Peak Experience

Peak Experience

What do we expect peak experience to feel like?

Some people take drugs. Some drink. Some play tennis. Arthur Worthington liked dropping things onto surfaces.

He didn’t much mind which things and what surfaces. The dropping was the thing.

He dropped liquid mercury onto smooth glass. He dropped drops of milk onto smoked glass. He dropped drops of milk onto water. He dropped ink into a tumbler of clear water. He dropped drops of water into petroleum. He dropped a child’s marble into water. Finally, rather running out of ideas but unwilling to give up, he dropped drops of water onto water.

It was a rather beautiful thing, this pure, innocent love of dropping. But you know how it is. People go to see their kids in the school play and end up taking videos to watch later instead of watching them while it’s actually happening. So it was with Arthur Worthington. Pretty soon, instead of simply dropping stuff onto surfaces, he rigged up a powerful flash and used “the latent image pressed into his retina to create a freeze-frame “historical” sequence of images a few thousandths of a second apart.’

The drawings were beautiful, showing ‘the rays of the drop splashes emanating evenly from the center of the impact.’ Such perfect symmetry!

In 1894, twenty years after he first began, it was finally possible to start taking photographs of drops. Worthington immediately did so. And the first thing he noticed was ‘that the photographs, while they bear out the drawings in many details, show greater irregularity than the drawings would have led one to expect.’

Put bluntly: the drawings showed this beautiful radial symmetry, the photographs basically showed unruly and irregular splats.

The truly weird thing, and the most important for our purposes, is that when Worthington went back and looked at his drawings, he saw that he had actually ‘recorded many irregular or unsymmetrical figures’. He had seen the asymmetry but somehow managed to ignore it. How?

Now, Worthington was a genuine scientist - he didn’t care about publications or tenure, he was simply interested in getting as close to the truth as he could. So we can dismiss one obvious explanation - he hadn’t deliberately fudged his results, picking and choosing the drawings that suited him. He had unconsciously ignored the drawings that were irregular. But why?


It has just struck me, announces Rahi, that I actually like vegetables.

Oh, his mother says. Really?

Ya, he says, and takes a thoughtful bite of pizza. Just now. Suddenly.

Interesting, we say.

Ya, he says. I thought I didn’t like them. But actually I like them.

Wow, we say. Amazing.

My neck, back, elbows, wrists and shoulders ache. My eyes burn from sleep-deprivation. My sweater is decorated with Anaya’s vomit. I stare at Anni, at Rahi waving a slice of pizza in the air, at the top of Anaya’s head just visible against Anni’s chest.

Funny, I say.

What, asks Annika.

That this is what peak experience looks like now.


I think we see what we expect to see - what we are able to see.

Arthur Worthington expected to see symmetry. He expected regularity. He expected what he thought of as beauty. His mind, as he said, was “filled with an ideal splash - an “Auto-Splash” - whose perfection may never be realised.” So though he drew the irregularities, he wasn’t able to see them.

And so it is with peak experience, perhaps. People may disagree on where to find peak experience - God? Natural beauty? Art? Relationships? Flow states? But they mostly agree on one thing: peak experience feels really fucking good.

Illumination, ecstasy, rapture; the peace that passeth all understanding; boundless love, endless connection … these are the types of things we expect to feel and experience when we have peak experiences.

But sitting there with Annika and Rahi and Anaya was a deeply ordinary moment. I felt no ecstasy, no passionate love, no rapture, no illumination. I felt no radical acceptance, no dissolution of self, no boundless joy. But it still was a peak experience.

And so I wonder - by expecting peak experience to look and feel a certain way, are we making it impossible for us to see and feel peak experiences that don’t fit the form we expect? Are we drawing irregular splashes that we aren't able to see?