The Link Between Psychedelics, God Encounters, and Mental Health

New research suggests having a mystical experience may have long-lasting benefits

Illustration: Clay Hickson

On the subreddit r/LSD, a user recently posed a question to the 249,000-strong community of dedicated psychonauts: “Is God real?”

“It’s nearly 5 a.m. If you’re still up and reading this you’re probably tripping as well,” writes u/deftones_lover. “Anyway, is God real? What happens when we die?”

The post garnered a slew of responses from users who used the forum not so much to answer the questions, but to recount their own encounters with God — or some version of a higher power — while under the influence of psychedelics. Throwawayuser626, for instance, chimes in with, “Personally, I don’t believe in God still, but the experiences I’ve had on heavy doses of acid and shrooms are something beyond human comprehension. It does make me ask myself if this is the afterlife that I’m seeing.”

Inf4nticide, who identifies as “agnostic-leaning-toward-atheist,” says that during one trip, God revealed himself and forced the user to make an unexplained life-changing choice. “I realize that I was tripping,” Inf4nticide writes, “but certain aspects of it were simply too real to dismiss.”

Another user, Neosapian, describes meeting a “warm female presence” who dispensed some truths about human nature that shifted the user’s perspective long after the trip ended: “For months, I felt a calm glow of acceptance.”

It’s easy to dismiss these stories as nothing more than the philosophizing of high people. But as it turns out, encounters with the divine while using psychedelics could be more than just fleeting hallucinations; they might actually have something to do with the therapeutic benefits of tripping.

“One basic implication of this study is that this link between perceived oneness and life satisfaction occurs independent of your religious affiliation.”

Research into psychedelics has ramped up in recent years as scientists study the potential of long-illicit drugs such as LSD, psilocybin, and MDMA to treat everything from depression and anxiety to fear of death and addiction. In the course of this research, psychologists and neuroscientists have noticed a pattern when cataloging people’s experiences in these altered states: A large portion of people describe mystical encounters similar to those found on r/LSD. And like Reddit user Neosapian, many say they are also left with a lasting glow.

Researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine wanted to know how these experiences might affect people in the long term. Were these encounters with spirituality just fleeting apparitions, or could they actually be life-altering? With this in mind, the researchers conducted an anonymous online survey with over 4,000 participants who said they had experienced their own brush with the divine whether under the influence of drugs or not, which the researchers described as “the God of your understanding,” a “higher power,” an “ultimate reality,” or an “aspect or emissary of God.”

The resulting study, published in April in the journal PLOS One, looked at both drug-induced and non-drug induced encounters — 3,476 people surveyed reported having a mystical experience while under the influence of LSD, psilocybin, ayahuasca, or DMT, and another 809 people reported such encounters unprompted by psychedelics, though the study did not specify what may have been the trigger in these cases. The researchers recruited the participants through internet ads, private email invitations, and social media.

In both groups, the researchers found that a majority of respondents cited lasting positive changes in their psychological health following their experience — such as life satisfaction and increased purpose and meaning — sometimes even decades later.

What’s more, over two-thirds of the people in the psychedelics group who said they were atheists before their trip-induced encounter with God no longer identified that way afterward. Specifically, 21% of psychedelics users called themselves non-believers before and just 8% identified as such after.

On the whole, over two-thirds of the people in the study reported that their encounters involved communication with some entity having the attributes of consciousness, benevolence, intelligence, sacredness, or eternal existence. In fact, about 70% said that, although this mystical entity existed in another dimension or reality, they believed it continued to exist after the encounter, which could help explain their newfound spiritual identities as well as the lasting psychological benefits.

“Although modern Western medicine doesn’t typically consider ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ experiences as one of the tools in the arsenal against sickness, our findings suggest that these encounters often lead to improvements in mental health,” the study’s lead researcher, Roland Griffiths, PhD, said in a press release.

This study isn’t the first to look at the relationship between psychedelics and spirituality. The first major study of psychedelics and spirituality took place on Good Friday in 1962 in the basement of Marsh Chapel at Boston University. There, Harvard researchers (who were under the supervision of the famous psychologist Timothy Leary) gave LSD to 10 divinity students in hopes that it would trigger a mystical experience. Nine of those students said it did, and that it had a lasting impact.

“I had believed in God… but until the Good Friday experiment, I had no personal encounter with God,” one of those students, the late historian Huston Smith, later wrote. “The experience was powerful for me, and it left a permanent mark on my experienced worldview.” Smith eventually penned the philosophical text Cleansing the Doors of Perception, which explores the potential of psychedelic drugs as entheogens, a.k.a. “God-revealing chemicals.”

After the Good Friday experiment, other researchers began studying this phenomenon, too, but by the 1970s, psychedelics were banned and this research ended altogether.

Griffiths, the lead author of this most recent study, has been paramount to reviving this area of study. In 2009, he conducted the first major study of drugs and spirituality since the 1970s and has launched several more since. In a 2018 study looking at the use of psilocybin to treat addiction, depression, and anxiety in terminally ill people, Griffiths and his team found that study participants who reported having a mystical experience while on the drug were more likely to reap long-lasting psychological benefits, including life satisfaction, social relationships, spiritual awareness in everyday life, attitudes about life, self, mood, and behavior.

For that study, researchers gave psilocybin to people who also agreed to take on a spiritual practice such as meditation. The men and women were divided into three groups and were given different combinations of a high or low dose of psilocybin along with “moderate” to “high” support for their spiritual practice. After six months, the people who were given higher doses of the drug showed the most positive changes, including “interpersonal closeness, gratitude, life meaning/purpose, forgiveness, death transcendence, daily spiritual experiences, religious faith and coping, and community observer ratings,” according to the study.

While the results suggest that psychedelics could have a greater impact on the spirituality-happiness connection, another April 2019 study recently found that, beyond the use of psychedelics, people who feel a sense of “oneness,” or a connection to “a divine principle, life, the world, other persons, or even activities,” report higher levels of satisfaction in their lives than those who don’t. According to the study, these findings are regardless of religious affiliation. In fact, some religious affiliations had an insignificant or even negative impact on oneness feelings.

“I always felt that there is this relationship between feeling that everything is one, and being more satisfied with the state of the world or accepting how life is and understanding also why it is this way,” says the study’s author, Laura Edinger-Schons, a professor of corporate social responsibility at the University of Mannheim. “And one basic implication of this study is that this link between perceived oneness and life satisfaction occurs independent of your religious affiliation. That means that you could also just learn something about philosophy or take part in yoga classes or do some meditation.”

While the reasons are still unknown, the researchers argue that having a spiritual experience appears to improve people’s mental health, and the connection should be further studied. For now, the psychedelic-curious can join u/deftones_lover for some late-night mystical musing.

writer. @tessamlove

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