Tuesday, November 8, 2016

How do you measure mysticism?

Mysticism and the M(Mysticism) -Scale Factors

Scholars disagree on how to define mysticism, which makes it difficult to have a meaningful discussion. There is a growing consensus that an experience of unity is a common experience.

There is a tendency among philosophers to discuss mysticism as an experience of a reality that is not known by the usual sources of evidence such as our senses or even introspection. For a more detailed definition with an explanation of terms see the Stanford Encyclopedia entry for mysticism. Following is their somewhat tighter definition of mysticism.

A (purportedly) super sense-perceptual or sub sense-perceptual unitive experience granting acquaintance of realities or states of affairs that are of a kind not accessible by way of sense-perception, somatosensory modalities, or standard introspection.

Many contemporary behavioral scientists trace the history of scientific inquiry into mysticism to the exploratory 1917 work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, by American Psychologist and Philosopher, William James. By thinking of mysticism as a religious experience, scientists separate the phenomena from religious beliefs and religious behavior (i.e., practices or rituals).

British philosopher Walter Terence Stace’s  study of mysticism (Mysticism and Philosophy) influenced the work of psychological scientist, Ralph W. Hood Jr., who developed a three factor Mysticism Scale (M-Scale) to measure mysticism. When generating items for the scale, Hood relied on the theory and descriptions presented by Stace.

The M-Scale

The M-Scale factors provide a look at one conceptualization of mysticism that can be measured.

1. Introvertive. An experience of unity and the lack of a sense of self. This experience is at least low on interpretations based on a specific religious context. Thus, a common reported experience of encountering a bright light may be interpreted as God by Jews and Jesus by Christians.

2. Extrovertive. An experience of oneself uniting with all the objects in the universe.

3. Interpretive. An elaboration of mystical experiences.

The 8 M-Scale Groupings

Several studies have examined the psychometric properties of the M-scale. The scale included 32-items. The items are presented in eight groups of 4-items. Following are examples for each of the eight groups.

Inner Subjectivity: “I never had an experience in which I felt as if all things were alive.”

Unity in Diversity: “I have had an experience in which I realized the oneness of myself with all things.”

Unity / Ego quality (unity as loss of a sense of self): “I have had an experience in which everything seemed to disappear from my mind until I was conscious only of a void.”

Timelessness / Spacelessness: “I have had an experience which was both timeless and spaceless”
Ineffability “I have had an experience that is impossible to communicate.”

Positive Affect: “I have experienced profound joy.”

Religious Holiness: “I have had an experience which left me with a feeling of awe.”

Noetic quality (insight, nonrational sense of truth): “I have had an experience in which a new view of reality was revealed to me.”

Mysticism Scale Research

Hood (1975) presented early research on a 3-factor model based on a set of 32-items. The content reflects the ideas of Stace mentioned above. (This article contains the list of the 32 items).

In a 2001 publication, Hood and others evaluated the M-scale in two studies with 1,379 Christians (mostly) in study one and with 188 Americans (mostly Christian) and 185 Muslims (Iranian Shi’i) in study two. The pattern of results suggested similarities for Christians and Muslims. Overall, the authors concluded that the results offered support for a common core of mystical unity. The Christians in Study two were from a variety of groups. Most were Baptist (38.8%) followed by 11.2 % each for Catholic and Methodist. An unknown group were noted as “other” (25.5 %).

Here’s how the eight groupings were linked to the three factors (See Figure 1, page 695).

Introvertive = Unity + Timelessness / Spacelessness + ineffability

Extrovertive = Unity in diversity + inner subjectivity

Interpretative = Noetic + Holiness religion + Positive affect

Additional Notes

There are other scales measuring mysticism.

Although I did not report other studies in this post, mysticism has been studied among adherents of the world's major religions as well as mystical experiences not associated with any religion.


Hood, R. W. (1975). Construction and preliminary validation of a measure of reported mystical experience. Journal for The Scientific Study of Religion, 14(1), 29-41.

Hood, R. J., Ghorbani, N., Watson, P. J., Ghramaleki, A. F., Bing, M. N., Davison, H. K., & ... Williamson, W. P. (2001). Dimensions of the Mysticism Scale: Confirming the three-factor structure in the United States and Iran. Journal for The Scientific Study of Religion, 40(4), 691-705. doi:10.1111/0021-8294.00085


I write about Psychology and Religion or Spirituality. Here's my recent book.

A House Divided

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