What Creates Experiences of Magical Specialness?

New research reveals that nature of hagioptasia or "holy vision."

Posted Mar 02, 2020

"It was a sensation, of course, of desire; but desire for what? Not, certainly, for a biscuit tin filled with moss, nor even (though that came into it) for my own past.  .  .  .  Before I knew what I desired, the desire itself was gone, the whole glimpse withdrawn, the world turned commonplace again, or only stirred by a longing for the longing that had just ceased." – C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life

Who has not been moved by the awesome vastness of the sky on a dark, starry night? Some experiences in life feel so special and magical that, for at least a moment, we feel transported to a place beyond the world of common, ordinary things. These larger-than-life experiences can be triggered by spectacular events in nature like the starlit sky, majestic mountains, and crashing waterfalls, by incredibly beautiful art, and by the seemingly superhuman performances of talented musicians, actors, and athletes.

But sometimes we are caught totally off-guard by a sense of specialness in perfectly ordinary events. This is what happened to C. S. Lewis, author of the Narnia books, when he was a boy. The event was simply his older brother, Warnie, bringing into the nursery a toy garden consisting of moss, twigs, and flowers in the lid of a biscuit tin. At the time, Lewis was completely overcome by awe and wonder. To him, there was a mysterious something about the miniature garden that was not of this world, and he felt a deep longing to connect to that otherworldly specialness. But then the perception of specialness faded. All that was left was an ordinary toy garden and his memory of longing for something beyond his comprehension.

Colin Smith/CC BY-SA 2.0 Wikimedia curid=67953340
Moss Garden
Source: Colin Smith/CC BY-SA 2.0 Wikimedia curid=67953340

Having myself experienced similar perceptions of magical specialness in ordinary events at various times in my life, I was excited to discover a video created by Daniel Laidler on what he called hagioptasia [literally, holy vision]. You can watch the video by following this link. I was so taken by the video that I contacted Dan, and we began to have a conversation about hagioptasia. Dan is a musician rather than a professional psychologist. I found him to be an astute, insightful observer of the human condition. He noticed that young children are subjected to lessons from others about who and what are special and significant in culture. We agreed that sometimes what we are told is special is quite arbitrary. But sometimes culture builds upon our natural inclinations to experience awe in nature. A good example: Displays of lights during the winter holidays, which resemble stars in the nighttime sky. Our experiences of specialness in childhood are imprinted in us and we remember them with poignant nostalgia.

John A. Johnson
Fort Collins Lights
Source: John A. Johnson

As we enter the teen years, Dan noticed, we start to become obsessed with comparing people. We compare ourselves with others, constantly sensitive to who is smarter, faster, stronger, more beautiful. We identify with various heroes and argue about who is a better athlete or rock star. As a young man, Dan himself became fascinated with the glamorous world of art, music, fashion, and celebrity. Although he found excitement in pursuing glamour, he also felt confused about why some art was considered great and other art not, and why different forms of art came into and went out of fashion. He occasionally felt envious of those who had seemed to achieve glamour and recognition when he had not. And, finally, he felt disappointed when he discovered that some people who had seemed supremely glamorous turned out to be perfectly ordinary.

Eva Rinaldi/cc-by-sa-2.0
Lady Gaga
Source: Eva Rinaldi/cc-by-sa-2.0

All of these observations inspired Dan to think further about perceptions of, feelings about, and the longing for specialness. He looked to concepts from evolutionary psychology such as the striving for status and the adaptive function of emotions to better understand hagioptasia and created his film as a statement on his theory of hagioptasia. As an evolutionary psychologist, I was more than happy to build upon Dan's ideas, and, as a personality psychologist, I suggested that we experiment with a questionnaire to assess different kinds of hagioptasic experiences and how they are related to gender, age, and vocational aspirations. We placed our questionnaire online, gathered data from nearly 3,000 people, and published our findings in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.


Johnson, J. A., & Laidler, D. (February 21, 2020). Measuring hagioptasia: A case study in theory-testing through Internet-based personality scale development. Personality and Individual Differences159, 109919. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2020.109919

Lewis, C. S. (1955). Surprised by joy: The shape of my early life. London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

For more details, you can consult the article, which is freely available online until April 11, 2020 at https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1acEVheKdkBeQ .

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