A Feature-Based Approach to the Comparative Study of “Nonordinary” Experiences

Ann Taves, Michael Barlev

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


At the turn of the 20th century, researchers and clinicians compared case studies of patients diagnosed with hysteria and mediums who claimed to channel spirits based on alterations they observed in their sense of self. Yet, notwithstanding its early promise, this comparative approach to such “nonordinary experiences” (NOEs) was never fully realized due to disciplinary siloing and the challenges involved in comparing culture-laden accounts. Today, psychologists tend to reify constructs, such as religious or spiritual, extraordinary (e.g., psychical, paranormal, anomalous, or exceptional), and psychopathological. In doing so, they face an unresolved challenge: experiences with phenomenologically distinct features may be appraised similarly within a culture (i.e., viewed as evidence for the same culturally specific construct) and experiences that share phenomenological features may be appraised differently across cultures. Here, we call for a renewed approach to comparing NOEs across cultures that prioritizes subjectively recognizable features instead of constructs. First, we review the history of the comparative approach in psychology and where it is today. Second, we introduce a featurebased approach, building on the event cognition literature, in which “lived experiences” are broken down into their phenomenological features and the claims made about them. Third, we propose ways in which cultural learning shapes experiences, and possibly the ordinary– nonordinary distinction itself. We conclude by highlighting that by building on and shifting the focus of previous efforts, the feature-based approach provides a way to compare experiences at the population level

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalAmerican Psychologist
StateAccepted/In press - 2022


  • Crosscultural comparison
  • Culture
  • Nonordinary experiences
  • Psychopathology
  • Religious experiences

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychology(all)


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