Home Therapeutic relationship How does science make sense of the mystical experience of psychedelic medicine?

How does science make sense of the mystical experience of psychedelic medicine?


The death of the ego, a feeling of oneness with the universe, a liberation from self-delusion. Concepts and ideas often left in the “New Age” section of bookstores are now being seriously investigated for their potential to treat several mental health issues, including PTSD, depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.

As psychedelics like LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, and ayahuasca are on the verge of receiving FDA approval as psychiatric treatments, for the first time in history, medical and scientific institutions need to understand the mysticism that goes beyond simple academic curiosity.

Science and spirituality have long been considered two worlds apart. But what happens when mysticism becomes part of a mechanism of action in medical treatment?

The therapeutic effects of spirituality

The study of mysticism in psychedelics dates back to the early days of research on psychedelics in the 1960s at Harvard, where under the supervision of Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (later known as Ram Dass), a doctoral 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 cutting edge experiences produced by religious practice.

“Human beings to varying degrees have developed a need for spiritual support and understanding. Humans are wired in a certain way, and that has very clear health implications, ”says Dr. Charles L. Raison, director of spiritual health research at Emory University in Atlanta.

Reason describes spirituality as “a universal human thirst to find purpose, to find meaning, to find a way to interconnect things in the world around us, which makes us feel that our life is worth being.” lived ”.

This human drive to find meaning has historically given rise to behaviors and practices capable of inducing states that academics in the psychedelic space call mystical-type experiences. These are experiences in which the individual has an embodied sense of belief that they have interacted with something powerful that is greater than them, Reason says.

“Sometimes it’s God, sometimes it’s the universe, but at the heart of spirituality is this feeling and desire for meaningful and useful 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, ”explains Raison.

While these types of experiences are common in religious practices across the world, they can also be induced by the use of psychedelic drugs, with remarkable consistency.

Psychedelic Medicine: Harvesting the Power of Spirituality

Dr Albert Garcia-Romeu, a professor at Johns Hopkins University and a member of the university’s Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, says the mystical-like effects produced by psychedelics have generally been linked to benefits in a number of different populations including people. suffering from depression, cancer patients and people with different types of substance use disorders, such as alcohol dependence and tobacco dependence.

But for researchers like Garcia-Romeu, measuring and quantifying the relationship between mystical states and improved mental health goes beyond mere academism.

It is the ability of psychedelics to reliably induce these types of experiences that gives some psychiatrists immense new hope.

“It’s one of the things psychedelics do to people, which then seems to produce a long-term antidepressant response,” Reason commented.

“We are interested in finding this intersection between the subjective inner experience that people have [under psychedelics] and the biology of what it looks like in the brain and body, ”Garcia-Romeau explains.

While mystical and peak experiences can be achieved voluntarily in secular environments through meditation or work of the breath, these practices cannot produce these states reliably enough for patients in profound psychological distress.

“With something like meditation, people may have to sit for years to have an experience like this or they may not have it at all,” Garcia-Romeau adds.

Amanda Feilding, Founder and Director of the Beckley Foundation, assures us that in treatment with psychedelics, patients who have a mystical experience are much more likely to have a positive result.

This appears to be especially true for patients with treatment-resistant depression.

“What our research was the first to show is that at the root of the healing experience in psychedelic-assisted therapy is the mystical experience,” says Feilding. His Oxford-based institute was founded over 23 years ago to study psychedelics and their therapeutic applications.

The researcher adds that getting a spiritual state from drugs may seem like “cheap stuff.” However, for some patients, this may be enough to catalyze an intense psychological healing journey.

“[Psychedelics] can get you there, then you get a taste of it. So at least you get a taste of that different sense of reality. And I think it’s very valuable and very healing, ”Feilding said.

How do scientists even measure a mystical experiment?

There is something inherently mysterious about the nature of the psychedelic experience itself, and some researchers believe that the “mystical” or “spiritual” component that psychedelic “journeys” induce may be the key to understanding their value. therapeutic.

“If I were left to my own wishes, I would probably focus 80 percent of the research I do on the mystical experience,” says Feilding, adding that the mystery behind the mystical aspect of psychedelics was the fuel that triggered it. his career as one of the leading researchers in the field, which today spans five decades.

“One of the things we’re doing in our Phase 2 study is carefully measuring the patient’s self-reported assessment to see if they’ve had this kind of experience,” explains Raison of Emory University, who is also director of clinical and translational research for Usona. Institute, a Wisconsin-based non-profit organization that is conducting 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 to analyze the mystical content of a patient’s experience. A widely used instrument in this research is the “Mystical Experience Questionnaire,” a device developed for the purpose of understanding the complex emotions caused by psychedelics and other spiritual inducing agents.

Another is the Awe experience scale. Fear is often described as one of the building blocks of mystical experience and defined as “the perception of immensity and the need to adapt this immensity to existing mental models”.

But how do you begin to measure and quantify an emotion that is, by definition, ineffable or impossible to describe in words?

Test subjects are invited to answer questions after completing an experience with a psychedelic. Patients are asked if they have experienced, among other things:

  • A feeling of being outside of time, beyond the past and the future.
  • Certainty of an encounter with an ultimate reality.
  • The idea that “all is One”.
  • Consciousness of life or living presence in everything.
  • To feel that you have experienced something deeply sacred and holy.
  • The fusion of your personal self into a larger whole.

These questions can be essential in understanding subjects’ subjective experiences, which in turn can inform their own internal processes.

“The Mystical Experiences Questionnaire has become the norm in the field,” explains Raison.

Although he adds that the questionnaire itself has been criticized by some researchers as being “monotheistic”. Since the questionnaire was developed in the West by mostly Western scholars, it may include metaphysical views closer to the Judeo-Christian tradition, leaving aside aspects of other spiritual traditions such as Hinduism. or Buddhism.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this series, where we’ll see if the mystical experience is crucial to the therapeutic success of psychedelics, and what this question means for the burgeoning industry developing psychedelics for legal therapeutic use. .