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Taking a break: Preliminary investigations into the psychology of epiphanies as discontinuous change experiences

Arianna Nicole Jarvis, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This dissertation constitutes an initial inquiry into the experience of psychological epiphany. In this investigation, the epiphanic experience is conceptualized as one of sudden, discontinuous change, leading to profound, positive, and enduring transformation through the reconfiguration of an individual's most deeply held beliefs about self and world. To explore the nature of the epiphanic experience, a qualitative, empirical inquiry was undertaken to determine its fundamental features. Though the generalizability of the findings is limited by the small sample size (five individuals were interviewed indepth), the study revealed a number of characteristic features. The experience was found to be affectively intense, egosyntonic, and profoundly liberating. The experience of epiphany among the participants studied occurred primarily during adolescence or early adulthood, was preceded by a period of internal conflict during which feelings of alienation, anxiety and depression were common, and followed by a period of productive activity and heightened energy. Given the lack of a theoretical framework within which such experiences of discontinuous psychological change could be investigated, two theoretical perspectives originating outside psychology were explored for their applicability. The first, general systems theory, provided a distinction between changes that occur within a system, versus changes to the system as a whole. Systems theory was therefore found to be useful in addressing the impact of epiphanic experiences as experiences which seem to effect changes to an individual's system of world assumptions. However chaos theory, because it offers a way of distinguishing between different kinds of discontinuous change, was found to provide an even more comprehensive metatheoretical framework within which epiphanies could be conceptualized. Chaos theory holds that significant structural changes to a system which are highly adaptive, often follow from periods of turbulence and seemingly random behavior. Though clinical psychology generally encourages the view that chaos is negative, the findings of the present study suggest that a period of seeming psychological chaos must be carefully evaluated by the clinician as it may be a prelude to important and enduring positive change in an individual's most basic world assumptions.

Subject Area

Cognitive therapy|Psychotherapy|Developmental psychology

Recommended Citation

Jarvis, Arianna Nicole, "Taking a break: Preliminary investigations into the psychology of epiphanies as discontinuous change experiences" (1996). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9709611.