Psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin have shown good promise in early studies on tackling depression and anxiety. This antidepressant power is surprisingly long-lasting, too; recent research found that the positive effects of psilocybin-assisted therapy can last up to one year after treatment.
Now, new research published in the journal Frontiers in Pharmacology has found that the mystical experiences induced by psilocybin are closely linked to long-lasting positive psychological effects in healthy individuals.
According to the study authors from Copenhagen University Hospital Rigshospitalet, these results suggest that the nature of the psilocybin-induced hallucinogenic experience could have an important impact in predicting lasting positive effects. This could help to inform the design of future studies investigating the effects of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, they say.
Mystical experiences correlate with lasting positive effects
For this study, the researchers recruited a total of 28 healthy participants from a list of individuals who were interested in participating in psilocybin neuroscience research. Each participant attended one preparatory session with a psychologist who would be present for interpersonal support during the drug administration session the following day. Questionnaires designed to assess baseline depression, sleep, and stress were also collected on the day of the experiment and at the three-month follow up session.
At the end of the psilocybin session, each participant completed a Mystical Experience Questionnaire (MEQ), which asked participants questions about their experience relative to four unique subscales measuring “mysticality”, positive mood, transcendence of time and space, and their inability to express their experience through words.
At the three-month follow up, participants were given a Persisting Effects Questionnaire (PEQ) that was used to measure any long-lasting positive and negative effects that could be attributed to their psychedelic experience, including changes in mood and outlook, social and behavioral effects, and spirituality.
The researchers found that the MEQ subscales relating to mysticality and positive mood were closely associated with long-lasting positive effects, as measured by the PEQ. The subscales measuring transcendence of time and ineffability were not.
While other studies have also identified a link between total MEQ score and long-lasting positive effects, the researchers say that this study is the first to identify how this effect relates to specific MEQ subscales.
“Given the above findings we may consider how to optimize the conditions that permit mystical-type experiences to unfold safely and allow patients to surrender to the experience, since this has been consistently associated with persisting positive outcomes,” the researchers wrote.
“These may be modulated by parameters such as dose, choice of psychedelic compound, as preliminary literature suggests differential phenomenology between compounds, or ‘set’ and ‘setting’.”
Describing the mystical psychedelic trip
After completing their MEQ following the drug administration session, participants were also asked to create a drawing representing their experience and to write an open-ended report evaluating their experience in their own words.
The researchers used these to provide the first qualitative descriptions of the “Complete Mystical Experience” (CME), defined as an experience that scored more than 60% on all the various MEQ subscales. To ensure that the themes identified in these reports were not influenced by the researchers’ narrative bias, a natural language pre-processing script was used to evaluate the untranslated original Danish texts provided by the participants. A term-frequency inverse document frequency (tf-idf) formula was also used to identify common themes.
The most common theme seen in CME reports was a sense of deep connection with the universe and similar feelings of unity and freedom. Other common themes included familial love, profound beauty, and the duality of experiencing two or more emotions at once.
“Several times during the trip, I found myself laughing in sheer admiration of the impressive and wonderous universe of human consciousness,” one participant is quoted as saying.
“The tears run down my cheeks as I feel an enormous sense of closeness and connectedness. I feel an enormous sense of love towards my dad, his way of being and his patience. I want my dad to experience the feeling of ultimate love as I do, and for him to have the same experience,” said another.
The words “magnetic resonance” also rated very highly, in reference to the MRI scanner used during some of the drug sessions. In several cases, the participants found that the noises of the scanner inspired some synesthesia-like experiences during their trip.
When the same tf-idf formula was applied to the non-CME reports, “gloomy” was the only word that appeared frequently and consistently in more than one or two individual reports. Interestingly, this word was never used in the CME reports, but in the non-CME reports it appeared to relate mostly to the background music being played during the drug administration sessions.
The researchers note some limitations to this study, namely the lack of study blinding and small sample size. Such psychedelic studies can also be subject to expectancy effects. Still, they say that this work strengthens the idea that psychedelics can provide a long-lasting and beneficial psychological effect, and that the notion of “mysticism” may be very closely related to this phenomenon. As such, more research into the qualitative descriptions provided by psychedelic study participants could help to determine how this effect can be utilized medicinally.