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Anomalous Experiences: What are they?

Paul Kiritsis - Friday, February 03, 2017

An anomalous experience can be defined as a subjective, idiosyncratic, and/or uncommon experience that is incongruent and/or deviates from the sociocultural-mediated understanding of consensus reality accepted as veridical, normative, and empirically valid by the collective prerogative. This definition is consistent with the definition given by Cardena, Lynn, and Krippner (2000) who describe it as “an uncommon experience or one that… is believed to deviate from ordinary experience or from the usually accepted explanation of reality” (p. 4). Moreover the word “anomalous” implies an experience with phenomenal content that stands out because it is not “homolous” (Warwick & Waldram, 2010).

Anomalous experiences may be conceptual or perceptual in nature; they may pertain to either an ascribed schema or system of beliefs or to unimodal and/or multimodal sensory perceptions that arise in a spontaneous fashion in the absence of an appropriate context and without a corresponding stimulus from the sensory-corporeal world (Williams, 2012). What is more a standard definition of the word should also honor the evolutionary purpose served by perceptual mechanisms;  if all conscious perceptions are, in fact, cheap and quick guides to adaptive behaviors in environmental niches then the anomalous ones amongst them could also be conceived as perceptual constructions which are not adaptive guides to behavior (Hoffman, 2012).

Phenomenal content in conscious awareness that is not adaptive is bound to be atypical, discontinuous, incoherent, and irrational. Indeed, anomalous experiences are diametrically opposed to integrated perceptions and frequently manifest as disassociations or fragmentations of consciousness, the splitting of cognition from affective aspects of experience, and powerful affective fluctuations manifesting phenomenologically as polarized expressions of good and evil, omnipotent control and helplessness, creative and destructive forces, heroic striving, groundlessness, and parallel dimensions. More often than not feelings of euphoria, liberation, and interconnectedness are also present (Williams, 2012). Positive internal appraisals of this content [or non-distressing anomalous experiences] attract to themselves the label of “spiritual” whereas negative ones that are significantly distressing and ensue in intellectual, interpersonal, social, and occupational impairment are pathologized and deemed “psychotic” under the hegemony of the biomedical model and the Western mind sciences (McCarthy-Jones, 2012).

Some anomalous experiences like autoscopic phenomena, multimodal hallucinations, and synaesthesias may be conceptualized within the dominant, existing scientific model. Other anomalous experiences like extrasensory perception, anomalous photography (the mind’s ability to influence photographs), levitation, teleportation, and bilocation call for a steadfast revision of the Cartesian-Kantian epistemological box couching the unidimensional model of time, as well as standard notions of a materialistic universe. Others still, for example reincarnation-type experiences/past-life memories, out-of-body experiences (OBEs), near-death experiences (NDEs), drop-in communicators, and séances involving proxy sitters, undermine the conventional product model of mind-brain that cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience are predicated on.

Theoretical models congruent with contemporary mechanistic science have occasionally been propounded to account for them, despite their subsistence near or outside the empirical frontiers of eliminative materialism. For instance “Weak Quantum Theory” posits that anomalous “psi” experiences and veridical past-life memories occur because there is an entanglement of nonlocal minds in a latent collective unconscious (Health, 2011). Others, like teleportation and apports, are qualitatively closer to phenomena we see in science-fiction and so incongruent with the materialistic agenda of the hard sciences that no explanatory model exists or has been proposed to account for them. Collectively, anomalous experiences illuminate the gaping fissures, the obvious inadequacies of our dominant albeit myopic worldview.



Cardeña, E. E., Lynn, S. J. E., & Krippner, S. E. (2000). Varieties of anomalous experience: Examining the scientific evidence. American Psychological Association.

Hoffman, D. D. (2012). The construction of visual reality. In Hallucinations (pp. 7-15). Springer New York.

Pamela Rae Heath, M. D. (2011). Mind-matter interaction: A review of historical reports, theory and research. McFarland.

Warwick, S., & Waldram, R. (2010). Exploring the Transliminal: Qualitative Studies. Psychosis and Spirituality: Consolidating the New Paradigm, Second Edition, 175-191.

Williams, P. (2014). Rethinking madness: Towards a paradigm shift in our understanding and treatment of psychosis. Sky's Edge Publishing.

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