Exploring the Noetic Quality: William James’ Insights into Mystical States and Altered Consciousness

February 29, 2024
IONS Communications Team

What is the “noetic quality,” and how does it relate to mystical and altered states of consciousness? 

These were two of the questions explored by William James, the 19th-century pioneer in the field of psychology who also helped establish the psychology department at Harvard University. 

In 1902, James published the book “The Varieties of Religious Experience, which contains a groundbreaking discussion of mystical states, the first of its kind published in the United States. 

James identifies a mystical experience by four criteria:

  1. Ineffability. The content of the experience “defies expression.” You can try to explain it, but, as James says, “no adequate report of its contents can be given in words.” A mystical experience must be directly lived, and as such, it can’t be imparted or transferred to others. Because of this, James argues that mystical states “are more like states of feeling than like states of intellect.” He calls ineffability “the keynote of all mysticism.”
  2. Transiency. Transiency means that the state is short-lived: it seems challenging to stay in a mystical state for prolonged periods of time.
  3. Passivity. The onset of mystical states may come from taking particular actions, such as focusing one’s attention or even taking psychedelic drugs. However, when the state commences, it often consumes the entire experiential domain of the person. The subject often remains passive while fully engulfed in the mystical state.
  4. Noetic quality. Noetic quality can be described as a state of fundamental knowing. “Although so similar to states of feeling, mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth beyond the intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, carrying significance and importance. Interestingly, these states often carry a sense of authority and realness “more real than reality” that stays long after they end.

Recognizing the Noetic

James coined the term “Noetic” from the Greek word noēsis/noētikos, which means inner wisdom, direct knowing, intuition, or implicit understanding. He was one of the first people in psychology to talk about a “noetic quality,” and the term has recently come to prominence again, particularly in discussions of the therapeutic value of psychedelic drugs. Best-selling author Michael Pollan speaks to the noetic quality in his book “How to Change Your Mind,” which became a Netflix series in 2021. 

In the book, Pollan explores his first-hand encounter with the “psychedelic renaissance.” He says on the noetic quality: 

“The conviction that some profound objective truth has been disclosed to you is a hallmark of the mystical experience, regardless of whether it has been occasioned by a drug, meditation, fasting, flagellation, or sensory deprivation. William James gave a name to this conviction: the noetic quality. People feel they have been let in on a deep secret of the universe, and they cannot be shaken from that conviction.”

“The attempt at introspective analysis… is in fact like seizing a spinning top to catch its motion, or trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see the darkness”.

-William James, as quoted in Arnaud Delorme’s book Why Our Minds Wander

Pollan also argues that mystical states, and noetic experiences, incur an embodiment of something previously only known intellectually. “The mystical journey seems to offer a graduate education in the obvious. Yet people come out of the experience understanding these platitudes in a new way; what was merely known is now felt, takes on the authority of a deeply rooted conviction.” In that way, the noetic quality lets us know what we already know – but in a different way, a way that’s often more profound and confident. 

Another person who explored the noetic was W. T. Stace, a philosophical authority on mysticism active about 50 years after James. His book “Mysticism and Philosophy” is considered the main link between James and the psychedelic research of the 1960s. In his key discussion of the noetic quality, Stace writes: 

“The experience is immediately interpreted by the mystic as having objective reference and not being a mere inner or subjective state of the soul. This is what James called ‘noetic quality.’ His word ‘quality’ … draws attention to the fact that this is how the mystic himself regards it. Objectivity is not for him an opinion but an experienced certainty”. 

The Truth of the Noetic Experience

What is the validity of the truth encountered by so many people in mystical experiences? 

James argues that it’s something other than the truths people experience within religious doctrine or data gathered through the rational or logical functions of the mind. He feels that the fact that many people have mystical experiences demonstrates that mystical experiences “break down the authority of the non-mystical or rationalistic consciousness, based upon understanding of the senses alone. They show it to be only one kind of consciousness. They open out the possibility of other orders of truth, in which, so far as anything in us vitally responds to them, we may freely continue to have faith.

James didn’t completely dismiss the baseline state of consciousness and the validity of rational thought. Instead, the experience of mystical states led him to question the sufficiency of the baseline state of consciousness as an exclusive arbiter of truth. The noetic quality suggests that there is a channel for knowledge beyond the logical or rational faculties of the mind and that this subjective knowledge holds tremendous value for the individual receiving it.

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