Fear of death is one of the major downsides to being alive, although new research indicates that psychedelic drugs may provide a sneak preview of the big finale and help us overcome our death anxiety. Appearing in the journal PLOS ONE, the new study compares death-like psychedelic trips to actual near-death experiences (NDEs), finding that both have the potential to drastically alter people’s views on expiring.
The link between psychedelic drugs and reduced fear of dying has been highlighted by numerous previous studies, leading to suggestions that substances like psilocybin or ayahuasca may have a role to play in palliative care. Former Harvard professor Richard Alpert, who later reinvented himself as the psychedelic guru Ram Dass, even declared that “dying is absolutely safe.”
Such a claim might sound outrageous to many, but the 3,192 people who took part in the new study probably have less difficulty believing the counterculture icon. Overall, less than ten percent said their experience increased their fear of dying, while almost 90 percent reported a newfound acceptance of their own mortality.
The study authors analyzed online survey data from 933 individuals who had undergone a near-death experience that was not triggered by drugs, as well as 904 people who had tripped on LSD, 766 who had taken psilocybin, 282 ayahuasca drinkers, and 307 people who had smoked DMT. On the whole, they found that “the [drug and non-drug] groups were remarkably similar in the reported changes in death attitudes attributed to the experience, including a reduced fear of death and high ratings of positive persisting effects and personal meaning, spiritual significance, and psychological insight.”
Despite the fact that only 3 percent of psychedelics users considered their lives to be in danger during their trip, participants in this group actually scored slightly higher than those in the non-drug group on the Greyson Near-Death Experience Scale, which is used to determine whether an encounter classifies as a genuine NDE. Among the non-drug group, 47 percent reported their lives to be in danger at the time of their NDE.
Those in the psychedelics group were also more likely to meet the criteria for having had a full-blown “mystical experience” than participants in the non-drug group.
Going into greater detail about these experiences, the authors state that “about half of both groups endorsed having "Encountered something someone might call 'God', although this was significantly greater in Psychedelic Group than the Non-Drug Group (56 percent vs 48 percent).”
The feeling of “being reborn” was also significantly more common in the psychedelic group, although the non-drug group reported higher rates of "convincing feelings of obtaining information in an extrasensory manner” and “feelings of contact with people who have died." Those who had undergone non-drug-induced NDEs were also more likely to rate the experience as the most meaningful of their lives.
Comparing different psychedelics, the researchers found that those who ingested ayahuasca or DMT were more likely have a genuine NDE than those who had taken LSD or psilocybin. Ayahuasca and DMT also tended to trigger a “feeling of reliving biological birth”, and generally led to greater positive lifestyle and attitude changes than either LSD or psilocybin.
Commenting on these findings, study author Roland Griffiths explained in a statement that “not only can the features of psychedelic experiences be similar to Near Death Experiences, both are rated as among the most meaningful lifetime experiences and both produce similar enduring decreases in fear of death and increases in well-being.”