Ego death, a sense of oneness with the universe, a release from the illusion of the self. Concepts and ideas often left for the ‘New Age’ section of bookshops, are now seriously being studied for their potential to treat several mental health conditions, including PTSD, depression, anxiety and addiction.
As psychedelics like LSD, psilocybin mushrooms and ayahuasca become closer to receiving FDA approval as psychiatric treatments, for the first time in history, the medical and scientific establishments have a need to understand mysticism that goes beyond mere academic curiosity.
Science and spirituality have long been deemed two worlds apart. But what happens when mysticism becomes part of a mechanism of action in a medical treatment?
The Therapeutic Effects Of Spirituality
The study of mysticism in psychedelics dates back to the first days of psychedelics research in 1960s Harvard, where under the supervision of Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (later known as Ram Dass), a PhD student named Walter Pahnke gave psilocybin to several seminary students in an effort to analyze how the drug facilitated a religious experience.
Even earlier, legendary psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed a link between psychological health and the peak experiences produced by religious practice.
“Human beings to various degrees have evolved a need for spiritual support and understanding. Humans are wired a certain way, and it has very clear health implications,” says Dr. Charles L. Raison, Director of Research on Spiritual Health at Emory University in Atlanta.
Raison describes spirituality as “a universal human hunger to find purpose, to find meaning, to find a way that things interconnect in the world around us that makes us feel that our lives are something worth living.”
This human drive to find meaning has historically given rise to behaviors and practices liable to induce states that academics in the psychedelics space call mystical-type experiences. These are experiences wherein the individual has an embodied sense of conviction they’ve interacted with something powerful that’s larger than themselves, says Raison.
“Sometimes it’s God’s, sometimes it’s the universe, but at the core of spirituality is this feeling of and longing for a meaningful, purposeful interconnection with the larger world. And that through that connection, your life has a purpose and a meaning that goes beyond, you know, just the little prison walls of your own individual consciousness,” says Raison.
While these types of experiences are common in religious practices throughout the globe, they can also be induced by the intake of psychedelic drugs, with remarkable consistency.
Psychedelic Medicine: Harvesting The Power Of Spirituality
Dr. Albert Garcia-Romeu, a Johns Hopkins professor and member of the university’s Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, says that the mystical-type effects produced by psychedelics have been linked across the board to benefits in a number of different populations, including people with depression, cancer patients, and people with different types of substance use disorders like alcohol dependence and tobacco addiction.
But for researchers like Garcia-Romeu, measuring and quantifying the relationship between mystical states and mental health improvement goes beyond mere academicism.
It’s the ability of psychedelics to reliably induce these types of experiences that is giving some psychiatrists immense new hope.
“It’s one of the things that psychedelics do to people, that seems to then produce a long term antidepressant response,” commented Raison.
“We’re interested in finding this intersection between the subjective inner experience that people have [under psychedelics] and the biology of what that looks like in the brain and body,” says Garcia-Romeau.
While mystical and peak experiences can be reached voluntarily in secular environments via meditation or breath work, these practices cannot produce those states in a sufficiently reliable way for patients undergoing deep psychological distress.
“With something like meditation, people may have to sit for years before they have an experience like that or they may not have them at all,” adds Garcia-Romeau.
Amanda Feilding, Founder & Director of the Beckley Foundation, assures us that in treatment with psychedelics, patients who have a mystical experience are much more likely to showcase a positive outcome.
This appears to be especially true for patients with treatment-resistant depression.
“What our research was the first to show was that at the root of the healing experience in psychedelic-assisted therapy is the mystical experience,” says Feilding. Her institute, based out of Oxford, was founded over 23 years ago with the aim of studying psychedelics and their therapeutic applications.
The researcher adds that achieving a spiritual state through a drug can feel like “a bit of a cheap trick.” However, for some patients it might be enough to catalyze an intense journey of psychological healing.
“[Psychedelics] can get you there, so you have a taste of it. So at least you have a taste of that different sense of reality. And I think that’s very valuable and very healing,” said Feilding.
How Do Scientists Even Measure A Mystical Experience?
There is something inherently mysterious about the nature of the psychedelic experience in itself, and some researchers think that the “mystical” or “spiritual” component that psychedelic “trips” induce could be the key to understanding their therapeutic value.
“If I was left to my own wishes, I would probably concentrate 80 percent of the research I’m doing on the mystical experience,” says Feilding, adding that the mystery behind the mystical aspect of psychedelics was the fuel that sparked her career as one of the leading researchers in the field, which today spans over five decades.
“One of the things we’re doing in our Phase 2 study is carefully measuring the patient’s self reported assessment of whether they had this sort of experience,” says Emory University’s Raison, who also serves as Director for Clinical and Translational Research for the Usona Institute, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit leading phase 2 clinical trials with psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms,” for the treatment of depression.
Researchers studying the effect of psychedelic molecules in the human psyche have developed methods for analyzing the mystical contents of a patient’s experience. One instrument that is widely used in this research is the “Mystical Experience Questionnaire,” a device developed as an effort to understand the complex emotions brought on by psychedelics and other spirituality-inducing agents.
Another one is the Awe Experience Scale. Awe is often described as one of the building blocks of the mystical experience and defined as “the perception of vastness and the need to accommodate this vastness into existing mental models.”
But how does one even begin to measure and quantify an emotion that is, by definition, ineffable or impossible to describe with words?
Test subjects are asked to answer questions after an experience with a psychedelic has concluded. Patients are asked if they experienced, among other things:
- A sense of being outside of time, beyond past and future.
- Certainty of an encounter with an ultimate reality.
- The insight that “all is One”.
- Awareness of the life or living presence in all things.
- Feeling that you experienced something profoundly sacred and holy.
- The fusion of your personal self into a larger whole.
These questions can be key for understanding the subjective experiences of subjects, which in turn can shed light to their own internal processes.
“The mystical experiences questionnaire has become the standard in the field,” says Raison.
Though he adds that the questionnaire itself has received criticism from some scholars as “monotheisticly-biased.” Since the questionnaire was developed in the west by —mostly— western researchers, it can include metaphysical views more akin to the Judeo-Christian tradition, leaving out certain aspects of other spiritual traditions like Hinduism or Buddhism.
Stay tuned for part two of this series, where we’ll look at whether the mystical experience is crucial for the therapeutic success of psychedelics, and what this question means for the burgeoning industry developing psychedelics for legal therapeutic use.