What is "Spiritual Intelligence" Anyway?

What are the underlying components of spiritual intelligence?

Posted Sep 06, 2017

In the first part of this article, I introduced the concept of “spiritual intelligence” as proposed by Robert Emmons. I noted that although Emmons considers spiritual intelligence an extension of Gardner’s concept of multiple intelligences, there is actually a lack of evidence for different kinds of intelligence that operate separately from general intelligence. Hence, if spiritual intelligence is to be considered a valid concept, it might be more useful to explore how it might fit into evidence-based concepts. Hence, although the term “spiritual intelligence” might be something of a misnomer, it is possible that the concept maps onto genuine areas of human functioning. In this part, I will consider what psychological components might underlie Emmons’ proposed concept of “spiritual intelligence.”

Emmons (2000) argues that the aim of spiritual intelligence is to bring about intrapersonal integration, the “transformation of the person from fragmentation to integration.” What Emmons seems to be talking about is something that can provide a unifying framework for one’s whole life, especially one’s inner life. In particular, the aim seems to be to bring about a state of functioning characterised by harmony as opposed to conflict, presumably where all a person’s strivings and impulses are coordinated in a way that is perceived as meaningful. The idea seems to be having a framework for ordering one’s life based on a vision of one’s ultimate strivings. Emmons implies that this vision derives from being “sensitive to transcendent realities.” However, this also sounds a lot like having a philosophy of life that guides one’s values.

Free image from Pixabay
Source: Free image from Pixabay

What does this proposed “intelligence” consist of that would enable intrapersonal integration? Perhaps, part of this “spiritual intelligence” consists of forming an all-encompassing narrative that provides an overarching purpose for one’s life that allows a person to attribute meaning to everyday activities. The ability to understand how one’s everyday concerns fit into an overarching framework implies a high level of abstract thinking, i.e., the ability to understand how everyday concerns relate to more abstract concepts. This seems like an application of ordinary intelligence to a specific domain, i.e. thinking intelligently about how to organise one’s life. Having a masterplan and being able to follow it also implies an ability to regulate one’s strivings so that they harmonize rather than conflict with each other. This seems like the concept of self-regulation, i.e. the ability to control one’s behaviour in service to one’s goals. Such self-regulation is related to well-known personality traits, such as conscientiousness – the ability to control one’s impulses and work toward goals, agreeableness – the ability to regulate one’s interpersonal behaviour to maintain good relationships, and emotional stability – the ability to regulate negative emotions in response to adversity to maintain emotional well-being. Hence, spiritual intelligence, much like "emotional intelligence," seems to involve a combination of already recognised features of general intelligence and non-cognitive personality traits, rather than a distinct new kind of intellectual ability.

Free image from Pixabay
Source: Free image from Pixabay

However, an intriguing addition to intelligence and self-regulatory personality traits, is the capacity to experience altered states of consciousness. Reports of people who have experiences described as “mystical” and “spiritual” suggest that these can sometimes have a pretty amazing effect on a person’s life. Reasons for this are hard to explain, but such experiences are often accompanied by the conviction that one has experienced something deeply important, which may prompt a person to reconsider their priorities in life. Perhaps this reorganization of one’s values can help bring about intrapersonal integration. For example, Abraham Maslow spoke of “peak experiences" that he defined as “the most wonderful experience(s)” of one’s life, including states of ecstasy and rapture. Maslow argued that people who have intense peak experiences and who value them tend to be more “self-actualizing,” i.e. they live in a way that helps them realize their full potential (Krems, Kenrick, & Neel, 2017; Wuthnow, 1978). The concept of “self-actualizing” sounds a lot like achieving intrapersonal integration, and Emmons work on this topic has been influenced by Maslow’s concepts (Chan & Joseph, 2000). For example, Maslow argued that self-actualizing persons are more at peace with themselves than most people, can rise above many of the petty concerns that are promoted by society, are less materialistic, and are more focused on humane values. In support of this, a study (Wuthnow, 1978) found that people who have had peak experiences were more likely than those who had not had such experiences to report that they felt that life was very meaningful, they often thought about the purpose of their lives, spent time meditating about their lives, and believed they knew the purpose of life. Additionally, they tended to be less interested in material possessions, such as having a beautiful home, car, or nice things, having a high paying job, or job security. Interestingly, more than half of people in this survey who reported having a peak experience said it had had a lasting influence on their life, although nearly half said that it had not. These results lend some credence to the idea that experiencing altered states of consciousness (i.e. peak experiences) can improve intrapersonal integration (i.e. self-actualizing) at least in some respects. In the same vein, a study on the effects of psilocybin, in which about two-thirds of participants reported a profound mystical experience, found that months after this experience, the participants felt they had more positive attitudes to life and themselves, that their relationships had improved, and a sense of increased spirituality and increased satisfaction with life. Additionally, many of the participants expressed an increased belief that there is continuity after death, e.g. belief that death is not an ending but a transition to something even greater than this life (Griffiths et al., 2011). (See this post for more details.) This more recent study provides additional support for the notion that altered states of consciousness can improve psychological well-being. Whether this justifies the concept of spiritual intelligence is still difficult to say though.

In part 3, I will consider criticisms of the concept in more detail.

© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.  

Related posts 

Psilocybin and Personality

The Spirituality of Psychedelic Drug Users

Troubled Souls: Spirituality as a Mental Health Hazard

The Illusory Theory of Multiple Intelligences


Chan, R., & Joseph, S. (2000). Dimensions of personality, domains of aspiration, and subjective well-being. Personality and Individual Differences, 28(2), 347-354. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0191-8869(99)00103-8

Emmons, R. A. (2000). Is Spirituality an Intelligence? Motivation, Cognition, and the Psychology of Ultimate Concern. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 10(1), 3-26. doi:10.1207/s15327582ijpr1001_2

Griffiths, R., Johnson, M., Richards, W., Richards, B., McCann, U., & Jesse, R. (2011). Psilocybin occasioned mystical-type experiences: immediate and persisting dose-related effects. Psychopharmacology, 218(4), 649-665. doi:10.1007/s00213-011-2358-5

Krems, J. A., Kenrick, D. T., & Neel, R. (2017). Individual Perceptions of Self-Actualization: What Functional Motives Are Linked to Fulfilling One’s Full Potential? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 0146167217713191. doi:10.1177/0146167217713191

Wuthnow, R. (1978). Peak Experiences: Some Empirical Tests. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 18(3), 59-76. doi:10.1177/002216787801800307

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