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Psychedelic Drug Users Are More Likely to Believe Plants and Objects Have Consciousness, Study Finds

By Alexander Beadle

Published: Apr 04, 2022   
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One single psychedelic experience can change a person’s views on consciousness dramatically, to the point that they begin to attribute consciousness to more living and non-living things, according to a new study from Johns Hopkins Medicine.

The study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, surveyed psychedelic users who had gone through a belief-changing psychedelic experience. They found that after using psychedelics, belief in the consciousness of animals, plants, and even inanimate objects was significantly higher among the surveyed group.

From ancient philosophical debate to modern day science, the nature of consciousness is still something that is poorly understood and extremely difficult to study. The Johns Hopkins researchers hope that more psychedelic research like this could help to shed new light on the matters of the mind, including how it is possible for dramatic belief changes to be made so easily under the influence of psychedelics.

A single psychedelic experience can change how we think about consciousness

For this study, the researchers gathered online survey responses from more than 1,600 individuals who reported going through a belief-changing psychedelic experience. This included people who were regular users of psychedelics, as well as those who had a one-off experience. Regardless of experience, the participants were asked to focus on a single psychedelic experience and consider their beliefs before and after this event, in addition to their current beliefs.

The researchers found large increases in the attribution of a “capacity for conscious awareness” to a range of animate and inanimate things after using psychedelics. For example, 63 percent of those surveyed initially believed non-human primates to have consciousness, with this rising to 83 percent after psychedelic experience.

The most significant change was seen with respect to plants. Twenty-six percent of those surveyed initially reported believing that plants had the capacity for consciousness. This proportion rose to 61 percent after the psychedelic experience. To put this into context, current estimates show just 10 to 18 percent of the general population currently hold this belief.

“This study demonstrates that when beliefs change following a psychedelic experience, attributions of consciousness to various entities tend to increase,” study author Sandeep Nayak, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, said in a statement.

“It’s not clear why, whether that might be an innate drug effect, cultural factors or whether psychedelics might somehow expose innate cognitive biases that attribute features of the mind to the world.”

The attribution of consciousness to inanimate natural objects also grew from 8 to 26 percent of survey respondents, and inanimate manmade objects from 3 to 15 percent.

“On average, participants indicated the belief-changing experience in question occurred eight years prior to taking the survey, so these belief changes may be long-lasting,” Nayak added.

Attribution of consciousness could explain psychedelic entity encounters

The researchers say that the broad attribution of consciousness to other non-human entities could explain why some people report sensing “an intelligence or spirit being in an ingested plant or substance” when using psychedelics such as psilocybin mushrooms or ayahuasca. Other studies also highlight reports of psychedelics users who claim to encounter God or some other conscious autonomous entity, which may also be related to this broad attribution of consciousness.

The Johns Hopkins survey did ask respondents about their superstitious beliefs and their belief in freewill, but, unlike their opinions on consciousness, these beliefs did not change significantly after using psychedelics.

“The results suggesting that a single psychedelic experience can produce a broad increase in attribution of consciousness to other things, raises intriguing questions about possible innate or experiential mechanisms underlying such belief changes,” said Roland Griffiths, a professor in the neuropsychopharmacology of consciousness at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

“The topic of consciousness is a notoriously difficult scientific problem that has led many to conclude it is not solvable,” Griffiths said.

The researchers note several limitations with this study. For one, the study was retrospective in design, requiring participants to recall and report their past views as well as current opinions. But while it is possible that a “demand effect” occurred, where participants felt compelled to report some significant changes in belief, the lack of chance in response to questions about superstition and freewill would suggest that the findings on consciousness are significant.

Can psychedelics unravel the mystery of consciousness?

Given the unusual effects and experiences produced by psychedelic compounds, it is no surprise that some believe these compounds could provide unique insights into the nature of human consciousness.

Last year, a review published in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology evaluated this idea of using psychedelics in consciousness research. Specifically, the review questioned whether psychedelic compounds could be used to generate information that could solve the “hard problem of consciousness,” defined as the problem of explaining how the first-person experience emerges, as well as the various “easy problems” such as how attention, perception, and intentional behavior arise.

“Due to the epistemological questions surrounding consciousness, it currently appears unlikely that psychedelics, like other extant scientific tools, could be used to definitively explain the existence of or biological basis of phenomenal consciousness (i.e., solve the “hard problem”),” the review found.

However, it went on to conclude that “psychedelics are proving useful tools for researchers investigating many of the so-called easy problems of consciousness, and it seems likely that their full potential to facilitate scientific advances is only beginning to be tapped.”


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