Academic journal article Mankind Quarterly

Music and Peak Experiences: An Empirical Study

Academic journal article Mankind Quarterly

Music and Peak Experiences: An Empirical Study

Article excerpt

Music and Peak Experiences: An Empirical Study Michael J. Lowis1'

Anomalous experiences, such as inner voices or moments of revelation, have been reported from the earliest of times, and music has often been associated with them. Tapes of music were played on two occasions to 74 individual members of college staff who had previously completed questionnaires on their histories of peak experiences, based on the descriptions of Maslow, and the associated antecedents. By pressing a button synchronized to the music, some 77% of participants indicated that at least one significant experience had occurred to them during the sessions. Significantly more reports occurred with upbeat music than was the case with gentle music. Thoughts and feelings evoked by the music were noted on post-test questionnaires: some indicated strong emotional reactions or mystical images, the more so with the upbeat music. Although association of the music with previous events may have been partly responsible for the participant responses, arousal theory also appeared to be implicated in the reactions. Whether or not such strong affective responses can be brought about in the listener simply through manipulation of a composition, is contrasted with the notion that music may have inherent emotional qualities.

KEYWORDS: Peak experiences, Altered states of consciousness, Music, Arousal, Evoked memories

Anomalous, subjective experiences have probably occurred to humans from the dawn of history, and reports of such have appeared in early texts such as those of both Eastern and Western religions dating back to about 1,000 B.C. Liester (1996), in a review of just one example - inner voices, mentioned that Socrates (c.470-399 B.C.) heard voices throughout his life, and that ancient Egyptians and Romans believed guiding voices originated from the gods.

In the early 1960s, Abraham Maslow, in his desire to investigate the psychology of health, made a study of the finest specimens of humankind he could find. He discovered that such individuals ("self-actualizers") inter alia tended to report profound experiences variously described as: moments of great awe, a feeling of oneness with the world, seeing the ultimate truth, the definitive satisfaction of vague, unsatisfied yearnings, stepping into heaven, getting lost in the present, or being detached from time and place (Maslow, 1962; 1971). Although originally thinking of such events as "mystical", Maslow came to the conclusion that in general they had little to do with religion - "at least in the supernaturalist sense" (Maslow, 1962, p.10). He came to regard them as natural, referring to them as "peak experiences".

Definitions of what constitutes a peak experience have broadened somewhat since Maslow's earlier reports. Kokoszka (1992) compiled a typology, subsumed under the heading of "altered states of consciousness", defining these in terms of what represents a sufficient deviation from general norms for that individual during alert, waking consciousness. MacDonald, Le Clair, Holland, Alter and Friedman (1995) noted that such events can probably only be truly understood through direct experience. They are, in fact, unshared sensory experiences (Stevenson, in Liester, 1996). Robinson (in Hay, 1990) stated that they have a quality that is self-authenticating: if a person has experienced a significant event, then that event is very real to him or her - "sociologically real" (Giesler, 1996). MacDonald et al (1995) concluded from their studies with a Peak Experiences Scale that, although such experiences involve positive affect, they are primarily cognitive events.

Whatever their origin, evidence suggests that peak experiences are not rare. Maslow (1962), whilst believing that few people were likely to achieve high levels of self-actualization, nevertheless suspected that peak experiences occurred in practically everybody although are not always recognized as such. Hay (1990) conducted three surveys in the United Kingdom, asking his participants if they had ever been aware of, or influenced by, a presence or power, whether one called it God or not. …

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