As we have poetic license this semester, I’ve decided to write about some research, which I’m personally very interested in. This week I’ll be exploring a scientific explanation of spiritual and mystical experiences.

The documented use of hallucinogenic plants such as Peyote and Banisteriopsis Caapi for spiritual purposes dates back many millennia, by civilisations in Europe, South America and early America [1,2,3]. Despite the extensive use throughout human history, scientific investigation of this area wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century. 

The first steps made by scientists were to isolate the active chemicals in these plants to ascertain how they induced spiritual or mystical experiences. It was during this time that scientist Albert Hoffman discovered LSD; which caused an eruption of research interest in the fields of Psychology and Psychiatry. It was believed that these hallucinatory chemicals could aid researchers in further understanding psychotic disorders such as Schizophrenia. However some researchers believed that they may serve as useful tool in investigation of spiritual states considering their history of use.

In 1962, Harvard University oversaw the first psychedelic experiment to test whether a spiritual experience could be chemically induced; this has since been labelled the Good Friday Experiment [4]. Ten theology students were given a dose of psilocybin (active ingredient in magic mushrooms) in the chapel at Boston University. The remaining ten participants were given Vitamin B3 and served as a control. Nine of the ten participants given psilocybin reported some kind of religious experience. Experiences varied from vague feelings of a holy presence to intense mystical visions and revelations. Here is an excerpt from Randall Laakko, a participant in the experiment:

“Yeah it did change my life, the experience that day demonstrated to me, the reality of god’s presence in all the world and in all experience” [5]

There are obvious criticisms which I’m sure you’ve picked up on; firstly the sample size is very small, and entirely comprised of theology students [study of religion]. Such individuals may more inclined to religious thought, thus inclined to religious experiences. Lastly, it fails to explain natural spiritual experiences that occur without the use of drugs. Despite these drawbacks, this research was undeniably revolutionary in show that spiritual experiences can be deliberately induced in the lab.

Sadly in 1970 research ground to a standstill, when LSD the chemical that had given rise to such research was criminalized. This made access to hallucinogens increasing difficult and as a result severely curtailed research in this field for close to 20-years [6]. However in 1990 researcher Rick Strassman reopened the field with a series of studies on the chemical DMT. Strassman’s studies spanned from 1990-1995, using a total of 60 participants whom completed a total of 400 trails[7]. Strassman’s results very much reflected those of the Good Friday Experiment, with participants reporting profound spiritual experiences. Strassman not only helped in enriching the existing data with a larger sample size and extended testing, but also providing a possible answer for how natural spiritual experiences occur.

Unlike Psilocybin, DMT is endogenous (produced by the human body)[8]. This a huge step in showing that a chemical produced within the body, can induce spiritual experiences when given in the lab. However whether endogenous DMT is produced in amounts sufficient to induce a spiritual experience is still unconfirmed. There is still also the matter of whether experiences in the lab are the same as those experienced naturally. So far we are merely comparing the subjective reports from participants in lab and reports of natural spiritual experiences. Though there are striking similarities, we cannot be sure until we study natural spiritual states in lab. As I’m sure you can imagine, attempting study natural spiritual states is extremely difficult due to their unpredictability and rarity. As said by Professor Roland Griffiths, a leader figure in modern psychedelic research:

You can’t just say, ‘Well, come into the laboratory and pray for two hours, and then we’re going to image your brain because we know you’ll have a mystical experience then! We’re talking about rates of experience that may occur once in a lifetime or once every year or two” [9]

Lastly it’s very difficult to obtain a representative sample, because spiritual research largely seems to interest niche groups of people. Participants in such research are often users of psychedelic drugs, for either recreational or spiritual purposes. In Strassman’s study, those with experience with psychedelic drugs participants over those with no experience. This is due to the intensity of the DMT experience; researchers felt that inexperienced individuals may be unable to cope and as result experience negative after-effects.

In conclusion, research currently indicates that psychedelics can induce spiritual experiences,

However there is still the matter of whether this is a useful way of understanding natural spiritual states. Though in time research may offer some answers, for now it is still in its infancy and working its way back after 20-year hiatus. However given that since the reopening the area that has been a growing interest [10,11] it would seem likely that if this growth continues, that progress will ultimately be made. The conclusion it will lead us towards however, are still largely unknown.

References:

1. Drug Identification Bible. 2007 Edition. ISBN 0-9635626-9-X.
2.
Suárez, Jorge A. (1983). The Mesoamerican Indian Languages. ISBN 0521228344. OCLC 8034800.
3. Thomas,T.(1997) Eleusinian and Bacchic Mysteries ISBN 0913510726.

4. Pahnke,W., N. (1963) Drugs and Mysticism: An Analysis of the Relationship between Psychedelic Drugs and the Mystical Consciousness.
5. Randall Laakko recalls experience as a participant in the Good Friday Experiment http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DxDZW6n69-0
6. Strassman(1991)Human hallucinogenic drug research in the United States: A present-day case history and review of the process. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, Vol 23(1) http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/1992-19170-001
7. Strassman, Rick,J. (2001).DMT: The Spirit Molecule. A Doctor’s Revolutionary Research into the Biology of Near-Death and Mystical Experiences.
8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16095048
9. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104240746&sc=fb&cc=fp
10 http://www.maps.org/
11. Good Friday Replication – http://www.maps.org/w3pb/new/2008/2008_Griffiths_23042_1.pdf

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