Blissed-out festival-goers strewn across the grass or dancing by the speakers are hallmarks of mass gatherings, from Bonnaroo to Lollapalooza. In a new study, scientists studied this especially chill population in their natural habitat, exploring why people take psychedelics at festivals. It turns out that the mood boost comes down to two fundamental human experiences: transformational events and social connectedness.
This research, published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, contributes to a burgeoning wave of psychedelic studies — many of which suggest psychedelics can be usefully paired with therapy for people suffering from depression, anxiety, and PTSD. This new study suggests they could benefit the general population as well.
The study determined that people feel positive mood changes after using psychedelics, stemming from a greater sense of belonging and personal transformation. The euphoric effect lingers even after the drugs are out of their system.
“Studies in patients and healthy people suggest that there is potential for psychedelics to alleviate suffering and enhance human wellbeing,” Molly Crockett, study co-author and researcher at Yale University, tells Inverse.
But Crockett is careful to note that this research is still in its “early days.” Matthias Forstmann, another co-author and researcher at the University of Cologne, explains that to achieve therapeutic status, psychedelics need to be given in a safe environment paired with a specially-trained psychotherapist.
“Psychedelics are no ‘magic bullet’ that can cure patients suffering from these conditions overnight,” Forstmann says.
Still, more work is necessary to understand how these drugs affect the brain and how researchers can optimize their benefits and lower their risks. So, these researchers traveled to where they could study the effects of psychedelics outside of the lab: music festivals.
“By studying how people’s psychedelic experiences unfold ‘in the wild,’ when they are taking these substances outside the laboratory, we can test whether the psychological effects of psychedelics generalize across settings,” Crockett explains.
Playing games for science
Most studies on psychedelics to date take place in a sterile laboratory or clinic — settings that can influence the results. The sample can self-select: certain people may sign up for the study hoping to have a certain psychedelic experience, while others alter their behavior, consciously or not when they know they are being watched by doctors and researchers.
To avoid these potential limitations, the team ventured far from their labs and surveyed 1,225 people at six different music festivals across the United Kingdom and the United States between 2015 and 2017.
At these festivals, the research team set up tents marked by a sign saying, “Play Games For Science.” From 10 am to 1 pm, the scientists invited festival-goers to fill out a questionnaire about their experiences at the event.
To start, the team asked people for information on their age, gender, religious and political affiliations, and education levels. This data demonstrated that many stereotypes about the types of people who attend festivals are incorrect, Crockett tells Inverse.
For example: While there’s a stereotype that people who attend festivals are very liberal, half this sample identified as politically moderate.
"Public perceptions of psychedelics, and the people who use them, are becoming more accurate.”
One might assume festival attendees were mostly “radical leftists”, but in fact, almost half the sample reported being politically moderate, Crockett explains. She notes that many festival attendees are there because they are looking for an experience that’s very different from their day-to-day — whether that’s being a teacher or working a corporate job — and they don’t self-identify as “hippies” or “radicals.”
“As research accumulates, public perceptions of psychedelics, and the people who use them, are becoming more accurate,” Crockett explains.
Other sections of the survey were designed to capture people’s drug use and psychological state. The team asked festival-goers if they had recently consumed certain substances (like alcohol, cannabis products, or psychoactive substances), when, and how much. They made it clear that participants wouldn’t get in trouble or have any legal consequences for replying.
The drug survey revealed the usual favorites: Eighty percent reported they drank alcohol at the festival. Fifty percent reported using cannabis, hemp oil, or marijuana. Meanwhile, 25 percent reported consuming psychedelics like lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and psilocybin. Other popular substances were euphorics and stimulants, coming in at 24 and 21 percent, respectively.
The participants were also asked to report if they had a “transformative experience” (TE) during their time at the festival. The researchers described TE as an “epistemic shift” so profound and unexpected, it “causes a substantial change in one’s personal values and priorities.”
The team also measured people’s mood levels and sense of social connectedness, through various ranking exercises. Importantly, the researchers didn’t focus on measuring any negative side effects of recreational drug use.
Controlling for hype out in the field
Before they went out into the field, the team hypothesized that recent use of psychedelic substances (during the past 24 hours or past week) would result in positive mood changes associated with reporting transformative experiences and feelings of social connectedness.
“This tied our hands and ensured we could not go fishing for positive results,” Crockett says.
She comments that “skeptics have valid concerns that psychedelic research could be distorted by ‘evangelists’ who focus too much on positive effects.” Her team attempted to safeguard themselves against this bias by “pre-registering” their hypotheses — they publicly declared their predictions before they analyzed the data.
They also controlled for possible confounding factors, like simply attending the mass event and drug interaction.
Ultimately, the team was right in their prediction: People who used psychedelics recently, especially in the day previous to testing, had improved mood. The surveys indicated that this improvement likely stemmed from the transformational experience and a greater sense of social connection.
This realization — that psychedelics induce similar psychological effects in the lab and in “naturalistic settings” — suggests that the findings paired to psychedelics-induced emotions can be replicated across different contexts, Crockett says.
How trippy drugs affect the brain
It’s thought that psychedelics, like LSD and psilocybin, spur activity in visual areas of the brain and spark communication between parts of the brain that “don’t interact much,” Crockett explains.
The altered-brain state can lead to “ego dissolution”, or a feeling that the self has dissolved. Ego dissolution can help people feel more connected to others and the universe, a shift that could change the game for people dealing with mental health disorders. Loneliness and social disconnection can exacerbate depression and anxiety.
“Our work suggests that ego dissolution on psychedelics is a transformative experience — one that people can’t easily anticipate before they have the experience — and is associated with wellbeing,” Crockett tells Inverse.
The team plans on following up with studies that explore this psychological transformation. They want to discover whether or not these drugs change the way people related to others, do they change how people think about themselves, and precisely how long the effects last.
In turn, this research could also lead to novel therapies and new approaches for treating mental health disorders. Crockett notes that, while psychedelics have the potential to induce negative outcomes as well, there’s ever-increasing evidence that “psychedelics have the potential to improve wellbeing.” It’s worth doing more research, she says, “to find out how they can be used safely and effectively.”
Past research suggests that the use of psychedelic substances such as LSD or psilocybin may have positive effects on mood and feelings of social connectedness. These psychological effects are thought to be highly sensitive to context, but robust and direct evidence for them in a naturalistic setting is scarce. In a series of field studies involving over 1,200 participants across six multiday mass gatherings in the United States and the United Kingdom, we investigated the effects of psychedelic substance use on transformative experience, social connectedness, and positive mood. This approach allowed us to test preregistered hypotheses with high ecological validity and statistical precision. Controlling for a host of demographic variables and the use of other psychoactive substances, we found that psychedelic substance use was significantly associated with positive mood—an effect sequentially mediated by self-reported transformative experience and increased social connectedness. These effects were particularly pronounced for those who had taken psychedelic substances within the last 24 h (compared to the last week). Overall, this research provides robust evidence for positive affective and social consequences of psychedelic substance use in naturalistic settings.