A new study has found that naturalistic psychedelic use is associated with specific psychological strengths, suggesting that psychedelics can have positive effects on mental well-being compared to other substances like cannabis and alcohol. The findings, published in the International Journal of Wellbeing, indicate that self-transcendent experiences play a key role in predicting positive outcomes of psychedelic use.
The motivation behind the new study was driven by the resurgence of research and clinical interest in classical psychedelics such as psilocybin, DMT/ayahuasca, LSD, mescaline, and similar drugs. These substances, known for their common pharmacodynamic mechanisms as agonists at the 5-HT2a receptor, have shown promising results in experimental and clinical trials. They have been widely used in the general population, with an estimated lifetime prevalence of use around 10% in the United States alone, representing approximately 32 million individuals.
“The applicability of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy clinical trial data to naturalist use is not totally clear,” explained study co-author Trey Brasher, a PhD student in the Mascal Lab at UC Davis. “Since only a sliver of a percent of psychedelic experiences take place in a clinical setting, we become interested in a more realistic understanding of psychedelic use and its potential effects among the general population.”
Previous research has demonstrated that classical psychedelics can produce long-lasting trait changes in certain aspects of personality. However, most of these findings are derived from a single psychedelic experience in the context of clinical trials, and the effects in the broader population are relatively unknown. This study aimed to replicate the traits altered in clinical trials using a larger survey-based sample and to measure an expanded array of traits that might be associated with psychedelic use.
“The resurgence in recent years of research in psychedelic-assisted therapy has been producing promising results, indicating that they can produce enduring positive changes in people with depression and anxiety,” said co-author Marcello Spinella, a professor at Stockton University. “However, psychedelics may be benefiting people in more ways than we realize because previous research hadn’t yet looked at how they affect many psychological strengths. We addressed this in a series of three studies.”
“I have had numerous classical psychedelics experiences throughout adulthood which were critical to shaping my perspective of existence, self, and society,” added co-author David S. Rosen, a research affiliate at Stockton University. “They were some of the most important moments in my life and those lessons were long-lasting.”
“This instilled in me a belief that psychedelics and self-transcendence can have a profound positive effect on regular people, not just clinical populations. In this project, I saw an opportunity to advance the second wave of psychedelics research by focusing on how they may be able to benefit a larger portion of the general population in different, less obvious ways than therapeutic outcomes.”
The researchers also noted that psychedelic research may be skewed toward positive results due to participant recruitment relying on self-selection and targeted social media ad campaigns. Studies have often recruited participants exclusively from psychedelic-related internet forums.
They aimed to overcome these biases by using broader samples that included both users and non-users. To recruit participants, undergraduate students at a northeastern university used email and social media. These students received a small amount of course credit for their participation in the study, including participant recruitment. The students could share a link to the survey with up to ten unrelated individuals, in addition to filling it out themselves. But the students were unaware of the purpose of the study.
The researchers found that psychedelic use was associated with greater psychological strengths and lower maladaptive psychological traits. This was observed across all three studies involving a total of 3,157 participants.
“Psychedelics are related to greater levels of psychological strengths like mindfulness, gratitude, awe, self-transcendence, kindness, gratitude, and lower levels of negative characteristics like greed, hate, and envy,” Spinella told PsyPost.
The traits associated with psychedelic use were predominantly in the adaptive direction, indicating positive effects on overall well-being. In contrast, the patterns seen for cannabis and alcohol use showed mixed associations with psychological traits.
“The most surprising result from this research was how uniformly psychedelics use influenced psychological traits in the adaptive direction across all three studies,” Rosen said.
“Psychedelic use related psychological strengths in the general population not only mirror those seen in clinical trial data, but were related to markedly more positive psychological measures than other commonly used psychoactive substances,” Brasher added.
A mediation analysis revealed that the relationship between psychedelic use and psychological strengths was fully mediated by self-transcendence. The concept of self-transcendence refers to experiences where individuals feel a sense of transcending or going beyond their usual sense of self, often associated with feelings of interconnectedness or mystical-type experiences. The new findings support previous evidence linking the self-transcendent experiences to positive outcomes of psychedelic use in both clinical and naturalistic settings.
“When the dosage of classical psychedelics is enough to have a self-transcendent or ego-dissolving experience, an individual seeking to expand their consciousness and ways of thinking can benefit greatly. These altered states of consciousness via classical psychedelics can lead to increased well-being,” Rosen told PsyPost.
The intention for psychedelic use also played a role in the observed benefits. Participants who reported using psychedelics for personal growth showed a more adaptive psychological profile compared to those who reported using them for fun or recreation.
“The motivation behind why a person uses psychedelics may also matter,” Spinella explained. “People who reported using them for personal growth or spiritual purposes showed greater well-being than those who used them for recreational reasons.”
The researchers also compared the psychological profiles of psychedelic users with those of cannabis and alcohol users. Psychedelic users showed a substantially different profile, characterized by more adaptive traits, while the effects of cannabis and alcohol on psychological traits were more ambiguous.
Furthermore, the study controlled for potential confounding factors by adjusting for demographic variables and other substance use covariates. This adjustment helps isolate the specific effects of psychedelic use on psychological traits, reducing the influence of alternative explanations.
“We were surprised how consistent the benefits were from psychedelics across the strengths we looked at, even after controlling for demographics, use of other psychoactive drugs, meditation experience, and people’s beliefs about whether psychedelics were psychologically beneficial,” Spinella said. “This consistently beneficial relationship was not found with use of alcohol or cannabis, where ½ to ⅔ of the strengths were lower in past users.”
However, it is important to acknowledge the methodological limitations present in this study. One significant limitation is the reliance on self-report data. Self-report data is subject to various biases, including recall bias, where participants may inaccurately remember and report their past substance use. Moreover, participants might intentionally downplay or exaggerate their use of specific substances, leading to measurement error.
“Since this was not an experimental trial, we don’t know the direction of causality,” Spinella said. “This study creates a foundation for future research to explore this promising area. Psychedelics are illegal in many places and reckless use of them can lead to unpleasant trip experiences. But when used under the right circumstances and for the right reasons, the experiences can be of lasting benefit.”
“The sample was recruited primarily through a northeast university’s psychology department in the United States,” Rosen added. “The majority of the sample also lived in New Jersey. Therefore, there may be a degree of geographical biases, which are not representative of the general population.”
“I think subsequent studies should examine how the magnitude and duration of psychological strength increases based on differences in recency, intensity, and quantity of classical psychedelic experiences,” Rosen said.
The differences in psychological traits observed in people who use psychedelics can be explained by two competing ideas, the researchers explained. One idea is that individuals who are already psychologically strong are more likely to be drawn to psychedelics, suggesting that their strengths are not caused by psychedelic use but rather contribute to their decision to use psychedelics. This is called the “gravitational hypothesis.”
The other idea is that taking psychedelics can lead to transformative changes in psychological traits, meaning that the drugs themselves cause increases in strengths. This is known as the “transformational hypothesis.”
Although this study cannot definitively determine which hypothesis is correct, the results suggest that the gravitational hypothesis is less likely. This is because people who use psychedelics are also more likely to use other drugs, indicating that their decision to use psychedelics is not solely based on their psychological strengths.
Several clinical studies have also provided evidence that psychedelics can cause lasting changes in psychological traits. This supports the transformational hypothesis, suggesting that the drugs themselves can lead to long-term changes in strengths, the researchers wrote in their study.
“The human brain learns, optimizes, and is conditioned based on understanding the rules, goals, values, and options available within the society and its general framework,” Rosen told PsyPost. “The problem with this is that the powers that be quite often do not have aligned incentives with the general population and put undue psychological pressure on its citizens. This misalignment between society and citizens’ well-being is particularly palpable within our Western society, which focuses on individual success and capitalism/materialism.”
“Unfortunately, it feels like citizens are treated like customers first, such that government, religious, and corporate entities are after our attention and wallets. Challenging psychological well-being beyond these misaligned incentives are the countless hours that we spend on various social media platforms, comparing our happiness to our ‘peers’ and others around the world. While technology has brought us incredible advancements and has connected humanity globally, it has left us more disconnected than ever before.”
“The current culture has created a growing abyss of loneliness, depression, and anxiety, especially in the United States,” Rosen continued. “Unfortunately, it is up to the individual to challenge the prevailing ideologies, technologies, and ways of living. And, it is up to the individual to seek alternate paths of living and consciousness in order to take an active role in shaping and creating their own reality. I think that classical psychedelics can offer assistance to improve one’s outlook of self and the world (of all living things) around them.”
The study, “Psychedelics and psychological strengths“, was authored by Trey Brasher, David Rosen, and Marcello Spinella.