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
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