A dose of psychedelics can lead to changes in beliefs about the supernatural or non-physical world

A recently published study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology found that for those who had used psychedelics in the past, even one dose can result in permanent changes in belief in the supernatural or non-physical world. Specifically, the results showed a significant increase in beliefs related to mind-body dualism, paranormal or spiritual phenomena, and consciousness. These findings provide further evidence of the consequences of psychedelics use and their potential as therapeutic interventions.

Use of psychedelic substances is often associated with beliefs about the supernatural or non-physical world. Cultures have interpreted psychedelic experiences in a variety of ways, including communicating with ancestors, warding off disease-causing spirits, and gaining insights into the future. Contemporary studies indicate that taking psychedelics can lead to spiritual experiences and changes in supernatural beliefs.

Studies have shown that psilocybin can produce immediate mystical experiences and long-lasting improvements in an individual’s spirituality. However, despite the increasing attention being devoted to research on this topic, a limited number of studies have looked at the specific types of beliefs that are influenced by psychedelics use.

The research team recruited 1,874 participants who reported experiences with one of the commonly used psychedelics, including LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, or ayahuasca. Participants answered a survey that covered various aspects such as demographic details, use of psychedelic substances, personality traits, and scientific knowledge and attitudes. The majority of questions in the survey aimed to understand the impact of a single psychedelic experience on a person’s beliefs.

The results indicated that a single psychedelic experience could lead to specific and significant changes in a person’s beliefs. Factor analysis of the participants’ responses revealed that the belief changes fell into five categories:

  1. Dualism – (a philosophical position that mind and body are separable).
  2. Paranormal/Spirituality (beliefs including the existence of telepathy, disembodied spirits and the existence of the afterlife, communication with the dead, reincarnation, and whether some people can predict the future or move objects with their minds).
  3. Non-mammal consciousness (whether insects, trees, and rocks are capable of conscious experience).
  4. Mammalian Consciousness (non-mammal and mammalian consciousness and whether these are “capable of having conscious experiences”).
  5. Superstitions (belief that breaking mirrors, the number 13, black cats bring bad luck, etc.).

Participants experienced increases in all categories of beliefs, except superstitious beliefs, after an experience with psychedelics.

“Up to this point, we have under-theorized and under-emphasised psychedelics-induced belief changes,” said Sandeep Nayak, lead investigator and assistant professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in a press release. “Guard rails against certain belief shifts in clinical practice are important, but the extent to which such nonnaturalistic beliefs can be therapeutic is unclear. There is still a lot more to learn here.”

Demographic variables have not been found to affect the nature of belief changes. The changes remained consistent over time, even when assessed an average of 8.4 years after the experience. The study found that most participants reported that their basic understanding of reality had changed, and that the number of participants identifying as “believers” increased.

The research team proposes three additional elements that may influence the direction of belief change: the cultural environment and expectations, disclosure of underlying cognitive biases, and experiential education through strong personal experiences that encourage non-physicalism. The importance of context and expectation in guiding such belief changes is critical, especially in managing unfavorable belief changes. The study highlights that pre-existing beliefs may influence belief changes induced by psychedelic substances, and more research is needed in this area.

“The magnitude of belief change is strongly associated with mystical evaluations of experience, evaluated without reference to supernatural beliefs,” noted Roland Griffiths, the founding director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. “Among the key characteristics of such experiences is a sense of connectedness, preciousness, and validity. These traits may be responsible for changes in beliefs, such as B. an increase in the sense of purpose and meaning in life and that the universe is conscious.”

The results align with another study that suggested that psychedelics could alter a person’s core beliefs about the nature of reality, consciousness, and free will.

However, the research team acknowledged some limitations of their new study. First, the individuals who reported having psychedelic experiences that led to a change in their beliefs may not be a representative sample of typical psychedelics users. In addition, most of the participants were from the United States and the survey was based on retrospective self-reporting. Finally, the study was also advertised as a “Psychedelic Belief Change Survey,” which could have produced biased results in favor of religious or spiritual beliefs.

Nayak and colleagues conclude that a solitary exposure to psychedelics can reinforce beliefs that are not based in the physical world, such as those related to consciousness, meaning, and purpose. This work adds to what is known about psychedelics and their potential for therapeutic applications.

The Belief Changes Associated with Psychedelics Use study was authored by Sandeep M. Nayak, Manvir Singh, David B. Yaden, and Roland R. Griffiths.

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