Psychedelics appear to have promising effects on human well-being — but rigorous research is lacking

There has been a renewed scientific interest in the use of psychedelics and preliminary evidence suggests that drugs like psilocybin can improve several aspects of human functioning, such as increasing pro-social behavior, according to a new article in Neuropharmacology.

The scientific review, however, also highlights the limit of this evidence and calls for more rigorous, longitudinal data.

“We found that there is a double bias when it comes to psychedelics. On the one hand, mainstream medicine — respectively psychiatry — is often unrealistically concerned with the negative side effects of psychedelic use like HPPD (hallucinogen-persisting perception disorder) or cases of psychosis,” said Henrik Jungaberle of the MIND European Foundation for Psychedelic Science, the corresponding author of the review.

“On the other hand, recreational users are frequently exaggerating positive effects and ignoring negative or neutral outcomes. The latter sometimes becomes a belief system rather than a fact based decision.”

“So one reason for writing the review was a motivation to look for balance in the assessment of what the positive and negative effects of psychedelics are beyond the therapeutic context. Since psychedelics are overwhelmingly used in recreational or self-treatment settings so far, this seems a relevant field of interest — both for potential positive change for people’s lifestyles and for harm reduction,” Jungaberle explained.

“On the other side, we are interested in finding out which factors contribute to sustainable positive effects of psychedelics and for whom. We are setting up a longitudinal project for conducting research about this.”

The researchers reviewed 77 clinical trials and epidemiological studies on psychedelic drugs. The studies, which included 9876 participants, all utilized some measures from positive psychology, such as happiness or introspection.

“There definitely is evidence for positive effects of psychedelics and MDMA outside of therapeutic contexts — both acutely and long-term. They comprise: mood, well-being, prosocial behaviours, empathy, cognitive flexibility, creativity, personality factors like openness, value orientations, nature-relatedness, spirituality, self-transcendence and mindfulness,” Jungaberle told PsyPost.

“But we know almost nothing about the conditions under which these effects occur ‘in the wild’ and for whom. It also seems clear that taking psychedelics doesn’t automatically spark sustainable positive effects. There are overlapping situational and personality factors that seem to influence these positive effects. And they don’t occur for everybody. There is no simple way from taking a psychedelic to an ‘expanded consciousness’ in everyday life. Some just don’t get it while other do.”

The review highlights that despite a recent increase in the number of studies on psychedelic drugs, there is still much that remains uncertain. “Almost everything in relation to the non-medical/therapeutic use of psychedelics remains unclear. We need rigorous studies about this field that are not conducted by ideologists,” Jungaberle said.

“I see an interesting potential for psychedelics to help build a larger connectedness to non-human beings and nature — at least for some and hopefully for those who want to be engaged in political and cultural change.”

“This seems relevant in terms of addressing alienated urban life-styles and the negative impact of technologies on the life on Earth,” Jungaberle added. “But it seems unlikely for me that a diffuse ‘psychedelic community’ would bring about such potential impulses for change, if it does not interact seriously with mainstream culture and if it doesn’t see the limits of ‘consciousness change’ in relation to the larger political, ecological and economical processes that are not directly related to the consciousness of individuals and small groups anymore (e.g. climate change).”

The review article, “Positive psychology in the investigation of psychedelics and entactogens: A critical review“, was authored by Henrik Jungaberle, Sascha Thal, Andrea Zeuch, Ansgar Rougemont-Bücking, Maximilian von Heyden, Helena Aicher, and Milan Scheidegger.