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Psychedelic Drugs Trigger More Intense Mystical Experiences than Meditation or Prayer


Research could shed light on underlying biological mechanisms of mystical experiences and how these experiences influence well-being.

Psychedelic Drugs Trigger More Intense Mystical Experiences than Meditation or Prayer

PHILADELPHIA — For millennia, human kind has sought transformative spiritual experiences through prayer, meditation, ritual or by taking psychedelic substances considered sacred. But for many, the use of psychedelic substances is viewed as a shortcut, lacking intensity and integrity.

Using a first-of-its-kind, online database of self-reported spiritual experiences, researchers at Thomas Jefferson University and University of Pennsylvania sought to find out what, if anything, makes psychedelic-induced experiences different. The findings published online in the American Psychology Association’s Journal of Humanistic Psychology.

The study authors do not condone the use of psychedelic substances, but the data is useful for understanding people’s experience with substances outside of laboratory-controlled environments.

“Our findings show how powerful psychedelic experiences can be. And since we know the physiology of these drugs, such experiences can shed light on the underlying biological mechanism of the most important types of experiences people can have,” said Andrew Newberg, M.D., senior author and Director of Research at Jefferson’s Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine. “We found that psychedelically triggered mystical experiences, marked by a deep sense of unity, were rated as more intense and slightly more positive than mystical experiences triggered through other means. This raises questions about what a ‘real’ mystical experience is.”

Dr. Newberg and first author David Yaden, a research fellow in the Positive Psychology Center at University of Pennsylvania, analyzed information from an online database including more than seven hundred self-reported spiritual or mystical experiences. Participants were asked to rate their experiences on a Likert-type scale and indicate whether their experiences were triggered by psychedelic substances or through some other means (meditation, group ritual, spontaneous).

“This study also addresses a larger question: how do psychoactive substances influence well-being? Rather than assumptions, empirical research should inform our answers,” said Yaden.

Participants were asked how their experience influenced their well-being. The results indicate that mystical experiences were associated with generally positive outcomes, and that psychedelically triggered experiences enhanced participants’ sense of purpose and spirituality while slightly reducing the fear of death.

The authors hope to follow this study with more extensive research on the factors that cause psychedelic-induced spiritual experiences to be felt positively or negatively.

Citation: David B. Yaden, Khoa D. Le Nguyen, Margaret L. Kern, Alexander B. Belser, Johannes C. Eichstaedt, Jonathan Iwry, Mary E. Smith, Nancy A. Wintering, Ralph W. Hood, Jr., and Andrew B. Newberg. “Of Roots and Fruits: A Comparison of Psychedelic and Nonpsychedelic Mystical Experiences.” Journal of Humanistic Psychology. First published online October 24, 2016. Doi:10.1177/0022167816674625

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