Psychedelic Drugs Lessen Fear of Dying, Study Suggests
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A psychedelic drug experience may alter people’s perspectives on death and dying in a similar way to those who have survived a near-death experience, a new study has found.
Published in PLOS One, researchers from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine report the results of a new survey on beliefs around death and dying. Comparing responses from more than 3,100 individuals, they found strong similarities between the psychedelic drug experience and a non-drug-related near-death experience in terms of how the two affected an individual's attitude towards death, personal well-being, and life’s meaning.
They also identified a few differences. For example, people who had taken ayahuasca or other preparations of N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) tended to report stronger and more positive lasting consequences than those who took psilocybin or LSD.
Research into psychedelics and attitudes towards death is important, the researchers say, as this may help to inform the potential clinical use of psychedelics in combating end-of-life anxiety and distress.
Comparing psychedelic and near-death experiences
Both near-death experiences and psychedelic trips have been studied individually to evaluate how they might change a person’s perspective on death, but direct comparisons between the two have been limited.
Going through a near-death experience has been found to be associated with reductions in death anxiety, as well as a strengthened belief in the afterlife, reduced interest in material possessions, and an increased appreciation for natural phenomena. Similarly, surveys of psychedelics users have found that these drugs can have a transformative positive effect on attitudes towards death in patients with life-threatening ailments.
In this new study, the researchers gathered survey responses from 3,192 people who reported having “an experience that fundamentally altered your beliefs or understanding about death and dying.”
The survey was constructed to assess the content and context of the participants’ experience using a mixture of multiple-choice and open-ended questions. This included standard questions for measuring different aspects of mystical and near-death experiences, such as feelings of peace or transcendence, as well as profiling death attitudes.
In total, 933 respondents reported having had a near death experience, while 2,259 had a transformative psychedelic experience. Of the drug group, around 40% said they had used LSD, 34% reported psilocybin, 12% used ayahuasca, and 14% said that they had used some other smoked or vaporized form of DMT other than an ayahuasca brew.
Similarities and differences
The researchers found that around 90% of respondents from both the drug and near-death experience groups reported a decrease in their fear of death following their experience. A similar fraction expressed feeling more positive changes in their attitude towards their own death, with around 86% saying the same for the death of others. Around 83% also reported a positive, desirable change in their curiosity or interest in death.
Both groups also reported moderate-to-strong persistent positive change in their personal well-being or life satisfaction, life purpose, and life meaning. Between 75 to 85% of participants from both groups felt that their experience was among the top-five most personally meaningful and spiritually significant moments of their lives.
In addition to these similarities, there were a few notable differences. As expected, the near-death experience group were more likely to report that their life was in danger during the experience, as well as being more likely to have been medically unconscious or clinically dead for a period. They were also more likely to report a brief experience lasting five minutes or less, where the majority of the drug group said their experience lasted one hour or more.
Overall, the psychedelic group reported higher ratings on survey questions designed to assess mystical-type experiences, whereas the non-drug group were more likely to endorse the statements “feelings of obtaining information in an extrasensory manner” and “feelings of contact with people who have died.”
There were also some notable differences seen between the different psychedelics that were used. Demographically, the ayahuasca group was unique compared to the other drug groups, being more likely to be older, female, college educated, and have a higher income. The ayahuasca and DMT groups also tended to report stronger and more positive enduring consequences from their drug experience, compared to the psilocybin and LSD groups.
According to the Johns Hopkins University researchers, more research building on these themes could help to inform future work examining the application of psychedelics in areas such as end-of-life care.
“Not only can the features of psychedelic experiences be similar to near death experiences, both are rated as among the most meaningful lifetime experiences and both produce similar enduring decreases in fear of death and increases in well-being,” senior study author Roland Griffiths concluded in a press release.
Future studies could also investigate the type of experiences being reported by utilizing more follow-up questions or conducting qualitative interviews. The researchers noticed that the non-drug group, which was intended to serve as a group for people who had a near death experience, also contained a surprisingly high number of people who said that their lives had not been in danger during their experience. Instead, they identified as having some “other non-ordinary experience” rather than a near death experience.
The researchers suggest that determining the exact cause of these other significant yet non-life-threatening experiences and comparing the effects of these against near-death and psychedelic experiences may be another valuable avenue for investigation.