the Templeton-funded Immortality Project. They discovered that the participants in the New Age movements they were surveying appraised a range of distinct experiences as NDEs, each of which might be appraised differently by other groups. To address this type of discrepancy, the inventory separates respondents’ reports of the experience of a given phenomenon (such as a sense of dissociation from one’s self) from their appraisal of that experience (such as a supernatural encounter or just a random physiological occurrence). This approach allows researchers to track a broader range of potentially mystical or religious experiences than were accounted for in previous survey scales, which were designed with only a subset of such experiences in mind.

The inventory is being developed and deployed initially in the U.S. and India because both nations offer large populations with significant numbers of followers of a majority religion (Christianity in the U.S., Hinduism in India) as well as sizable religious minorities for cross-comparison (Muslims and Hindus in the U.S.; Christians and Muslims in India).

Based on preliminary data, Taves and her colleagues theorize that while people’s experiences (rooted in human physiology and neurology) will likely be shared across cultures, their interpretations of those experiences will be more similar within cultures than between them. In the case of their preliminary data gathered in the U.S. and India, experiences like deja vu, lucid dreaming, and goosebumps were reported with approximately the same frequency in both places, while experiences like revealed messages, past-life memories, and foreign control of the body were reported far more frequently in India than in the U.S.

For the inventory to be robust enough to work across disciplines as diverse as religious studies, psychology, and folklore, each question has to be crafted carefully to avoid ambiguity. To account for shifts of meaning that occur in translation, the project team recruited native Hindi speakers to make independent translations of the survey that were then compared and synthesized into the version used for the large-scale survey. Taves and her colleagues have designed a Response Process Evaluation (RPE) for refining and validating the inventory in English in the U.S. and Hindi in India. The RPE method asks respondents to paraphrase each survey question to assess whether there is an agreed understanding of its meaning and then to give examples to help establish the range of meanings in each context.

The hope is that as the inventory is deployed and eventually translated for additional cultures, it will provide psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, and other researchers with deeper insights into the varieties of religious experience and the ways in which these experiences interact across traditions, geographies, and cultures.

“A unified theory of the kinds of experiences that get labeled as religious, spiritual, mystical, supernatural, paranormal, anomalous, transcendent, and so on is still many years away, in part because these labels don’t represent meaningful scientific categories,” said Nicholas Gibson, the John Templeton Foundation’s senior program officer for human sciences. “But with this project we hope to get one step closer: successfully separating the phenomenological aspects of experiences from their appraisal at the point of measurement would provide a critical advance toward the development of an integrated theory.”


Learn more about the Inventory Project at UCSB’s Religion, Experience and Mind Lab.

Learn more about the INOE’s creators Ann Taves, Michael Barlev, and Michael Kinsella.