In recent years, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research in Baltimore have tried to measure the mind-altering effects of drugs like LSD and psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms.
How do these drugs change that slippery thing we call “consciousness,” the basic mental state of our subjective experience. Do they open us up to mystical, metaphysical realms? Can science measure religious experience?
Research subjects have been dosed with psilocybin and then asked to complete a lengthy Mystical Experiences Questionnaire. Did they “experience the fusion of your personal self into a larger whole?” Did they feel “a sense of awe or awesomeness?” Did they “experience timelessness” or “encounter ultimate reality?”
In the end, two-thirds of the subjects in one study rated the psilocybin session as being “among the five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives.”
In March the Johns Hopkins researchers published the results of a new survey of 1,606 people who were asked to describe a single “belief changing psychedelic experience” in their past.
Nearly half of the respondents looked back on a psilocybin mushroom trip, while another third described an LSD experience. A smaller group, seven percent, were thinking of an ayahuasca ceremony.
Like in the previous study, more than two-thirds of the respondents “rated the experience as being among the five most personally meaningful and psychologically insightful experiences of their lives.”
They took the Mystical Experience Questionnaire and nearly half of them were rated as having “a complete mystical experience.”
The study, titled “A Single Belief-Changing Psychedelic Experience is Associated With Increased Attribution of Consciousness to Living and Non-living Entities,” was written by Hopkins researchers Roland Griffiths and Sandeep Nayak.
The survey confirmed something that many psychonauts have come to believe — that plants and the rest of the natural world are trying to tell us something.
Participants were asked if they have come to attribute “consciousness” to things like plants, animals, rocks and fungi.
Before their trip, for example, 26 percent of those surveyed believed that plants have consciousness. That jumped to 61 percent after the psychedelic experience. Opinions about insects also changed dramatically. Before the trip, 33 percent of the respondents thought bugs have consciousness. That jumped to 57 percent after the ingestion of LSD, magic mushrooms or ayahuasca.
There are obvious limitations to this survey. The subjects were recruited online and self-selected. They were predominately white (89 percent) and male (67 percent). In order to be included, they had to have already come to the conclusion that psychedelics were “belief changing.”
The new Hopkins survey comes as others in the psychedelic sciences community have come to question some of the preconceptions built into some survey tools.
DMT researcher Rick Strassman argues that many of today’s psychedelic researchers are biased toward a “unitive-mystical” model that is more in line with Eastern mystical traditions like Buddhism or Hinduism. They downplay the “interactive-relational” model that may be more reflective of Jewish or Christian mysticism.
At the same time, many psychedelic explorers have preconceived ideas about a blend of animism or neo-shamanism promoted by such popular writers as the late Carlos Castaneda and Terence McKenna.
People are notoriously subject to suggestibility when taking psychedelics. What they expect to happen on these drugs is often what does happen.
Nayak, a postdoctoral research fellow at Hopkins, acknowledged that “cultural factors” or “cognitive biases” may be behind these changing belief structures.
Griffiths, a professor in the neuropsychopharmacy of consciousness, conceded that “the self-selected nature of the survey is an issue, as is the requirement that people entering the survey had a belief-changing experience.”
He also acknowledged that the survey “did not ask people anything about how the psychedelic experience changed their ideas or practices around the religions of their upbringing.”