The use of psychedelic drugs to treat psychological illness is showing promising results, but the spiritual side effects are rarely mentioned. Early data show they can help people heal from post traumatic stress disorder, depression, and addiction, but “supernatural” or “divine” experiences are remarkably common for these patients as well. To better understand how these mystical encounters affect people in the long term, scientists publishing in PLOS One assessed the mental health effects they had on over 4,000 people who had experienced them.
In the paper, published Tuesday, psychiatry and neuroscience researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine describe the shifts that those people felt following drug-induced and non-drug-induced encounters with “God,” a “Higher Power,” an “Ultimate Reality,” or an “Aspect or Emissary of God” (an angel).
Through anonymous online surveys, 3,476 people reported supernatural encounters that they had while on psilocybin (magic mushrooms), LSD, ayahuasca, or DMT. An additional 809 people reported they had non-drug encounters with supernatural or divine forces, but the survey did not gather information on what, if anything, apparently sparked their experiences.
One of the paper’s most striking findings is that people who identified as atheists dropped that identity after a psychedelic encounter with something that felt greater than themselves. Twenty-one percent of the psychedelic users reported being atheists before their experience, while only 8 percent reported being atheists after. The biggest absolute change in atheist status occurred after mystical encounters induced by DMT: 25 percent were atheists before their experience, versus only 7 percent after.
To Robert Jesse, a Johns Hopkins co-investigator on the study, the new findings confirm what he and his colleagues have learned about the important role of mystical experiences in psychedelic-assisted therapies.
“From one angle, it’s unsurprising when people who previously identified as atheist take the time to report a God encounter, by whatever name, and say that after it they no longer identify as atheist,” Jesse tells Inverse.
“Still, it speaks to the remarkable authority that experiences of that type often have.”
The team has previously studied the role of psychedelic experiences in treating addiction and depression and anxiety in terminally ill people. They have made use of the Mystical Experience Questionnaire, a systematic outline for identifying mystical experiences, in their work, finding in 2018 that study participants who reported mystical experiences on psilocybin were more likely to have long-lasting positive psychological effects.
In the new paper, the team observed that these lasting benefits occur regardless of whether a mystical experience happens under the influence of psychedelic drugs or spontaneously, without drugs. This effect, Jesse says, provides the strongest support yet for the idea of “causal indifference” as it relates to mystical experiences.
“To the extent an experience and its consequences are indistinguishable from others with different apparent causes, it doesn’t matter what the apparent cause was,” he says. In other words, regardless of whether drugs or something else trigger the mystical experience, the effect appears to be the same.
And indeed, the surveys bear that out. Even though the drug group, on average, rated their experiences more challenging and more psychologically insightful than the non-drug group, most members of both groups reported that the encounter was one of the most personally meaningful and spiritually significant experiences of their lives.
Brad Burge, the communications director for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, tells Inverse that this paper is an exciting development. MAPS is a research nonprofit that’s currently sponsoring clinical trials for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy but was not involved in this new study.
“Spiritual and mystical experiences have long been understood to play a strong role in the observed therapeutic mechanisms of psychedelics,” says Burge. “As psychedelic-assisted therapies including MDMA, psilocybin, and ketamine re-enter legal medical practice, studies like this will help elucidate not just the similarities but also the differences between different psychedelic therapies, which will be important information for doctors and patients seeking the treatments in the near future,” he adds.
To avoid any confusion, Jesse is careful to point out that this paper does not claim to prove the existence of God, angels, or any other kind of supernatural beings, saying, “What the paper gives is a statistical picture of how respondents describe their encounters and of the reported consequences of those encounters.”
Abstract: Naturally occurring and psychedelic drug–occasioned experiences interpreted as personal encounters with God are well described but have not been systematically compared. In this study, five groups of individuals participated in an online survey with detailed questions characterizing the subjective phenomena, interpretation, and persisting changes attributed to their single most memorable God encounter experience (n = 809 Non-Drug, 1184 psilocybin, 1251 lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), 435 ayahuasca, and 606 N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT)). Analyses of differences in experiences were adjusted statistically for demographic differences between groups. The Non-Drug Group was most likely to choose “God” as the best descriptor of that which was encountered while the psychedelic groups were most likely to choose “Ultimate Reality.” Although there were some other differences between non-drug and the combined psychedelic group, as well as between the four psychedelic groups, the similarities among these groups were most striking. Most participants reported vivid memories of the encounter experience, which frequently involved communication with something having the attributes of being conscious, benevolent, intelligent, sacred, eternal, and all-knowing. The encounter experience fulfilled a priori criteria for being a complete mystical experience in approximately half of the participants. More than two-thirds of those who identified as atheist before the experience no longer identified as atheist afterwards. These experiences were rated as among the most personally meaningful and spiritually significant lifetime experiences, with moderate to strong persisting positive changes in life satisfaction, purpose, and meaning attributed to these experiences. Among the four groups of psychedelic users, the psilocybin and LSD groups were most similar and the ayahuasca group tended to have the highest rates of endorsing positive features and enduring consequences of the experience. Future exploration of predisposing factors and phenomenological and neural correlates of such experiences may provide new insights into religious and spiritual beliefs that have been integral to shaping human culture since time immemorial.