A 'profound' moment: An agnostic devotes his scientific career to understanding his first spiritual experience

When David Yaden was a university student, he had a mystical experience he says he’ll never forget. Today, Yaden’s work as a researcher focuses on documenting and understanding spiritual experiences just like his.
Despite being an atheist, David Yaden focuses his research on documenting and understanding spiritual experiences like the one he had in university. (Jacob_09/Shutterstock)

It was over a decade ago that David Yaden had his first spiritual experience. 

A postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins Medicine, Yaden has since dedicated his life to studying these intense, potentially transformative moments.

He is also an agnostic. 

The incident 

Yaden remembers lying on his university dorm room bed one day, when an unusual sensation came on out of nowhere.

"It began with a feeling of heat in my chest, which eventually spread out through my entire body," he said. "And at some point in my mind, I realized that this wasn't just heat, this wasn't indigestion, that this was actually love."

"I went fully into my mind," Yaden described. "It felt like I went out of my body and into this infinite, 360-degree, horizonless, timeless place and that feeling of love just reached the boiling point."

And after what was probably just a minute or so — which felt much longer — he opened his eyes and found himself laughing and crying at the same time.

"I had never had any kind of experience like this before. And I have to say it remains one of the most profound and positive moments in my life," he explained.

Since then, much of his work as a researcher has been devoted to figuring out what exactly happened to him that day. 

Researching the phenomenon

Prior to that encounter, Yaden said he hadn't heard many people talk about experiences like this before. To kick off his research, he turned to a book that's considered by many to be a classic on this topic: Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. 

When David Yaden was a university student, he had a mystical experience he says he’ll never forget. (Submitted by David Yaden)

"That's the book that showed me that I'm not alone at all in having these experiences, and that you can actually do some scientific research on what triggers them and how they affect people's lives," Yaden explained.

Instead of turning to religious studies or philosophy to understand these experiences, Yaden took to studying, among other things, psychology and neuroscience. Psychometrics, as he described it, is the scientific field of measuring subjective experiences through self-reporting — and it's one area he spends a lot of his time on.

Not the same for everyone 

Yaden said these peak or transcendent experiences can look and feel different for different people, so he and his colleagues are trying to get more precise at identifying aspects of the experience that aren't tied to any particular belief systems. 

For example, a self-transcendent experience would be one that feels as if a person is fading away, and is marked by deep feelings of connectedness to other people and things around that person, Yaden described. 

"And you have things like mystical experiences when people feel a sense of oneness with all things, or spiritual experience, where you feel a sense of oneness with divinity or God," he said. "So there does seem to be the spectrum of intensity."

I had never had any kind of experience like this before. And I have to say it remains one of the most profound and positive moments in my life.​​- David Yaden on his spiritual experience

And while many think of transcendent experiences as inherently spiritual, Yaden is also aware of the schools of thought that tend to boil these matters down to brain chemistry. 

"I think that it's useful to leave a little room for mystery and to not necessarily sound quite so certain about things that we have no definitive proof for or against," he said. 

Wherever they may stem from, these experiences can be mystifying and strange for people who haven't had them before, a fact that Yaden and his colleagues recognize in their work. 

"People can feel overwhelmed by these experiences. In psychology, it's not often the case that something that is so short in duration can have such long lasting impacts on one's mind and one's sense of identity and behaviour," he said. 

"And so I think it's important that people take these experiences very seriously. And if they're having trouble integrating them to simply reach out for help."

Interview produced by Arianne Robinson. Written by Tayo Bero.


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