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ecstasy, mysticism, and hallucinations

The term ecstasy comes from the Greek noun ekstasis, which has a variety of
meanings and connotations, including departure, dismissal, mental derangement, and
poignancy. In the present context it translates loosely as 'being outside oneself'.
Ecstasy can be designated as a mental and physical condition associated with the
apprehension that that which is perceived is the ultimate reality. When and by whom
the term ecstasy was introduced is unknown, but it has been in use for a very long
time, and has had different connotations for representatives of various mystical,
religious, philosophical, anthropological, psychological, and biomedical
traditions. The British classical scholar, writer, poet, and paranormal researcher
Frederic Myers (1843-1901) aptly captures the classical mystical connotation of
ecstasy when he portrays the condition as "a wandering vision which is not confined
to this world or this material world alone, but introduces the seer into the
spiritual world and among communities higher than any which this planet knows." An
early attempt to differentiate between the metaphysical and scientific connotations
of ecstasy can be found in the work of the French alienist Alexandre Jacques
Franois Brierre de Boismont (17971881), who uses the term ecstasy to denote a
state of over-excitement of the nervous system expressing itself in the form of a
habitual elevation of ideas and feelings, brought about by concentration on a
single subject. As Brierre de Boismont asserts, "This condition of the mind is also
the most favourable to the existence of hallucinations, and hence they are very
common in the ecstatic." Brierre de Boismont designates some types of ecstasy as
physiological, and others as pathological in nature. As he maintains, "It is...
important to distinguish between what we shall term physiological ecstasy and
morbid ecstasy. In other words, we consider that ecstasy may have no influence over
the reason, and may only consist in enthusiasm carried to the highest degree,
while, on the other hand, it may give rise to extravagant, reprehensible, and
unreasonable acts ... This division enables us to arrange in one class prophets,
saints, philosophers, and many celebrated persons whose ecstasies have resulted
from profound meditation, from a sudden enlightenment of their thoughts, or from a
supernatural intuition; while in the other class may be ranged the pythoness of
antiquity, the celebrated sects of the Middle Ages, the nuns of Loudun, the
Convulsionists, the Illuminati, and many other religious enthusiasts." To Brierre
de Boismont, ecstasy is associated on the one hand with * mysticism, and on the
other with conditions such as catalepsy, hysteria, somnambulism, and animal
magnetism. In present-day biomedicine and psychology the term ecstasy has a chiefly
emotional connotation, referring to a mental state characterized by intense
pleasure and elation, such as may occur during hypomanic or manic episodes,
mystical states, drug-induced euphoric states, orgastic states, and extreme
aesthetic experiences. In this reading, ecstasy may be accompanied by a * trance-
like state characterized by an altered consciousness, slowness of breathing,
bradycardia, catatonic symptoms, *total anaesthesia, and hallucinations. Ecstatic
states tend to have a gradual onset, but they may also be paroxysmal in nature. In
the latter case, the term rapture is used. Conceptually as well as
phenomenologically, ecstasy is considered to be related to other states of altered
consciousness, including *trance, *dissociation, hypnotic states, and somnambulism.
Hallucinations occurring in the context of ecstasy tend to be *visual or *auditory
in nature, but they may occur in any of the sensory modalities or be *compound
and/or *panoramic in nature. Today many cases of ecstasy are associated in an
etiological sense with *psychic aurae occurring in the context of paroxysmal
neurological disorders such as migraine and epilepsy, or in the context of
catatonia, dissociation, the use of *entheogens (i.e. *hallucinogenic substances),
and the final stages of dying (i.e. * deathbed visions). As to their
neurobiological correlates, ecstatic states are associated primarily with aberrant
neuronal discharges in the temporal or temporo-parietal lobe. It has also been
suggested that both ecstasy and 'the clear light of death' experienced in *
deathbed visions may be associated with the massive release of the neurotransmitter
dimethyltryptamine (DMT). Today a person intentionally employing ecstatic states
for the purpose of exploring the psyche may be called a *psychonaut. When occurring
in the context of an epileptic or migrainous * aura, ecstatic states are referred
to as * ecstatic aurae. In the parapsy-chological literature the expression
'ecstasy with looking back at oneself' is used as a synonym for *out-of-body
experience.

References

Brierre de Boismont, A. (1859). On hallucinations. A history and explanation of


apparitions, visions, dreams, ecstasy, magnetism, and somnambulism. Translated by
Hulme, R.T. London: Henry Renshaw.

Kahlbaum, K. (1866). Die Sinnesdelirien. Allgemeine Zeitschrift fr Psychiatrie und


psychischgerichtliche Medizin, 23, 56-78.

Myers, F.W.H. (1903). Human personality and its survival ofbodily death. Volume II.
London: Longmans, Green, and Co.