Profound religious experiences are linked to lasting mental health benefits, new research suggests. In a survey study of more than 4000 individuals, those who reported having profound personal experiences with “ultimate reality” or God, whether spontaneously or through use of a psychedelic drug, often reported lasting, positive changes in their psychological health even decades after the experience.
“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,” lead investigator Roland Griffiths, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, told Medscape Medical News.
The findings were published online April 23, 2019 in PLoS One.
“This is the first study to provide a detailed comparison of naturally occurring (non-drug) and psychedelic-occasioned experiences that participants frequently interpreted as an encounter with God or ultimate reality,” the authors say.
“Naturally occurring and psychedelic drug–occasioned experiences interpreted as personal encounters with God are well described but have not been systematically compared,” they note.
A total of 4,285 individuals completed an online survey in which they were asked to recall their single most memorable encounter with the “God of their understanding,” a “higher power,” “ultimate reality,” or “an aspect or representative of God, such as an angel.” Of the group, 809 reported a naturally occurring experience (nondrug group), and the remaining 3476 reported a psychedelic-induced experience. In the latter group, 1184 used psilocybin; 1251, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD); 435, ayahuasca; and 606, N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT).
The average age of the respondents was 38 years when they took the survey. The God encounter experience occurred, on average, at age 25 in the psychedelics group and at age 35 in the nondrug group.
Three quarters (75%) of respondents in both the nondrug and the psychedelics groups rated their God encounter as among the most meaningful and spiritually significant in their lifetime, and both groups said it led to positive psychological changes in their lives.
Most had vivid memories of the experience, which often involved communicating with an entity having the attributes of consciousness, benevolence, intelligence, sacredness, and eternal existence. Participants in the nondrug group were most likely to choose “God” or “an emissary of God” (59%) as the best descriptor of their encounter; those in the psychedelics group were most likely to choose “ultimate reality” (55%).
Both groups reported being less fearful of dying after the experience, although this was more common in the psychedelics group than in the nondrug group (70% vs 57%). About 15% of both groups said their experience was the most psychologically challenging of their lives.
The authors write,“…that psychedelic experiences can involve both positive emotion including transcendence as well as highly distressing feelings such as fear and insanity have been well-documented.”
The survey does not provide data on how frequently these experiences occur on a population level. Also, it relied on self-reported responses to a questionnaire, which carries substantial risk for biased or inaccurate responses, the researchers point out.
Looking ahead, Griffiths said his team would like to explore potential factors that may predispose someone to have such a profound encounter and to investigate what happens in the brain during the experience.
“Although modern Western medicine doesn’t typically consider ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ experiences as one of the tools in the arsenal against sickness, our findings suggest that these encounters often lead to improvements in mental health,” he said.
I’ve been reading articles in the plethora of medical and scientific journals for decades, and this one from usually stodgy Johns Hopkins is a first. How so? Because it bravely stakes its reputation on a written survey–NOT a scientific analysis–and published its findings in a widely read journal, PLoS One. No findings on what was happening to peoples’ brains while experiencing the God encounter. Just written accounts of the experience and effect on I guess you’d say, “the quality of life in the aftermath.”
This is odd in my view, since science is usually the core ingredient in the report of a medical study. But not this time. This is an observational study, so it cannot determine cause and effect, the authors acknowledge. How about religious beliefs? They weren’t mentioned other than the differentiation between atheists and god believers.
For future studies, Griffiths said his team would like to explore what factors predispose someone to having such a memorable and life-altering perceived encounter, and they would like to see what happens in the brain during the experience.
“Continuing to explore these experiences may provide new insights into religious and spiritual beliefs that have been integral to shaping human culture since time immemorial,” he adds.
Griffiths and the research team caution that the study relied on self-reported responses to a questionnaire, a method that carries substantial possibilities for biased or inaccurate responses among participants. They don’t advocate that people use hallucinogenic substances on their own because they carry not only legal risks, but also behavioral risks associated with impaired judgment under the influence and the possibility of negative psychological consequences, particularly in vulnerable people or when the experience isn’t safeguarded by qualified guides.
In addition, says Griffiths, “We want to be clear that our study looks at personal experiences and says nothing about the existence, or nonexistence of God. We doubt that any science can definitively settle this point either way.”
Griffiths has been researching psychedelic drugs for nearly two decades. Some of his earlier studies have used psilocybin to explore mystical-type experiences and their consequences in healthy volunteers, and the therapeutic potential of the drug in helping people to quit smoking or to ease mental distress in people due to a cancer diagnosis.
His team is hopeful that, one day, psilocybin may be developed as a drug to use in therapeutic settings under the care of a trained guide.
Johns Hopkins is clearly the leader of the use of psychedelics for medical use, as I pointed out last fall in my November 1, 2018 post. Now the same team has some “hard” data to back up their claim for medicinal use of shrooms and other psychedelics for not just use in treating depression, etc., but for enlarging mental health quality, which I don’t think anyone will argue against. Put simply, Hopkins researchers think it’s time to change the drug classification of magic mushrooms from a dangerous narcotic with no medical value, to a possible breakthrough treatment for depression.
Since 1970, authorities have considered psilocybin a Schedule I narcotic, meaning it has a high potential for abuse and no recognized medical use. According to the researchers–who’ve conducted myriad studies on the mushrooms—-neither assertion is true.
Griffiths and three other Hopkins researchers–Matthew Johnson, Peter Hendricks and Jack Henningfield–make the case that it’s time for the US Food and Drug Administration to consider moving magic mushrooms from Schedule I to Schedule IV. If the classification changes, doctors could prescribe magic mushrooms in certain circumstances.
“Removal from Schedule I can only occur if a medicinal product containing a Schedule I substance is approved for therapeutic use as a drug by the FDA,” the study explained–meaning that a third party, say Pfizer, needs to manufacture psilocybin for a medical use, submit that product to the FDA, and lobby for its reclassification.
While no large pharmaceutical companies are asking Johns Hopkins about magic mushrooms, Dr. Johnson is hopeful.
“This is cutting-edge science [and] the results are very promising on a number of disorders,” he said.
Cutting-edge science? If Hopkins researchers say so, I stand corrected.