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Ecstasy (from the Greek έκστασις, to be outside oneself (ancient Greek: εξίστημι (existimi) meaning stand outside where εξ (ex) means out as in exit)) is a category of altered states of consciousness or trancelike states in which an individual transcends ordinary consciousness and as a result has a heightened capacity for exceptional thought, intense concentration on a specific task, extraordinary physical abilities or intense emotional experience. This heightened capacity is typically accompanied by diminished awareness of some other matters. For instance, if one is concentrating on a physical task, then one might cease to be aware of any intellectual thoughts. On the other hand, making a spirit journey in an ecstatic trance involves the cessation of voluntary bodily movement. Subjective perception of time, space and/or self may strongly change or disappear during ecstasy.

Usage of term

The word "ecstasy" is often used in mild sense, to refer to any heightened state of consciousness or intense pleasant experience. It is also used more specifically to denote states of awareness of non-ordinary mental spaces, which may be perceived as spiritual (the latter type of ecstasy often takes the form of religious ecstasy). Some religious people hold the view that true religious ecstasy occurs only in context of their religion (e.g. as a gift from the supernatural being whom they worship) and it cannot be induced by natural means (human activities). They consider ecstasy as a way of contacting with the supernatural and usually value the experience as highly desirable. In contrary, some atheists deny the existence of the phenomenon of ecstasy and replace the term with pejoratives borrowed from psychopathology.


"In everyday language, the word 'ecstasy' denotes an intense, euphoric experience. For obvious reasons, it is rarely used in a scientific context; it is a concept that is extremely hard to define."[1]

Ecstasies may involve a single change of feeling from dread to delight, never the reverse; they may begin with feelings of withdrawal which change to feelings of intensity; most often only a single if progressively deepening tone of feeling is involved. For the duration of the ecstasy the ecstatic is out of touch with normal life and is capable neither of communication with other people nor of undertaking normal actions. Ecstatics often claim to see bright light, whether as a flash or as sustained brightness, during their experience; and they often claim that afterwards everything seems brighter.[2] Although the experience is usually brief in physical time (from momentary to about half an hour), there are records of such experiences lasting several days or even more, and of recurring experiences of ecstasy during one's lifetime.

Induction of ecstasy

Ecstasy can be deliberately induced using religious or creative activities, meditation, music, dancing, breathing exercises, physical exercise, sex or consumption of psychotropic drugs. The particular technique that an individual uses to induce ecstasy is usually also associated with that individual's particular religious and cultural traditions. Sometimes an ecstatic experience takes place due to occasional contact with something or somebody perceived as extremely beautiful or holy, or without any known reason. People interpret the experience afterwards according to their culture and beliefs (as a revelation from God, a trip to the world of spirits or a psychotic episode). The experience together with its subsequent interpretation may strongly and permanently change the value system and the worldview of the subject (e.g. to cause religious conversion).

Studies by modern psychology

Ecstasy in healthy people has not been extensively studied by modern psychology. Some ecstatic states in connection with epilepsy have been studied.[3] Possible neurophysiological mechanisms of ecstasy have been proposed from research of electrical stimulation of the brain.[4], [5].

Writings on 'ecstasy'

In 1925, James Leuba wrote: "Among most uncivilized populations, as among civilized peoples, certain ecstatic conditions are regarded as divine possession or as union with the Divine. These states are induced by means of drugs, by physical excitement, or by psychical means. But, however produced and at whatever level of culture they may be found, they possess certain common features which suggest even to the superficial observer some profound connection. Always described as delightful beyond expression, these ecstatic experiences end commonly in mental quiescence or even in total unconsciousness." He prepares his readers "... to recognize a continuity of impulse, of purpose, of form and of result between the ecstatic intoxication of the savage and the absorption in God of the Christian mystic."[6]


  1. Kaj Björkqvist, "Ecstasy from a Physiological Point of View" [1]. (Scripta Instituti Donneriani Aboensis XI: Religious Ecstasy. Based on Papers read at the Symposium on Religions Ecstasy held at Åbo, Finland, on the 26th-28th of August 1981. Edited by Nils G. Holm.)
  2. Website [2] quoting book by Marghanita Laski "Ecstasy in Secular and Religious Experiences", 1990, Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher. ISBN 0874775744
  3. Bjørn Åsheim Hansen and Eylert Brodtkorb. "Partial epilepsy with 'ecstatic' seizures", Epilepsy & Behavior, Volume 4, Issue 6, 2003, pp. 667-673.
  4. John R. Hughes, "The idiosyncratic aspects of the epilepsy of Fyodor Dostoevsky" Epilepsy & Behavior, Vol. 7, Issue 3 , 2005, pp. 531-538.
  5. M. P. Bishop, S. Thomas Elder, and Robert G. Heath. "Intracranial Self-Stimulation in Man", Science, 1963, Vol. 140. no. 3565, pp. 394 - 396
  6. James H. Leuba, "The Psychology of Religious Mysticism", p.8. Routledge, UK, 1999.

See also

Further reading and external links

William James, "Varieties of Religious Experience", 1902. [3]

Evelyn Underhill, "Mysticism", 1911. ch. 8 [4]

Marghanita Laski, "Ecstasy. A study of some Secular and Religious Experiences", London, Cresset Press, 1961. See review [5]

Marghanita Laski, "Everyday Ecstasy", Thames and Hudson, 1980. ISBN 0500012342.

St. Francis in Ecstasy (painting by Caravaggio) [6]

Ecstasy of St. Theresa (sculpture by Bernini) [7]

"Dances of Ecstasy", documentary by Michelle Mahrer and Nichole Ma [8]

Scientific Pantheism [9]


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