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Most Psychedelic Drug Users Believe in a Higher Power Following Their Trip, Study Finds

By Alexander Beadle

Published: Jan 03, 2023   

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One single psychedelic experience can have a significant impact on a person’s beliefs about consciousness and life’s meaning and purpose, a new study suggests.

According to researchers from the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, people who report having a meaningful psychedelic experience are also more likely to attribute consciousness to animals, plants, and even inanimate objects. However, while these psychedelics users did tend to report an increased belief in the paranormal after their trip, superstitious beliefs largely remained unchained.

Psychedelic-induced belief changes have been “undertheorized and underemphasized” until now, the researchers say. Building on these findings, the Johns Hopkins team say that future studies at the center will focus on psychedelics, secular spirituality, and well-being.

Psychedelics affect four different domains of belief

For this new study, the researchers surveyed more than 2,300 respondents who endorsed having had a “belief changing psychedelic experience” of some kind. Each respondent was asked to rate their agreement with 45 different statements about their beliefs at three different time points: before the psychedelic experience, shortly after the experience, and currently at the time of the survey.

The statements broadly covered five different belief areas:

  • Dualism – the idea that the mind and body are separable.
  • Paranormal/spirituality – some of the statements included in this category referred to things such as the existence of telepathy, disembodied spirits, life after death, reincarnation, and telekinesis.
  • Mammal consciousness – whether mammals and other humans are capable of having their own conscious experience.
  • Non-mammal consciousness – whether insects, plants, and inanimate objects such as rocks are capable of consciousness.
  • Superstition – this category included reference to several common adages about bad luck, such as the breaking of mirrors, the number 13, and black cats.

The researchers found that in every category, with the exception of superstition, these beliefs increased. This strengthening of so-called “non-physicalist beliefs” was also consistent across every demographic group, with around 87% of survey respondents going so far as to say that their experience has changed their fundamental conception of reality.

While the belief changes reported by survey respondents all tended to follow the same direction – towards a strengthened belief in these areas – the magnitude of this did vary. 

“The magnitude of belief changes is strongly associated with mystical experience ratings, which are assessed without reference to supernatural beliefs,” Roland Griffiths, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the founding director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, explained in a statement.

Mysticism as it relates to psychedelics normally means feeling some kind of “oneness” with the world, the universe, and other living things. During a mystical experience, a person might also feel that they have transcended time in a spiritual way or be overcome with an immense sensation of peace and tranquility.

“Major features of such experiences include a sense of connectedness, preciousness and validity,” Griffiths added. “These features may account for changes in beliefs such as increases in a sense of purpose and meaning of life, and that the universe is conscious.”

Number of “believers” increased significantly after using psychedelics

In many cases, this psychedelic-induced belief change also appeared to prompt a change in self-identity. Before the psychedelic experience, just 29% of respondents said they would have classified themselves as being “believers” in a higher power, God, or some similar ultimate reality. But by the time of the survey, this had risen to 59% of the group.

Such belief changes also appeared to be long-lasting. On average, the psychedelic experience that the study participants were referring to in their answers happened eight years before the survey was issued. While there were significant increases in non-physicalist belief before the experience, the respondents’ answers showed very little change from immediately after the experience to the present day.

The long-lasting impact of psychedelics is often considered to be one of the major strengths of psychedelics in clinical applications, such as mental health treatment. However, this issue of belief changing has not generally been thought about in conjunction with clinical practice.

“Up to this point we have undertheorized and underemphasized psychedelic-induced belief changes,” Sandeep Nayak, lead investigator and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, said in a statement. “Guardrails against certain belief changes in clinical use are important, but the extent to which such nonnaturalistic beliefs may be therapeutic is unclear. There’s much more to learn here.”

The researchers do note a few important limitations of this new study. Most notably, the survey was advertised during recruitment as a “psychedelic belief change survey”, so it is possible that the religious or spiritual connotations of that wording might bias these results. The group of individuals who might have had a belief-changing experience also might only represent a small segment of all psychedelics users, and so the researchers say these findings should not be interpreted as what is likely to happen to a “typical” psychedelics user.

 

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