Mysticism in the Lab

Roland Griffiths and his colleagues at Hopkins have been studying what happens when you take a screened group of people with spiritual interests who have never taken any of the hallucinogenic (aka psychedelic, aka entheogenic) drugs and give them a few hours of preparation followed by a supervised experience with psilocybin, the active agent in “magic” mushrooms.

Earlier papers by the team showed that:

1. About two-thirds of the volunteers had experiences that met pre-established criteria for major mystical events;

2. About the same fraction later recalled the experience as “one of the five most spiritually meaningful” of a lifetime (with more than a third reporting “the most meaningful”);
3. No one suffered any lasting damage, though some had a rough ride during the session; and
4. Most of the participants thought the process had lasting benefits for their mood and behavior, and those opinions were supported by family members and friends.

A new study out today (again, in the journal Psychophamacology) tries to zero in on a dose large enough to give a good chance at a major experience but small enough to limit the risk of major stress. They seem to have succeeded; at the second-highest dose, two-thirds of the subjects had a profound experience and only one out of eighteen had intense side-effects. Again, the benefits of the process seem to be lasting.

The latest results have attracted a decent amount of attention: long, serious stories by Zachary Roth at Yahoo (whose story has drawn 34,000 Facebook links) and Maia Szalavitz at Time and shorter but quite high-quality pieces by Rachel Rettner at MS-NBC and Cassi Feldman at CBS.

What is strikingly about all four mainstream-media accounts is that they focus on health benefits. That reflects, I think, the mindset – also reflected in the drug laws – that drug-taking is either medical or “drug abuse,” with no third possibility. (Kevin Drum isn’t wearing the same blinders; his analysis is well worth reading, especially because he actually digs down into the data. Andrew Sullivan reports on his own experience, from a mystical rather than a medical viewpoint.)

There are really two different questions here: whether psilocybin and related materials can be used with reasonable risk and a good chance of success to produce psychological states that resemble classical mystical experiences, and whether they can be made safe and effective to treat diseases or relieve symptoms. The answers to those questions need not be the same.

The current study has nothing directly to say about therapeutic uses. It was designed to shed light on whether psilocybin can produce potentially life-changing experiences, and whether it can do so without undue risk. The answers seem to be yes and yes: again, for screened, prepared, and supervised volunteers.

Among the results of having a subjective glimpse of the Nameless might indeed be improved mental or physical health, reduced fear of dying among those with terminal illness, and positive behavior change such as giving up smoking. (The Hopkins team has a smoking study underway.) All of that would be good news, if true.

But, as C.S. Lewis remarks of claims that religion makes better citizens, there’s something very odd about asking whether the Staircase to Heaven can be used as a short-cut to the drugstore grocery store. What’s potentially at stake here is the availability to large numbers of people to experiences and insights historically limited to a tiny minority, and often deliberately protected by walls of esoteric practice.

Imagine that it were true, and known to be true, that many or even most adults could go through the sort of process the Hopkins volunteers went through and get where most of the Hopkins volunteers got. We’re not there yet, but imagine that additional research were to nail that down.

Now imagine going to a person with some spiritual interest – not a saint, but l’homme moyen spituel – and telling him, “For about the time and effort you would invest in a week in Cancun, you’d have a good chance of seeing something like the Beatific Vision. And when you were finished, you might well not be afraid to die.”

How many people would take you up on that offer? Would the laws allow it? Should they allow it?
What would be the impact, if the reported positive behavior changes also turned out to be real? We might witness, within a few years, the fulfillment of Moses’s prayer: “Would that all my people were prophets!” People unafraid to die might act differently than the currently accepted norm.

Just how much enlightenment can our current social order absorb? We may be on the road to find out.

[Cross-posted at Same Facts]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.