In a comedy routine from the early 90s, a young Bill Hicks says, “Today a young man on acid realized that all matter is merely energy condensed to a slow vibration, that we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively, there is no such thing as death, life is only a dream, and we are the imagination of ourselves.” These kinds of trippy realizations about the universe are part of the general oeuvre of psychedelics, but until now, haven’t been formally examined.
Christopher Timmerman, a researcher at the Imperial College of London, and colleagues decided to study how psychedelics might influence these kinds of metaphysical beliefs about the nature of reality and consciousness.
If the anecdotal influence psychedelics have on our ideas about reality turns out to be real, it could help explain some of the larger shifts in metaphysical beliefs during the counterculture of the 60s, says Timmerman. It could also explain the presence of animism, the belief that “there is another world out there that you can access with the substances in which everything is alive,” in indigenous belief systems, he says.
As the researchers write, most of the time these beliefs are implicit (we aren’t aware of them), but occasionally they become explicit or change, sometimes alongside major life events or transient altered states, such as near-death experiences, traumatic events, or meditation.
Timmerman and his team set out with three questions: Do psychedelics alter metaphysical beliefs? How do these changes relate to mental wellbeing? And what psychological mechanisms are involved with the process?
They surveyed 866 people, all of whom participated in various psychedelic ceremonies (psilocybin/magic mushrooms/truffles, Ayahuasca, DMT, San Pedro, LSD/1p-LSD). The survey included people from 58 countries (with a majority in the US and the UK), 90% of whom identify as white. The participants completed surveys at baseline, before the ceremony, shortly after, four weeks after, and six months after the ceremony. The surveys were aimed at understanding precisely how participants’ metaphysical beliefs were altered by their drug experiences and whether these changes lasted.
In addition, the researchers also surveyed participants in a controlled clinical trial of 59 people comparing treatment with psilocybin and escitalopram (a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor like Prozac) for major depression. The escitalopram group was in essence a control group for the study, to see if mental health treatment, or something related to the study or healing, might cause shifts in metaphysical beliefs.
Timmerman’s team designed a survey that was meant to gather information about specific metaphysical beliefs, but used lay language for those unfamiliar with terms like “ontological transcendentalism” (a belief that there is a separate realm beyond the physical that can be visited) and “virtual self theory” (a belief that one’s self is entirely constructed by their mind). The survey also asked questions that related to views on fatalism (the belief we have some kind of unavoidable destiny) and free will.
According to this study, taking psychedelics significantly shifted participants’ metaphysical beliefs. The researchers analyzed the data according to experience with psychedelics, age, gender, baseline metaphysical beliefs, and how prone they are to peer conformity (which was measured in its own set of questions).
“The biggest shift regarding these beliefs was that people tended to reject the idea that the basic nature of reality is material, or physical,” said Timmerman. Taking psychedelics shifted participants away from hard materialism—a belief that there is one reality and what happens in it can be fully explained materially. Some participants gravitated toward non-physicalist beliefs (those rooted in the idea that there is something beyond the physical in the universe), while most participants adopted a more agnostic position. Those who were taking psychedelics for the first time shifted furthest away from hard materialism, and those who had taken psychedelics before tended to have a baseline that was further from hard materialism than those who hadn’t yet tried psychedelics, implying that use of psychedelics has lasting effects on one’s shift away from hard materialism.
These shifts persisted through the six-month follow-up survey, though participants were not surveyed beyond that.
Another notable finding was that “people start endorsing the idea that the future is determined, and it’s determined by mysterious forces right outside of one control,” said Timmerman. This is a shift toward what is called fatalistic determinism (a belief that no matter what, you can’t change your destiny), though these effects were not sustained.
In the clinical trial, those taking psilocybin had similar metaphysical belief shifts to the survey participants, while those taking the antidepressant escitalopram had no shifts toward non-physicalist beliefs.
“As we grow old, we develop these rigid systems and stories and beliefs around how the world operates.” Timmerman said. “What psychedelics may enable is to somehow flatten out this belief space and make it more democratic. And we can jump between different beliefs, different stories and different models with more freedom.”
The study also linked shifts in metaphysical beliefs with increases in well-being. “These findings suggest that non-physicalist beliefs may be psychologically protective during psychological distress,” write the study authors, adding that the positive association with metaphysical beliefs and mental health is “resonant with the hypothesis that religious practices and beliefs serve a similar function.”
According to the study authors, one of the limitations of this study is that they didn’t fully document the milieu for each participant, including the social context of their treatment group, the beliefs of the other participants, and the cultural context surrounding the ceremony.
“The effects [of psychedelics] are so malleable according to the effects of culture,” said Timmerman, suggesting that the only way to understand this more deeply is to include truly cross-cultural research. Future work on this topic also demands an interdisciplinary look, incorporating insight from those in other disciplines like anthropologists, neuroscientists, philosophers, and evolutionary biologists.
“It really pushes to the fore these questions that are complex, that involve a view of human beings,” said Timmerman of the study. “Not just from the brain, not just from the cultural aspects and not just from the individual aspects, or the chemical aspects, but from all these disciplines at the same time.”