Religious and psychotic experiences have long been thought to be related, particularly as schizophrenic patients often suffer from mystical delusions as part of their disorder. Despite this, less is known about mystical and religious experiences in patients who do not have schizophrenia, but rather other disorders associated with psychosis – psychotic depression, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder, for example. Buckley (1981) suggested that the occurrence of a powerful sensitivity to a special voice, feelings of communion with divine powers, heightened perception and exclamatory experiences is found in schizophrenic psychosis and non-schizophrenic individuals. Siglag (1987) reported that 52% of schizophrenic patients reported experiencing mysticism, backing up the concept that the patients with schizophrenia identify themselves as experiencing mysticism at least as often as patients without schizophrenia but who had mystical experiences. In individuals without mental illness, religious experiences are believed to be associated with a sense of insight and expectation that makes them less negative; in schizophrenia, symptoms are often present without the patient’s knowledge (Butcher, 2008; Connell et al., 2014; Patil, 2007). Less is known about how non-schizophrenic patients experience mystical delusions.
Statement of the problem
Whilst there has been a considerable amount of research into schizophrenic mystical experiences and mystical experiences in the general population, less is known about how individuals with medical psychosis in other disorders experience mysticism and religion. Even though researchers have revealed that the subjective experience of some psychotic episodes at their onset and of the serious anmystical experiences appear to have some similarities especially on the delusional experiences in both schizophrenic and non-schizophrenic individuals, very few studies have been conducted to unravel the differences and similarities of bipolar or psychotic depression patients having mystical experiences and those with schizophrenia. Delusions are a cardinal feature of psychotic illness, present in about three quarters of schizophrenic patients; similarly, mystical delusions are also found in non-schizophrenic individuals with psychoses. This study therefore aims to conduct an empirical research investigating the mystical experience in both schizophrenic and non-schizophrenic patients.
Rationale for the research study
Whilst much is known about the mystical experiences had by those with schizophrenia and those experienced by the general population, less is known about the experience in terms of patients with bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and psychotic depression. There is evidence that these individuals can also experience forms of mystical psychoses, but the ways in which these experiences differ from schizophrenic experiences are not known. As such, this study aims to add to the knowledge available on the topic of psychotic delusions by using a questionnaire and the MMPI-2 scale to study the differences between schizophrenic and non-schizophrenic patients that are experiencing these delusions.
This study hypothesizes that there may be similarities between schizophrenic and non-schizophrenic individuals having mystical delusions and experiences. A secondary hypothesis is that these similarities will be independent of the other symptomology that the patient is experiencing – the disorder will be different but the mystical experience will be the same.
Definition of key terms
Mysticism in the modern sense refers to a psychological experience involving a conscious transcendence of the normal self-identity. The individual who undergoes such an experience normally forms the belief that they have entered into a higher state of consciousness, have made contact with a supernatural being, or has entered into some form of communion with the object of devotion pertaining to the particular philosophical or religious tradition to which the mystic belongs.
The Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM 5) defines a delusion as false unshakable beliefs that are held strongly or with strong conviction despite evidence to the contrary. They are monothematic or elaborative and are not shared by other members of a culture. These false beliefs impair function largely through elevated levels of distress and preoccupation as well as often inducing irrational and illogical behaviors.
Schizophrenia is a serious mental illness characterized by symptoms of delusions and hallucinations coupled with dysfunctional symptoms such as lack of volition and apathy. Usually, schizophrenia begins in late adolescence and early adulthood. This disorder has a strong genetic component and the concordance rate in identical twins is 40%. The disorder is normally treated with both psychotherapies and antipsychotic medication (Tandon et al., 2013).
Review of literature
Mystical and Religious Delusions
Mystical delusions or religious delusions refer to a strong belief that an individual has a special relationship with a supernatural being e.g. God and that the supernatural power has given them special powers. Even though mystical experiences have been linked to be helpful in combating the anxieties caused by the knowledge of personal mortality, these experiences may be too much for people who lack a strong personality and autonomy, which may result to experiences in religious delusions as these individuals become confused, afraid and frightened d by the abrupt invasion of spiritual alertness or consciousness.
Mystical delusions have been linked to poorer prognosis for people with schizophrenia. Levels of disability, distress and conviction have been reported to be higher in people with mystical delusions. Mystical delusions are also associated with low satisfaction with services, poor engagement, and longer duration of untreated psychosis. There are several factors that maintain mystical delusions according to the cognitive models.
Firstly, the anomalous experiences may be perceived as having religious significance and thus be absolutely engaged with, attended to, and even consciously induced. Recurring bizarre or peculiar experiences provide repeated evidence to sustain the delusion. Secondly, people with mystical delusions may experience reasoning biases. This is because faith relies on foundations other than a systematic and evolving evidence base and religious or spiritual insights tend to be based on revelation, events or inner conviction rather than process of hypothesis testing. Thus religious beliefs may be held with high conviction and without alternatives. Mystical delusions may also result in affective disturbances. This is due to the fact that mystical delusions are likely to be particularly associated with strong emotions, with systematic behavioral changes and cognitive-perceptual which may act to further increase delusion severity levels (Iyassu et al., 2014).
Delusions in Schizophrenia
Delusions are a hallmark of psychotic disorders and serve as a diagnostic criterion for schizophrenia. In schizophrenia, delusions are understood as erroneous beliefs that involve misinterpretation of perception and experiences. Recent evidence indicate that delusions are associated with disorders of thought and that are some other forms of delusional phenomena appear to be relatively specific to schizophrenia (Butler & Braff, 1991). Delusions in schizophrenia have been associated with a wide spectrum of disorders in the central nervous system hence altering cognitions, beliefs, judgment and reasoning. Schizophrenic delusions may include variety of themes such as grandiosity (belief that one has special power) persecution (a belief that other people are against him), control (a feeling that a person’s thoughts have been taken over by an outside force) and self- reference (a belief that people are talking about them).
Delusions in non-Schizophrenic and Schizophrenic Patients
Available studies that have compared schizophrenia and non-schizophrenic mystical experiences have reported that, patients experiencing mystical delusions could not be distinguished from the schizophrenic patients by their beliefs but by their mood and adjustment. However, systematic comparisons of first person accounts of mystical delusions and schizophrenic delusions have found out that disturbances such as thought-blocking in speech and language do not seem to be related to the mystical experiences. Schizophrenic delusions are often present without the patient’s knowledge of them while mystical delusions are commensurate with the awareness and insight of an individual. This is because, conceptual disorganization, exhibited by incoherence, disruption in thought and blocking are only characterized by schizophrenic patients. This also implies that schizophrenia is associated with cognitive deficits which cause difficulty with basic thought processes.
Additionally, schizophrenic patients with delusion symptoms lack of insight and judgment whereas non-schizophrenic patients may be able to judge their experiences differently, particularly in those with psychotic depression or non-schizophrenic episodes of psychosis. Individuals with mystical delusions also have the freedom to come out of their states while in schizophrenia, the delusional patients do not have freedom to come out of their diseased state of mind (Patil, 2007). It is also worth noting that schizophrenic symptoms can occur in the context of spiritual experiences. Lukoff, (1985) found that men who explored Jewish mysticism had a higher chance of developing schizophrenia, and in these patients paranoid and grandiose delusions and social withdrawal were not different from other mystics.
Lastly, studies making comparisons of delusions in schizophrenic patients and mysticism have reported that unlike in mystical delusions, schizophrenic patients suffer from dysfunctional speech and language (Buckley, 1981). Kuperberg (2010), explains that in schizophrenic delusional patients, dysfunctional language and speech appears incoherent and sometimes tangential. When schizophrenic patients talk, the individual words uttered often are incongruent with the preceding sentences uttered and appear in a discourse context. Kuperberg (2010), further adds that unlike in mystical delusions, schizophrenic delusional patients have lower scores in latent semantic analysis, their language had poor syntactic and lexical structure and they have poor utilization of cohesion tools which associate words with their actual referents and also with their initial referents in normal discourse. These differences in language dysfunctions between schizophrenic delusions and non-schizophrenic mystical delusions have been attributed to language abnormalities in the function and structure of semantic memory as well as the context impairment attributed to poor working memory and general executive function deficits experienced in delusional schizophrenic patients. Since in mystical experiences, patients do not suffer from deficits in semantic and working memory unlike in schizophrenic patients, patients with mystical experiences do not suffer from language dysfunctions.