Ever since LSD was first synthesized back in the 1930s, psychotherapists have been interested in using hallucinogenic drugs to treat a range of mental disorders. However, attempts to do so have struggled to gain widespread support from the medical community, partly because the visionary voyages these substances generate are so idiosyncratic, and therefore difficult to analyze. Yet a team of researchers believe they have now found a way to scientifically study the “mystical experiences” produced by psilocybin-containing mushrooms, potentially opening the door for their use in psychological therapy.
Publishing their findings in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, the team defines “mystical experience” using four central characteristics. These include a sense of “mysticism,” meaning a sensation of sacredness or unity with all things, “positive mood,” “transcendence of time and space,” and “ineffability” – or feeling that the experience is beyond words.
The team of psychiatrists and neuroscientists from the John Hopkins University School of Medicine have developed a 30-item Mystical Experience Questionnaire, called the MEQ30, which addresses all four of these elements and can be used to obtain an overall score to describe the intensity of the mystical experience. This was achieved by analyzing data collected from five laboratory-based experiments, in which a total of 184 participants were given moderate to high doses of psilocybin and asked to describe their experience.
For instance, in order to determine the level of “mysticism,” the MEQ30 asks participants to state how strongly they felt connected to “ultimate reality.” Data relating to “transcendence of space of time,” meanwhile, is extracted from the degree to which participants lost their “usual awareness of where [they] were.”
More crucially, the study authors claim that scores obtained from the MEQ30 can be accurately used to predict the long-term effects of psilocybin use, since the data revealed that those who achieved greater mystical experiences also reported continued improvements in their state of mind further down the line. This builds on previous studies which have revealed that patients who are deemed to have had a “complete” mystical experience on psilocybin are more likely to feel increased wellbeing or life satisfaction 14 months later.
While the study authors insist that “the biological mechanisms underlying mystical experiences have not been identified,” recent research into the subject has led to the development of a number of theories. For instance, a study at Imperial College London revealed how psilocybin caused a decrease in brain activity in the parts of the brain typically associated with the “sense of self,” or “ego.” At the same time, an increase in communication between certain other parts of the brain was observed, producing a pattern of activity that resembled “dream sleep.”
Findings such as this have led to the rise of the term “psychointegrator” to describe psychedelic substances such as psilocybin, since they integrate neuronal activity by increasing connectivity and communication in the brain. To give an idea of what this looks like, the image below compares functional brain networks observed under normal conditions and on psilocybin.
Image: Simplified visualization of fMRI (Functional magnetic resonance imaging) of functional brain networks under normal conditions (left) and on psilocybin (right). Research image by Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, presented at Breaking Convention on July 12th 2015. Photograph by Benjamin Taub for IFLScience.
However, while scientists are working to unravel the mechanisms by which psychedelic compounds work on the brain, the situation remains extremely complex and the effects of such substances are still hard to predict. For instance, it is generally held that psychedelic experiences are hugely influenced by the factors of “set and setting.” Set refers to the psychological condition of the person ingesting the drug, while setting indicates actual surroundings in which the substance is taken. With the development of the MEQ30, though, it is hoped that these effects can be more scientifically classified and analyzed, leading to a greater understanding of how psychedelics can be used to treat psychological disorders.