E is for… Ecstasy

The Psychologist A to Z continues.

Suggested by Jules Evans, Research Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London.

‘Ecstatic experiences – moments where people go beyond their ordinary self and feel connected to something greater than them – are fundamental to human flourishing, yet historically they have largely been ignored or pathologised by psychiatry and psychology. Luckily that’s started to change, with more research on flow states, mystical experiences, self-transcendence and “out-of-the-ordinary experiences” like hearing voices. There’s still a lot to learn.’

‘Secular ecstasies’ have features that resemble psychiatric symptoms but they’re indicative of a healthy life, with beneficial effects on personality and creativity, wrote Ray McBride (March 2014).

Our 2002 article led by Jon Cole argued that the long-term effects of Ecstasy use are far from clear, and that psychologists are muddying the waters. Has the field moved on since?

Synaesthetes who claim to have sexual forms of the condition report altered states of consciousness during sex, including ‘oceanic boundlessness’ (feelings of derealisation and ecstasy).

In a 2013 case study reported on our Digest, a team of neurologists stimulated the anterior-dorsal insula of a 23-year-old epileptic patient during surgery. She experienced the same feelings of bliss and ecstasy that she reports prior to a seizure.

In her September 2014 ‘One on one’, Valerie Curran described Ecstasy as having ‘fascinating, potential synergy with psychological therapies’.

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Illustration: Karla Novak

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