New Studies of Hallucinogens — Inducing Religious Experiences

In today’s New York Times, John Tierney reports that doctors and medical centers are once again testing hallucinogens (primarily psilocybin) for therapeutic potentials.  Scientific research into these mind-altering drugs largely ceased after initial investigators, such as Timothy Leary, became drug evangelists.  The new research sounds quite promising.  Therapeutic issues aside, there have been some interesting observations:

Scientists are especially intrigued by the similarities between hallucinogenic experiences and the life-changing revelations reported throughout history by religious mystics and those who meditate. These similarities have been identified in neural imaging studies conducted by Swiss researchers and in experiments led by Roland Griffiths, a professor of behavioral biology at Johns Hopkins.

In one of Dr. Griffiths’s first studies, involving 36 people with no serious physical or emotional problems, he and colleagues found that psilocybin could induce what the experimental subjects described as a profound spiritual experience with lasting positive effects for most of them.

Unsurprisingly, there is an evolutionary and cognitive aspect to these experiences:

The subjects’ reports mirrored so closely the accounts of religious mystical experiences, Dr. Griffiths said, that it seems likely the human brain is wired to undergo these “unitive” experiences, perhaps because of some evolutionary advantage.

“This feeling that we’re all in it together may have benefited communities by encouraging reciprocal generosity,” Dr. Griffiths said. “On the other hand, universal love isn’t always adaptive, either.”

The brain is indeed wired for potential mystical experiences, but they usually need to be induced.  Shamans are expert at achieving these altered states of consciousness but do not always use drugs to achieve transcendence.  Fasting, dancing, chanting, isolation, and deprivation can cause similar states.

If doctors begin prescribing mushrooms for cancer, anxiety, PTSD, and other conditions, I have a feeling that many people will be getting serious about their religion.

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