Last month’s report on a Johns Hopkins study of psilocybin and spirituality, of which I’m a co-author, has drawn numerous comments on blogs and on-line news articles. A fraction of those comments have raised questions or criticisms which I’d like to try to address. (On the RBC, see Mark’s posts and Andy’s critique.)
For those who think that substances such as psilocybin have something valuable to offer spiritual seekers, myself included, it may be helpful to reflect upon the concerns of people less invested in the subject (“disinterested,” even). At the same time, the exercise could help clear up misunderstandings of the research or its implications.
Here’s a condensation of the issues I’ve heard raised. I will be taking them up one at a time in forthcoming posts. If you’re aware of other issues, feel free to add them as comments to this post.
1. “I took mushrooms, and my experience was neither ‘spiritual’ nor life-changing. So what’s the big deal?” (response)
2. The studies used volunteers with a spiritual orientation, so of course they reported spiritual experiences, and so the studies prove nothing.
3. Hallucinogens cause hallucinations; hallucinations cannot be a source of learning, healing, or betterment.
4. Psilocybin may cause people to adopt untrue beliefs (e.g., about the nature of ultimate reality).
5. The substance may harm some people or cause them to harm themselves or others.
6. An enlightening experience doesn’t necessarily lead to an enlightened life.
For a refresher on the research findings, continue reading beneath the fold.
(And many thanks to Mark and to Keith for welcoming me to the RBC.)
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In the Johns Hopkins psilocybin experiments, most of the volunteers – two-thirds in the first study and upwards of 90% in the second – rated a psilocybin experience as among the top five most spiritually significant events of their lives.
A month afterwards, most volunteers attributed to the experience positive changes in attitudes and behaviors. Friends and family members who were interviewed tended to corroborate the volunteers’ self-assessments. The behavior changes most frequently cited were improved relationships with family and others, increased physical and psychological self-care, and increased devotion to spiritual practice.
The most positive outcomes followed sessions that measured high on “mystical-type” experience (also called, among many names, peak experience, non-dual consciousness, cosmic consciousness, and primary religious experience). The the recalled significance of such sessions and the positive changes associated them were found to be long-lasting, remaining about the same in assessments at one month and at 14 months.
The second study looked at the effects of the psilocybin session as a function of dosage. The highest dose given yielded the highest likelihood of mystical-type experience (56%) and also the highest likelihood of transient fear, anxiety, or delusions during some portion of the session (33%). The second-highest dose given may represent an optimal tradeoff. It yielded mystical-type experiences only slightly less often (44% of the volunteers) and strong negative effects much less often (6% of the volunteers). The study also found better outcomes using an ascending dose sequence across multiple sessions than with a descending sequence.
When they occurred, negative effects such as fear, anxiety, and delusions were managed with simple reassurance and the passage of time, and did not outlast the sessions.
These findings do not necessarily generalize to populations or conditions other than those used in the studies, as described in the published papers.