‘What Salt Tastes Like’: An LDS Psychology of Spiritual Feelings

By: shenpa warrior
February 27, 2013

Psych of Religion #3: A Psychobabble Guide to Feeling & Recognizing the Spirit

In the Handbook of the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, Robert Emmons describes emotion as “acute, intense, and typically brief psychophysiological changes that result from a response to a meaningful situation in [your] environment” and which motivate you toward any particular course of action. While different religions stress various ways of expressing emotion (from intense positive emotion through shared ritual to feelings of peace) this post will provide a brief discussion and overview of emotion within the context of Mormonism, based on the Handbook chapter mentioned above. 1

How does the Church Influence Emotion?

  1. The church instructs members on what feelings are good to feel, how strongly we should feel them, and what to do when we’re feeling the “bad” feelings. For example:
    • “If you chance to meet a frown, do not let it stay, quickly turn it upside down and smile that frown away.” 2
    • “The still small voice is not always a voice that we hear with our ears. Instead, it speaks in our minds and in our hearts. When we listen for it we are listening for a thought and searching our hearts for a feeling… The feeling is of peace, right, and sureness. It is a warm, good feeling.” 3
    • “Do not do anything else that arouses sexual feelings. Do not arouse those emotions in your own body. Pay attention to the promptings of the Spirit so that you can be clean and virtuous. The Spirit of the Lord will withdraw from one who is in sexual transgression… Pray to your Father in Heaven, who will help you resist temptation and overcome inappropriate thoughts and feelings.” 4
    • “And if ye have no hope ye must needs be in despair; and despair cometh because of iniquity.” 5
  2. The church’s teachings about God might make you feel certain positive or negative emotions, affecting your wellbeing, for better or for worse:
    • “And surely every man must repent or suffer” 6
    • “Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” 7
  3. The church gives you a chance to have powerful spiritual experiences. There are also a number of emotional benefits to being a Mormon: Mormonism can affect how strongly you feel about things in your life through giving meaning to events that may otherwise be seen as random. The gospel can help you be more accepting of difficulties in your life than someone who is not religious.

Can You Feel the Spirit in “Non-Religious” Contexts?

As members of the church—and religious people in general—we tend to inject spiritual significance into many aspects of our lives (such as family and employment) that others would see as secular. This is actually a benefit to church members. For example, marital partners who view their relationship as having divine elements (e.g. as “eternal companions”) are more satisfied, more committed, better at problem-solving, and have less conflict than those who do not see their marriages through a sacred lens.

Religious Feelings & Music

According to affective neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, music is “one of the few ways that humans can allow the external world voluntary access to their emotional systems on a very regular basis.” Panksepp discusses a common physiological experience that people report when they are moved by something musical:

“a shiver up and down the spine, which often spreads down the arms and legs, and, indeed, all over the body. To the best of our knowledge, this response reflects a mixture of vasoconstriction, local skin contractions caused by piloerection, and perhaps changes in evaporative cooling at the skin surface. Such effects can be objectively measured as a galvanic skin response (GSR), which is a general yardstick of skin resistance. Of course, there is great variability in the incidence of this response. Some people rarely recognize such feelings in their lives, while others, probably the more social ones, delight in them frequently.”

Panksepp uses the term “chills” to describe this “shivery-tingly” feeling, although he notes that men more often tend to use the word “thrills.” Sad music generally produces more “chills” in listeners than happy music. He also explains that these types of feelings promote connection in relationships:

“the experience of separation establishes an internal feeling of thermoregulatory discomfort that can be alleviated by the warmth of reunion. In music that provokes chills, the wistful sense of loss and the possibility of reunion are profoundly blended in the dynamics of sound. Thus, there may be no better stimulus for chills than a sustained note of grief sung by a soprano or played on a violin. This audiovocal experience speaks to us of our humanness and our profound relatedness to other people and the rest of nature.”

A Guide to Specific Religious Emotions

  • Gratitude is an “emotional response to a gift” and has three morality functions:
    • Barometer: Tells you when someone else has done something for you.
    • Motivator: Prompts you to also behave in pro-social ways.
    • Reinforcer: Increases the likelihood that positive actions will continue.
  • Awe is the “overpowering feeling of majesty and mystery in the presence of the holy that is at the same time fascinating and dreadful.” Awe includes acknowledging your response to what is most wonderful in your religion.
  • Wonder is what you feel when you “encounter something novel and unexpected, something that strikes [you] as intensely powerful, real, true, and/or beautiful.” 8
  • Forgiveness can be made more significant by religion, which in turn provides a ritual or model to facilitate forgiveness. Whatever the intervention, attempts at forgiveness must increase positive emotions, and reduce negative emotions, the latter of which depends on what is motivating your forgiveness.

In addition to these feelings, religion can also enhance wellbeing and growth around emotions such as joy, interest, and contentment. Positive emotions experienced in sacred contexts can also contribute to more effective coping in times of need and distress.

Regular Emotions or the Feeling of the Holy Ghost?

“As concrete states of mind, made up of a feeling plus a specific sort of object, religious emotions of course are psychic entities distinguishable from other concrete emotions… there thus seems to be no one elementary religious emotion, but only a common storehouse of emotions upon which religious objects may draw…” ~William James

The following points may influence you in feeling the Spirit as opposed to an ordinary emotion:

  1. You identify as a religious or spiritual person (duh).
  2. You are in a religious setting such as church, seminary/institute, or the temple.
  3. You are doing a religious activity, such as praying, reading your scriptures, or listening to General Conference.

Setting Apart

However one chooses to label these feelings, they separate the believer from the nonbeliever. The Spirit increases a member’s commitment to the church and the gospel. Religious emotion, or the feeling of the Holy Ghost, also builds a “testimony for communicating one’s faith to others and for providing assurance and certainty of one’s own faith.”


1. Terms such as “spiritual feelings” and “religious emotion” are used to connote the experience of feeling the Spirit or the Holy Ghost, such as the “burning in the bosom.” Other methods of spiritual experience or revelation are beyond the scope of this post.

2. See Nursery Manual, Lesson 19: I Can Be Happy

3. See Family Home Evening Resource Book: Learning to Recognize the Spirit

4. See For the Strength of Youth: Sexual Purity

5-7. Read Yo’ Scriptures

8. Anyone else think of the hymn, “With Wondering Awe”?

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12 Responses to ‘What Salt Tastes Like’: An LDS Psychology of Spiritual Feelings

  1. LDS Anarchist on February 27, 2013 at 5:42 AM

    It’s just a voice signature. The more familiar we become with the voice, the easier it is to recognize. Familiar voices of people we like or love can evoke emotions when we hear them. In addition to that, the Holy Ghost has power to fill one with unspeakable joy when She speaks, which kind of leaves an indelible impression upon a person, magnifying the normal emotional response when the voice is heard again. When unspeakable joy is felt by Her power, everything else pales in comparison. I’m talking instant addiction. Like the junkie seeking his next fix, the only thing desired is to hear that blessed voice again. Unlike human voices, which require audible sounds, the Holy Ghost can resonate Her voice through our ear drums, mind and/or heart. On the other end of the spectrum, the devil’s temptations are his voice resonating in our minds. Since humans have the capacity to resonate their own voices in their own mind and heart, those who are unfamiliar with the voice of the Spirit often choose to believe that all such voices must have human origin.

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  2. Howard on February 27, 2013 at 7:15 AM

    voice signature What a wonderful phrase, thanks for naming it LDS Anarchist! It is a “voice” signature maybe technically more of a signal signature that is customized for you and capable of becoming a new and different often more sophisticated signal as your reception skills grow. Much of it is made from common emotion but it’s WHO (not me) is controlling the feeling that gives it part of the signature and for me it is often accompanied by a pronounced comforting calmness that I understand to be an oxytocin release. Thus the great comforter. For me the who and oxytocin release have been a key common identifying parts of the signature that has allowed it to be attached to other feelings and messages to more or less say “yes it’s me bringing this to your attention, this is a message for you to pay attention to”.

    Chills along the back, more precisely half to full spine chills have been labeled “truth chills” by many in the kundalini community because they can be felt when ever profound truth is spoken and in the beginning can cause your frame to quake as written in D&C 85:6 and 3 Nephi 11:3. This can last a long time (2 1/2 days the first time for me) and be very exhausting it precedes or accompanies revelation until your body becomes accustomed to accepting and dissipating the energy that accompanies revelation. Think of it as the energy of the carrier wave, not the energy of the message content. While charged I can lock cash register computers and must stand 2 or 3 feet away to complete my transactions! But I have learned how to dissipate the excess energy to avoid those kinds of experiences. Kundalini is a manifestation of the Spirit in the form of energy that can flow up your spine opening typically 7 spirit energy torus’ called chakras in ancient scripture. Epiphanies and new spiritual gifts typically accompany each first time opening. Joseph is describing this kundalini experience in D&C 85:6, Joseph was an enlightened man in the eastern sense of the word. According to Christian art so was Christ, what is the halo depicted if not the aura of the crown chakra? Probably Moses too, the caduceus (snake or snakes on a stick) is an ancient sign of kundalini.

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  3. Howard on February 27, 2013 at 8:47 AM

    Btw, if you Google kundalini please ignore all the new age hype and weekend seminars that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the profound spiritual experience outlined in ancient Sanskrit scriptures.

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  4. Christy on February 27, 2013 at 3:54 PM

    Isn’t it somewhat incomplete if the guide for identifying the spirit vs. normal emotion is being in a religious setting/activity as a religious person? Thats just calling an orange an orange. To me, that does not confirm the reality of the spirit speaking to us. A religious setting is going to be an emotional setting as well – its not as if all emotion is checked at the door when you pray and any feeling that comes as a result of praying therefore must be the spirit. If we use the same logic, then any emotion in any specific activity or location could be claimed to be the spirit. I’m not sure I’m making sense and fear this more akin to hackneyed rambling, but to use a ridiculous example: A serial killer who identifies as a murderous person and feels awe, et al. when watching someone die, could use the same logic and conclude it was divine communication. Suffice it to say, I struggle to differentiate between the spirit and emotion, to such a degree I wonder at times if the spirit speaks to us at all via emotion.

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  5. LDS Anarchist on February 27, 2013 at 10:51 PM

    Unlike human voices, which require audible sounds, the Holy Ghost can resonate Her voice through our ear drums, mind and/or heart. On the other end of the spectrum, the devil’s temptations are his voice resonating in our minds.

    The mind and heart are spiritual organs. In other words, we are still talking of material resonance.

    There is no such thing as immaterial matter. All spirit is matter, but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes; we cannot see it; but when our bodies are purified we shall see that it is all matter. (D&C 131:7-8

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  6. Rigel Hawthorne on February 28, 2013 at 12:43 AM

    I’m admitting to a shade of nerdiness here, but I develop visible goose flesh from the audiovisual sensatory experience of a live drum and bugle corp show. I remember pointing it out to my wife at the first show we went to together. I would like for this to testify that the Santa Clara Vanguard is the one true drum and bugle corps, but know that the sensations are not spiritually driven, although they do unlock certain biologic responses that are shared by spiritual experiences.

    Words of wisdom from my mother once included her observation that she did not like for small gatherings of sharing testimonies to become excessively weepy because she felt that the adversary could use those moments to insert what could be perceived as confirmations by the Holy Ghost attached to items being born in testimony that were not testimonies of gospel principles. The existence of the repeated faith promoting stories such as the youth being generals in the war in heaven told by charismatic speakers causing goose bumps being a case in point.

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  7. Howard on February 28, 2013 at 8:46 AM

    Sure any strong emotion including fear of an attacking predator, sadness or joy from music, nostalgia, sexual arousal, etc. can cause goose bumps. Obviously this is not the Spirit. In the beginning it is difficult to sort his low amplitude signal out of the surrounding noise, so he might make intelligent use of goose bumps because goose bumps are a gross sensation that you as an insensitive newbie can easily feel. So he might start to get your attention with Santa Clara Vanguard goose bumps and then transfer those goose bumps to your quiet prayerful scripture reading which occurs in the absence of brass and drums and other outside generated emotion so that leaves just you, the scriptures, the Spirit and goose bumps! I doubt each passage causes goose bumps so why some passages and not others? So begin to parse these with him. To my knowledge he does not use some non-human feeling to communicate with us, he uses our body and it’s feelings and sensations but they are being articulated apparently from without because they are not being controlled by any conscious part of us and they can be used in atypical combinations to create a Spirit signature. If you engage the Spirit or allow him to engage you while in a meditative state you are eliminating many variables and outside noise, this makes it easier hear his signal and easier to sort things out. Now don’t do the typical naive newbie Mormon wannabe thing when you first realize some intelligence is actually communicating with you and go brain dead in awe and global belief that the church, BoM, republican party and anything it/they say are literial and true! This is just the beginning, use meditation as a hearing aid and test the intelligence behind the communication and when you are convinced someone outside your self is communicating with you use that intelligence to parse your questions and his answers.

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  8. Howard on February 28, 2013 at 9:47 AM

    I wanted to learn Spanish in the 1980s so I bought Berlitz audio tapes, not a word of my native English was spoken yet a Spanish vocabulary was built first by using sounds – dragging a wooden chair across a hard floor and saying the word “silla” (chair). Once a small sound based vocabulary was built simple sentences were formed using other unknown Spanish words who’s meanings could be inferred by their context. Once you reliably receive his signal The Spirit will build vocabulary and conversational skills with you in similar ways if you will work to hear him and to learn from him.

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  9. shenpa warrior on February 28, 2013 at 9:50 AM

    Thank you all for the comments, and for bringing in some different perspectives. It is important to keep in mind that this only addresses the “spirit” from the perspective of psychology, so I appreciate the other views. There are many ways to look at spiritual experience, this post being but one.

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  10. Hedgehog on February 28, 2013 at 1:07 PM

    In her Mormon Stories interview Fiona Givens stresses she forbad the missionaries teaching her from using anything with music, precisely because she did not wish to be manipulated.

    As someone brought up in the church, watching the church films and cheesy seminary film strips & videos all heavily laden with music, I have to confess to feeling a certain envy at that.

    I do love music, and some pieces can give rise to the most spine-tingling moments, but I have felt a kind of awe at the display of many great talents, not just music.

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  11. Howard on February 28, 2013 at 1:20 PM

    Instead of psychology explaining spirituality (not religion) I see psychology as a subset of spirituality. If spirituality is measured by your closeness to or distance from the divine, working through psychological dissonance can move you a lot closer to the divine. To the extent your dysfunctional upbringing intrudes on the present (it does) and distracts you with fears or concerns of the future (it does) you cannot be present in the present and it is precisely in the present that divine connection takes place. Eternity exists in the present, it is achieved by simply being present in the present which is very, very difficult for most mortals to do!

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  12. jmb275 on March 7, 2013 at 12:21 PM

    Really great shenpa!

    You identify as a religious or spiritual person (duh).

    This part is really intriguing to me. I think this is the biggest obstacle for me in feeling the Spirit.

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