Do perceived spiritual encounters, from psychedelics such as ayahuasca or without drugs, have mental health benefits?

An abstract image to illustrate the concept of perceived spiritual encounters both due to psychedelics such as ayahuasca or without drugs and how they affect mental health
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What are the effects of “spiritual” experiences, from psychedelics such as ayahuasca or from spontaneous experiences, on mental health?

The study surveyed thousands of people who reported encounters with “God”, whether due to psychedelic drug experiences from substances such as LSD, ayahuasca, DMT and psilocybin, or non-drug related experiences. A majority of respondents reported lasting positive changes in their psychological health, from life satisfaction, purpose and meaning, some of which were reported decades after the described encounter.

Of the total participants, 809 were those who responded to the non-drug survey, whereas 3,476 responded to the psychedelics survey.

According to John Hopkins Medicine, the authors caution that: “The study relied on self-reported responses to a questionnaire, a method that carries substantial possibilities for biased or inaccurate responses among participants. They don’t advocate that people use hallucinogenic substances on their own because they carry not only legal risks, but also behavioural risks associated with impaired judgment under the influence and the possibility of negative psychological consequences, particularly in vulnerable people or when the experience isn’t safeguarded by qualified guides.”

Describing “religious experiences”

The lead researcher Roland Griffiths, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, noted: “We want to be clear that our study looks at personal experiences and says nothing about the existence, or nonexistence of God. We doubt that any science can definitively settle this point either way.”

The surveys asked participants to recall a single memorable encounter with either:

  • The “God of their understanding”;
  • A “higher power”;
  • “Ultimate reality”; or
  •  “An aspect or representative of God, such as an angel.”

Can perceived spiritual experiences improve mental health?

Griffiths commented: “Experiences that people describe as encounters with God or a representative of God have been reported for thousands of years, and they likely form the basis of many of the world’s religions.”

“And although modern Western medicine doesn’t typically consider ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ experiences as one of the tools in the arsenal against sickness, our findings suggest that these encounters often lead to improvements in mental health.”

Comparing spontaneous experiences with psychedelics such as ayahuasca

Of those who reported using a psychedelic, the study assessed:

  • 1,184 participants who said they took psilocybin (“magic mushrooms”);
  • 1,251 who said they took LSD;
  • 435 said they took ayahuasca; and
  • 606 who said they took DMT (N,N-dimethyltryptamine).

The people who said they had a God encounter experience when on a psychedelic reported that these experiences happened at age 25 on average, whereas those whose experience was spontaneous reported having it at an average age of 35.

Around 75 percent of both group rated their “God encounter” as one of the most meaningful and spiritually significant in their lifetime.

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