Spiritually Significant Experiences

Friday, February 20th, 2015

Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance, Roland Griffiths, et al. found, in 2006. Griffiths’s double-blind study reprised the work done by Pahnke in the nineteen-sixties, but with considerably more scientific rigor:

Thirty-six volunteers, none of whom had ever taken a hallucinogen, received a pill containing either psilocybin or an active placebo (methylphenidate, or Ritalin); in a subsequent session the pills were reversed. “When administered under supportive conditions,” the paper concluded, “psilocybin occasioned experiences similar to spontaneously occurring mystical experiences.” Participants ranked these experiences as among the most meaningful in their lives, comparable to the birth of a child or the death of a parent. Two-thirds of the participants rated the psilocybin session among the top five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives; a third ranked it at the top. Fourteen months later, these ratings had slipped only slightly.

Furthermore, the “completeness” of the mystical experience closely tracked the improvements reported in personal well-being, life satisfaction, and “positive behavior change” measured two months and then fourteen months after the session. (The researchers relied on both self-assessments and the assessments of co-workers, friends, and family.) The authors determined the completeness of a mystical experience using two questionnaires, including the Pahnke-Richards Mystical Experience Questionnaire, which is based in part on William James’s writing in “The Varieties of Religious Experience.” The questionnaire measures feelings of unity, sacredness, ineffability, peace and joy, as well as the impression of having transcended space and time and the “noetic sense” that the experience has disclosed some objective truth about reality. A “complete” mystical experience is one that exhibits all six characteristics. Griffiths believes that the long-term effectiveness of the drug is due to its ability to occasion such a transformative experience, but not by changing the brain’s long-term chemistry, as a conventional psychiatric drug like Prozac does.

A follow-up study by Katherine MacLean, a psychologist in Griffiths’s lab, found that the psilocybin experience also had a positive and lasting effect on the personality of most participants. This is a striking result, since the conventional wisdom in psychology holds that personality is usually fixed by age thirty and thereafter is unlikely to substantially change. But more than a year after their psilocybin sessions volunteers who had had the most complete mystical experiences showed significant increases in their “openness,” one of the five domains that psychologists look at in assessing personality traits. (The others are conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.) Openness, which encompasses aesthetic appreciation, imagination, and tolerance of others’ viewpoints, is a good predictor of creativity.

“I don’t want to use the word ‘mind-blowing,’ ” Griffiths told me, “but, as a scientific phenomenon, if you can create conditions in which seventy per cent of people will say they have had one of the five most meaningful experiences of their lives? To a scientist, that’s just incredible.”

So, it’s an unalloyed good that the most important events in your life end up being the births of your children, the deaths of your parents, and that time you took mushrooms?


  1. Alrenous says:

    That time you took mushrooms ritually under conditions designed to create a profound experience, which was done due to numerous anecdotes claiming that mushrooms are far more profound than they had any right to be.

    It means we have a substance that can, in one session, erase years of abuse. Reality is alien, it turns out.

  2. Coyote says:

    Mystical experiences are unknown to the vast majority of robots; meta-programming into the matrix through language, socialization, etc. in the post-agricultural, industrial age means robots have little, if any, experience outside “approved” endorphin enhancers: sex, violence, “common” drugs (alcohol), etc. Ritual use of ceremonies designed to create mystical experiences bonded primitive tribes together in powerful ways. Today use of a powerful hallucinogen in a ritual ceremony alone with your friends and a guide will at least get you to question the reality of the boob tube most infantile minds are sucking on.

  3. Bruce says:

    Steve Barnes said he took mushrooms once, and the mushroom gods appeared and gave him a great mystical experience of Total Oneness and Love. So he took mushrooms again, and the mushroom gods appeared and said Stop Frying Your Brain Stupid!

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