The experience of self-transcendence and oneness with the universe, also known as ‘ego dissolution’, is a key feature of the psychedelic experience and is frequently reported by research participants, who often described their participation in studies as one of the most personally significant and spiritually meaningful experiences of their lives. Through these so-called ‘peak’ experiences, psychedelics appear to hit a ‘reset button’ allowing people to shift the trajectory of their lives, with great potential for positive changes in mood, wellbeing, and personality and long-lasting therapeutic benefit.
The first scientific evidence of the ability of psychedelics to induce spiritually significant experiences were provided by Walter Pahnke’s 1962 Good Friday Experiment (Pahnke, 1963), the results of which were later corroborated by recent studies into the mystical qualities of psychedelics.
Psychedelics also have a remarkable tendency to enhance the perception of meaning. Between 66% and 86% of those who have psychedelic experiences in a supportive therapeutic setting consider them to be one of the five most meaningful and spiritually significant experiences of their lives (Hartogsohn et al. 2018).
The mystical psychedelic experience is a richer state of consciousness associated with a dissolution of the ego, characterised physiologically by a more complex, less predictable, and more ‘entropic’ neural activity, and an increase in global functional connectivity (Tagliazucchi et al. 2016).
Throughout human history, psychedelics have been strongly interconnected with spirituality. Psychedelic plants and fungi have been used by non-Western cultures as sacramental tools for thousands of years, and it has even been proposed that they may have played a significant part in the development of religions across the world.
A survey study published in 2019 by researchers from Johns Hopkins University, reported that people who identified as atheists dropped that identity after a psychedelic encounter with something that felt greater than themselves (Griffiths et al. 2019).
James Oroc dedicated a whole book to relate his profound life-changing mystical experiences with the smoking of 5-Meo-DMT, in which he was transformed from “a hardened atheist who embraced an inherited cynical material-reductionist worldview” to someone who is “indelibly aware of the existence of God.” He writes that this first experience “was responsible for radically changing me into a spiritually inspired and much more hopeful human being.” (The Tryptamine Palace, 2009). In his book on 5-MeO-DMT ‘The Toad and the Jaguar’ (2013), Ralph Metzner comments, “The experiences Oroc relates include all the elements of the classic mystical, cosmic consciousness experience others have also related with the smoking of this substance: radiant white light, recognition of unity and love as the organizing power of Universe, complete dissolution of ego-identity, oneness with God, and a sometimes abrupt return to normal consciousness of one’s body.”
Regardless of their ability to promote spirituality, psychedelics at least appear to enhance personality traits similar to those enhanced through spiritual practice. Studies carried out by the Beckley/Sant Pau Research Programme have revealed that ayahuasca use leads to an increase in several key traits associated with mindfulness, such as ‘decentring’, which refers to the ability to observe one’s thoughts and feelings in an objective and non-judgmental way. This, in turn, has been shown to help sufferers of depression, anxiety, grief and PTSD to overcome their conditions.
Mystical experiences occasioned by psilocybin have also been shown to lead to increases in the personality domain of openness (MacLean et al. 2011), as well as sustained positive changes in attitudes, mood, and behavior (Griffiths et al. 2011).
Is a spiritual breakthrough at the root of long-term positive effects of psychedelics?
A link between the mystical experience and positive outcomes following psychedelic-assisted therapy has been consistently reported and is discussed elsewhere.
In healthy individuals, the intensity of the spiritual experience induced by psychedelics also appears to relate to long-term beneficial outcomes. For instance, our collaborators in Maastricht University assessed Ayahuasca ceremony attendants before, the day after, and 4 weeks following the ritual, and reported that the changes in affect, satisfaction with life, and mindfulness were significantly correlated to the level of ego dissolution experienced during the ayahuasca ceremony and were unrelated to previous experience with ayahuasca (Uthaug et al. 2018).
Another survey-based study conducted by our collaborators at Imperial college reported that higher ratings of a “mystical-type experience” in psychedelic users had a positive effect on the change in well-being after a psychedelic experience, whereas the other acute psychedelic experience measures, i.e., “challenging experience” and “visual effects”, did not influence the change in well-being after the psychedelic experience (Haijen et al. 2018).
⦁ Pahnke W. (1963) Drugs and Mysticism: An Analysis of the Relationship Between Psychedelic Drugs and the Mystical Consciousness
⦁ Tagliazucchi et al. 2016, Increased Global Functional Connectivity Correlates with LSD-Induced Ego Dissolution
⦁ Griffiths et al. 2019, Survey of subjective “God encounter experiences”: Comparisons among naturally occurring experiences and those occasioned by the classic psychedelics psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, or DMT
⦁ Uthaug et al. 2018, Sub-acute and long-term effects of ayahuasca on affect and cognitive thinking style and their association with ego dissolution
⦁ Haijen et al. 2018, Predicting Responses to Psychedelics: A Prospective Study
⦁ Hartogsohn et al. 2018, The Meaning-Enhancing Properties of Psychedelics and Their Mediator Role in Psychedelic Therapy, Spirituality, and Creativity
Psilocybin for Depression
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