This article in MSN.com which appeared in the Fall 2020, Mysteries issue of Popular Science, reviews how:
Scientists in the psychiatry department of Johns Hopkins University—are part of the burgeoning field of psychedelic studies. Recently invigorated by a more permissive regulatory environment, the sector investigates if, how, and why reality-bending substances might help human brains. So far, research from all over the world suggests the drugs can break old mental patterns and help fight addiction, alleviate depression, shrink existential fears, and improve relationships.
The article, in part, chronicles the experience of Clark Martin, whom doctors gave a year to live after they found he had stage 4 kidney cancer in 1990. In 2010, after a 20 year battle with the cancer, Martin, a retired clinical psychologist, heard about the John Hopkins study, and wanted to try it. His experience was consistent with research from all over the world that suggests the drugs can break old mental patterns and help fight addiction, alleviate depression, shrink existential fears, and improve relationships. Additionally, the article says:
…investigators have been surprised by another consistent finding: When people have spiritual experiences while tripping, they’re even more likely to kick bad habits and be happier or more satisfied with their lives in the long term. The mysterious encounters take many forms. Sometimes people feel they’re in the presence of God, or of a more nebulous entity like Ultimate Reality—a higher power that reveals the truth of the universe—or they just feel a novel connectedness to everything from now back to the big bang and beyond. Because of the link between the mystical and the medical, scientists like those at Johns Hopkins are probing why people have transcendent tendencies at all, how that might help our brains, and what it means for how we perceive the world.
After some initial trepidation and anxiety during the “trip”, Martin had some mystical experiences, and found that after the session ended, so did his depression. Alan Davis, another John Hopkins researcher, and his colleagues, created an internet-based survey to find out about people’s “God encounter experiences.” The survey asked individuals about their most memorable rendezvous with a supreme figure, either when sober or when they had taken a psychedelic. More than 4,000 responded. They published the results in 2019. The article says the results were:
The sober group was more likely than the other one to label the being God. The psychedelic users instead tended to call it Ultimate Reality. But both sets generally agreed that whatever they’d encountered was “conscious, benevolent, intelligent, sacred, eternal, and all-knowing.” And the majority said the experience left them with more purpose and meaning, greater satisfaction with their lives, and a decreased fear of death.
Perhaps the most striking result, though, involved people from both groups who hadn’t subscribed to the idea of a higher power to start with. After their hangout with an omniscient entity, more than two-thirds became believers. (If you’ve ever tried to change an atheist’s mind, you know how big a feat that is.)
The shift means, essentially, that they thought the experience revealed something true about the world. As the paper put it, “The majority of both groups endorsed that that which was encountered existed, at least in part, in some other reality and that it continued to exist after the encounter.”
Because no one really knows for sure yet why these drugs make people mystical, what that mysticality really means, or exactly why any of it changes people’s personalities for the better, boosts them out of mood disorders, or rids them of addictions. Those questions merit answers. The article goes on to conclude:
Whatever you make of them, psychedelic treatments hold promise that keeps pushing the research forward. Davis thinks often of a young woman in a Johns Hopkins study who had struggled for a decade with severe depression and social anxiety. She thought about suicide often. But after her treatment with psilocybin, things changed. For example, Davis says, “The look in her eye that she had gone a whole week without thinking of ending her life. It doesn’t get better than seeing hope in somebody.”
Davis believes psychedelics do something deeper than traditional pharmaceuticals or therapies. “Whether that’s because of the mystical experiences or the insight, something is happening at a level that is not just about reducing symptoms,” he says.
I have a couple of thoughts, and then I would like to hear yours:
- I’m strongly inclined to be skeptical of beneficial use of hallucigens. Some of that skepticism follows from my, and other friends, experience with them back in the 60s and 70s, when I was in high school and college. I don’t remember a lot of good coming from tripping and I certainly remember some friends who abused them and suffered consequently.
- Nevertheless, it is hard to discount the clinical evidence the John Hopkins researchers have produced. It would seem trials guided by experienced clinical psychologists are to be preferred over random recreational use by stupid kids.
- It raises questions about the “it’s-all-only-in-your-head” critique of people’s mystical experiences, including Christians. If God-experiences can be induced by psychedelic drugs, then are they only a phenomena of the brain, and not real?
- On the other hand, is not depression “only-in-your-head”? Does that mean it’s not real? Those suffering from depression would beg to differ.