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Book Forum: Spirituality   |    
Quantum Change: When Epiphanies and Sudden Insights Transform Ordinary Lives
GEORGE E. VAILLANT, M.D.
Am J Psychiatry 2002;159:1620-1621. doi:10.1176/appi.ajp.159.9.1620
View Author and Article Information
Boston, Mass.

By William R. Miller and Janet C’de Baca. New York, Guilford Publications, 2001, 205 pp., $35.00; $15.95 (paper).

Quantum Change is arguably the most informative scientific appraisal of spiritual experience since Varieties of Religious Experience by William James (1). A difference, however, between James and the present authors is that James believed that after age 30 character was "set in plaster," while Quantum Change supports lasting subjective self-change in mature adults. The book discusses a number of vivid, benevolent, yet enduring personal transformations occurring usually over a period of hours. The changes involve relationships, spirituality, and life priorities. Scrooge from Dickens’s Christmas Carol is offered as a literary metaphor for the phenomenon. Quantum Change discusses two kinds of inner change. There is an "insight" transformation—a consolidation of psychological processes that may have been building for years—and there is a "mystical" transformation that individuals are quite at a loss to explain.

The book’s first author, William Miller, is Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of New Mexico. He received the Jellinek Memorial Award (sometimes called the "Nobel Prize for research in alcoholism") for his meticulous research on cognitive behavior methods for helping alcoholics return to controlled drinking. Yet his own 8-year follow-up of these alcoholics revealed that, despite their original behavioral orientation, over the long haul they often turned to abstinence and Alcoholics Anonymous (2). Miller is also a pioneer in the development of motivational interviewing (3). Less well-known, his coauthor is a psychologist Janet C’de Baca, who maintains an interest in cross-cultural issues and behavioral interventions.

Each of their book’s case histories, chosen from several dozen quantum change experiences, share many but not all of the following characteristics: ineffability, revelation, transience of the original experience (although the effects last for decades), passivity, unity with the cosmos, transcendence, awe, joy-love-peace, and distinctiveness. Such epiphanies and spiritual insights, of course, are common after mind-altering drugs, evangelical religious conversion, and temporal lobe seizures. They are also common in reports of mystical, "white light," near-death, or "alien abduction" experiences. But the reports cited in Quantum Change are different for three reasons. First, unlike the authors of most previous reports, Miller and C’de Baca are atheoretical in their discussion of the commonalities inherent in such epiphanies. Second, they try to document the profound and lasting effects of such experiences. Third, their 52 reports were gleaned not from a specialized setting (e.g., hospital recovery rooms or lives of saints or epilepsy clinics) but from an advertisement in an Albuquerque newspaper "asking for volunteers who have been transformed in a relatively short period of time—who have had a deep shift in core values, feelings, attitudes or actions" (4, p. 259).

For some of the subjects, changes were much broader than for others, but in all what was changed was "me," the person’s sense of self. Unlike many drug and some mystical and epileptiform experiences, the experiences reported by Miller and C’de Baca always convey a sense of the sacred and a sense of responsibility toward others and the world about them. Even if the subjects didn’t believe in God (and two-fifths of them did not), they became more spiritual, less materialistic, and more compassionate toward others and themselves. Thus, the book’s most provocative finding is the uniform—if admittedly both retrospective and self-reported—decrease in the value placed on "wealth," "attractiveness," "popularity," and "fitting in" and an increase in "spirituality," "personal peace," "forgiveness," and "loving." The schemes of adult social and moral development espoused by Lawrence Kohlberg, Jane Loevinger, James Fowler, and Erik Erikson follow the same trajectory.

A limitation of the book is that not only is its evidence of character change retrospective but the authors also fail to provide corroboration of change by informants. However, since the book purports to be about only subjective experience, this failing is by no means a fatal flaw.

The message of a quantum change comes into consciousness with great force and certitude. As one physician reported, "I can’t even try in words to describe what it was like. When you take intravenous morphine you get this sudden euphoric thing…but drugs pale in comparison to what this felt like." The change is also positive and benevolent. A Catholic woman wrote,

I had a feeling of lightness and exhaustion—and tears.…I just continued to be more involved in church activities. For example, we regularly go into the Bernalillo county jail for Bible study and to do services.…I didn’t realize that people living in a situation like prison have so much to give me.…I often get more out of it than I think they do.…I guess a lot of it had to do with my giving up my own defenses, my intellectualizing about it and letting my emotional side come through.

Like William James, and unlike evangelists, Miller and C’de Baca show us rather than tell us. The authors are very clear that they do not comprehend why quantum change occurs, but they thoughtfully discuss many eclectic possibilities. Their book reminds us that such experiences are common and that it behooves both behavioral scientists and clergy to seek the common, healing ground that unites their two disciplines. After reading their book I, for one, cannot wait for the brain imagers to begin unraveling the relation between spirituality and temporal lobe function. More important, I suspect that everyone who reads this book will be moved by reflections on forces greater than themselves.

Reprints are not available; however, Book Forum reviews can be downloaded at http://ajp.psychiatryonline.org.

James W: Varieties of Religious Experience. London, Longmans Green, 1902
 
Miller WR, Leckman AL, Delaney HD, Tinkcom M: Long-term follow-up of behavioral self-control training. J Stud Alcohol  1992; 53:249-261
[PubMed]
 
Miller WR, Rollnick S: Motivational Interviewing. New York, Guilford, 1991
 
Miller WR, C’de Baca J: Quantum change: toward a psychology of transformation, in Can Personality Change? Edited by Heatherton TF, Weinberger JL. Washington, DC, American Psychological Association, 1994, pp 253-280
 
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References

James W: Varieties of Religious Experience. London, Longmans Green, 1902
 
Miller WR, Leckman AL, Delaney HD, Tinkcom M: Long-term follow-up of behavioral self-control training. J Stud Alcohol  1992; 53:249-261
[PubMed]
 
Miller WR, Rollnick S: Motivational Interviewing. New York, Guilford, 1991
 
Miller WR, C’de Baca J: Quantum change: toward a psychology of transformation, in Can Personality Change? Edited by Heatherton TF, Weinberger JL. Washington, DC, American Psychological Association, 1994, pp 253-280
 
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