The Mystical Experience: Insights from Psilocybin Research – Roland Griffiths

Clip from Roland Griffiths presenation at SAND’12, California.

Mystical-type experiences are profound experiences characterized by a sense of the interconnectedness of all people and things, often accompanied by a sense of sacredness, feelings of joy and peace, and a sense of encountering ultimate reality.

Although such experiences have been described by mystics and religious figures throughout the ages, there are few meaningful prospective experimental studies because such experiences usually occur at low rates and often unpredictably. Recent studies at Johns Hopkins showed that, under carefully controlled conditions, psilocybin can occasion profound personally and spiritually meaningful mystical-type experiences in the majority of healthy participants. Analysis showed that mystical-type experiences mediate sustained positive changes in attitudes, moods, personality, and behavior.

With regard to attitudes about Self, volunteers endorsed feeling more personal integration, inner authority, creativity, authenticity, and self-confidence. They also reported an increased sense that all of life is interconnected, and less concern with thoughts and feelings about their bodies. An ongoing study in novice meditators is exploring whether psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experiences can further enhance the positive persisting effects of meditation and other spiritual practices.

Therapeutic studies are currently investigating psilocybin-facilitated treatment of anxiety and depression in cancer patients and psilocybin-facilitated cigarette smoking cessation using a cognitive-behavioral approach. Further research with psilocybin can be expected to provide unique insights into the biology and psychology of mystical experience, and may hold promise as a paradigm-shifting treatment approach.

Roland Griffiths, Ph.D. is a professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

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