Scientists have a new way to study mystical experiences induced by psilocybin mushrooms

Mystical experiences reported after taking clinically-controlled doses of the psychedelic substance psilocybin are similar across individuals, according to a report in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.

Psilocybin is a hallucinogenic compound that naturally occurs in some mushrooms. In addition to its recreational uses, it has been increasingly investigated for potential therapeutic uses, particularly for psychiatric conditions like depression and anxiety. Scientists have previously drawn comparisons between psilocybin-induced hallucinatory experiences and mystical experiences described in the context of spiritual practice.

In a study of 186 clinical research participants who received psilocybin in a controlled laboratory setting, a team of researchers led by Frederick Barrett of Johns Hopkins University sought to refine a survey called the 30-question Mystical Experience Questionnaire (MEQ30) that quantifies common elements of these experiences.

Four central elements identified were developed based on research into other forms of mystical experience. These included dimensions of “mysticism” (a sense of sacredness, knowledge of hidden truths, and a sense of unity with all things), “positive mood” (feelings of awe and ecstasy), “transcendence of space and time” (feelings of existing outside of normal time and space), and “ineffability” (feeling that the experience cannot be described in words).

The authors used a technique called factor analysis to determine whether people’s reports of their psilocybin experiences fit well into these dimensions, and whether these dimensions in turn fit together to provide a single coherent picture of a generalized mystical experience.

Most of the individual participants’ reports were found to fit well into this characterization. This is especially remarkable given that participants knew that their experiences were induced as part of a controlled clinical trial, rather than being sought recreationally. Applying this system allowed the researchers to classify participants’ experiences according to how strong their mystical experiences had been.

“The mystical experience is not conceptually limited to religious experience or practice, and the measurement of mystical experience by the MEQ does not require any direct religious or mystical endorsement,” the researchers explained in their study. “The MEQ serves as a psychometrically sound self-report instrument that assesses philosophically and theoretically identified facets of mystical experiences and, by virtue of scores on these dimensions, can characterize the degree to which a given experience fits the schema of ‘mystical.'”

A majority of participants said that their psilocybin experiences were among the most meaningful and spiritually significant experiences of their lives, and almost all said that the experience had increased their well-being. Most of them also reported that the experience had resulted in at least some positive changes in behavior. All of these positive outcomes of the experience were enhanced among those who reported having had the strongest mystical experiences after taking the hallucinogen. More intense mystical experiences resulted in better long-term outcomes after the experience was over.

These results highlight some of the potential therapeutic uses of psilocybin, since participants reported psychological and behavioral benefits from their experiences. They also reinforce longstanding questions about whether mystical and spiritual experiences more generally have biological roots, possibly founded in psychopharmacological activity.

“Validation of the MEQ30 in experimental data constitutes an important step in developing this questionnaire instrument for use in pharmacological studies of mystical experiences,” the researchers concluded.