A new paper explores the intersection of mysticism and psychedelic research and highlights the need for cultural sensitivity and inclusive exploration of psychedelic-induced mystical experiences
In recent years, there has been a lot of interest in psychedelic compounds and how they might help with mental health. The notion of experiencing a “mystical experience” is an aspect of psychedelic use and research that fascinates many people. Research shows that these kinds of experiences might be an important part of why psychedelics can be helpful for certain mental health conditions.
However, a new paper argues that it is important to better understand mystical experiences produced by psychedelics. Recently, psychedelic scientists Sharday Mosurinjohn, Leor Roseman, and Manesh Girn analyzed the idea of mysticism in psychedelic research and suggested some ways to improve how we think about it.
The authors point out that psychedelic research often fails to acknowledge the theological and metaphysical implications associated with the concept of mysticism. Researchers may use the word “mysticism” and rely on terms like “connectedness” and “awe” without considering any potential biases associated with these terms or without really defining what they mean.
The authors believe that using religious language and referring to God and spirituality when defining mystical experiences implies a link to religious and supernatural things. They argue that this can create biases and restrict the scope of psychedelic research.
To make psychedelic research more scientific, the authors suggest trying different ways of thinking that don't have these assumptions. They argue for the value of discussing mystical experiences in psychedelic research but emphasize the need for greater awareness of limitations and biases.
The idea of mystical experiences in psychedelic research goes back to the early 1900s when a psychologist named William James described them as having four main qualities: ineffability (they were hard to put into words), transiency (they didn't last very long), passivity (they happened to people without them having to do anything), and a noetic quality (had a special kind of knowing).
James, who experimented with mind-altering drugs including the dissociative anesthetic drug nitrous oxide, was of the opinion that certain drugs could reliably produce mystical experiences.
After James, the author Aldous Huxley, in his book ‘The Doors of Perception,’ popularized the idea that psychedelics could induce mystical-type experiences. Huxley and others at the time saw these experiences as something that all religions had in common, a common core, and that they could bring people together across different cultures and languages. This perspective became known as “perennialism.”
The work of a philosopher named Walter Stace also had a big influence on how people think about mysticism in psychedelic research. He helped create ways of measuring mystical experiences, including the Mystical Consciousness Typology, and the Mystical Experience Questionnaire, which is still used today.
However, Mosurinjohn and colleagues argue that these assessments import certain assumptions about religion and fail to consider the broader cultural and historical context of mysticism. They contend that psychedelic researchers need to look at these assessments more critically and think about the bigger cultural and historical context.
The paper delves into the 'Good Friday Experiment,' a pivotal study conducted at Harvard University in the 1960s, which investigated the ability of psilocybin to induce mystical experiences within a religious setting. In this study, the researchers gave people psilocybin (the psychedelic compound found in magic mushrooms) in a religious setting and using the Mystical Consciousness Typology, found that psilocybin could produce experiences similar to those considered mystical by mystics and religious figures.
In a follow-up study conducted years later by the founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), Rick Doblin, the participants said that these experiences helped them with important life decisions, heighten their sense of joy and beauty, and made them feel more connected to their Christian faith.
The authors point out that the participants in the Good Friday study already had strong ties to Christianity, which likely influenced their perception of the experiences as genuinely mystical. Their pre-existing Christian beliefs and worldview may have played a critical role in priming them for the psychedelic experiences they had.
The authors raise valid concerns about the current limitations in our understanding of mysticism within psychedelic research.
They highlight the prevalent influence of Christian ideas, which may restrict our ability to study and respect the beliefs of other cultures. They also emphasize the need to reevaluate past research and adopt more inclusive approaches to investigating mystical experiences. The aim of this paper is not to dismiss the concept of the mystical experience altogether, but rather to cultivate a more profound understanding of its dynamics and its intersection with diverse cultural viewpoints.
To do this, they suggest using new ways of measuring mystical experiences by bringing together different fields of study, like social sciences, religious studies, and psychedelic research, to get a better understanding. By working together, they think more can be learned about how psychedelics cause mystical experiences and how these experiences can be used for therapy.
The authors conclude by speaking to the importance of approaching the study of mystical experiences in psychedelic research with careful consideration. By gaining a comprehensive understanding of the historical context and inherent biases, they argue that we can enhance our approach to studying and interpreting these experiences.
Collaborative efforts across various disciplines may facilitate a deeper exploration and utilization of psychedelic-induced mystical experiences for therapeutic purposes.
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