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What happens when psychedelics make you see God

Popular Science logo Popular Science 11/9/2020 Sarah Scoles
a close up of a zebra: A brain on 'shrooms can be forever changed if the right images conjure during the trip. © Provided by Popular Science A brain on 'shrooms can be forever changed if the right images conjure during the trip.

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Doctors gave Clark Martin a year to live after they found he had stage 4 kidney cancer in 1990.

“I’m still here,” he says now.

If the statement doesn’t carry the triumphant tone one might expect of a person who has survived decades longer than medical science predicted, that’s because the years of treatments, and the constant threat of death, dulled and depressed him for a long time. “It was exhausting,” he says, “and it was no way to live.”

a close up of a zebra: TK © Tyler Spangler TK

In 2010, almost 20 years into his battle with cancer, Martin read about a strange research program. Participants wouldn’t take a magic pill that might shrink their tumors in a novel way. No. They’d be getting drug-drugs: Brain scientists wanted to see how hallucinogens that alter thinking patterns and sensory perceptions might affect afflicted people’s mental health. “I had always been interested in psychedelics but never had taken any,” says Martin, a retired clinical psychologist. “I was terrified that I would mess up.”

With someone else guiding him, though, the experience seemed less risky. Those someones—scientists in the psychiatry department of Johns Hopkins University—are part of the burgeoning field of psychedelic studies. Recently invigorated by a more permissive regulatory environment, the sector investigates if, how, and why reality-bending substances might help human brains. So far, research from all over the world suggests the drugs can break old mental patterns and help fight addiction, alleviate depression, shrink existential fears, and improve relationships.

Additionally, investigators have been surprised by another consistent finding: When people have spiritual experiences while tripping, they’re even more likely to kick bad habits and be happier or more satisfied with their lives in the long term. The mysterious encounters take many forms. Sometimes people feel they’re in the presence of God, or of a more nebulous entity like Ultimate Reality—a higher power that reveals the truth of the universe—or they just feel a novel connectedness to everything from now back to the big bang and beyond. Because of the link between the mystical and the medical, scientists like those at Johns Hopkins are probing why people have transcendent tendencies at all, how that might help our brains, and what it means for how we perceive the world.

a close up of pink flowers on a table: In studies, when patients see or feel a spiritual presence while they're on psychedelics, they may have a greater chance of lasting positive changes to their mental well-being. © Tyler Spangler In studies, when patients see or feel a spiritual presence while they're on psychedelics, they may have a greater chance of lasting positive changes to their mental well-being.

Martin signed up for the trial and prepared for it in a series of counseling sessions with William Richards, a clinical psychologist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. On game day, Martin sat on a couch in a campus medical office that had been transformed into a calming living room, with a statue of the Buddha, airy paintings, and yellow-light table lamps. Still, things did not begin smoothly. After he took his psilocybin—the hallucinatory compound in magic mushrooms—from a chalice, he reclined, put a mask over his eyes, and listened to classical music, as the researchers watched and guided his experience. But when the chemicals started to kick in, he panicked. “The things in the room no longer looked familiar,” Martin says, recalling what happened after he took off his mask. “Voices no longer made sense.” He sat straight up, wanting to run outside so he could look at something that would make reality snap back into place.

Seeing his distress, Richards put his arm around Martin’s shoulder. Richards didn’t speak or try to soothe Martin. He just acted as a steadying presence, tethering Martin to the known world, even as he began to enter a brand-new one.

The psilocybin soon worked its way fully into his physiology. And Martin found himself in a cathedral. Or rather a sort of gymnasium with stained-glass windows, which felt to him like a cathedral, because it seemed like a sanctuary.

“In my mind I said, ‘Well, if there’s ever going to be an opportunity to talk, this is it,’” he recalls.

And so he invited God to chat.

When Richards supervised Martin’s trip, he and Johns Hopkins colleague Roland Griffiths were on an uphill climb to establish their field’s significance in the treatment of mental illness and addiction. Their foundational work, including Richards' 2015 book Sacred Knowledge: Psychedelics and Religious Experiences, has since inspired a new generation of scientists and led to the establishment in 2019 of the university’s Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research. The group employs about 30 people, from senior investigators to college kids, with Griffiths as director.

It’s a workplace that embraces rather than shuns the cliché parts of psychedelic culture, says research coordinator and former grad student Ian Geithner. On his office wall, for instance, hangs a tapestry of a mushroom and a big, all-seeing eye. A knee-high lava lamp lights the room. When Griffiths first saw the fixture, Geithner worried he’d think, “Unprofessional,” but he just pointed at it and said, “I haven’t seen one of those in ages!”

Griffiths and Richards' work continues a line of official scientific inquiry that began in 1962 with a project called the Good Friday Experiment, conducted by doctor and Harvard Divinity graduate Walter Pahnke. He brought volunteers from local theology classes to a basement chapel where they would ingest either psilocybin or a placebo and hear the Good Friday service being piped in from above them. Afterward they wrote their accounts, and Pahnke scored their descriptions according to how well they fit the classical characteristics of a mystical experience. Developed by Princeton philosopher Walter Stace in 1960, that list of effects includes feeling unity with the universe, in touch with something holy, and as though the episode is hyperauthentic—more real than reality. About 40 percent of the Good Friday participants fit all the criteria “very well.” A few years later, Richards, then working at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center, co-authored a paper with Pahnke titled “Implications of LSD and Experimental Mysticism.”

In the mid-1960s, though, new US regulations made producing and selling psychedelics illegal—whether for recreational or clinical use. Once these drugs became a synecdoche for the hippie counterculture, and some researchers (including ones at the CIA) did less-than-ethical work, the stigma stuck. Studying these substances depended on getting the go-ahead from the FDA and the Drug Enforcement Administration. The change essentially shut down most work like Pahnke’s; the powers that be were tightfisted with both permission and research money for topics that might be seen as sketchy. Griffiths, who had been building up his street cred in psychopharmacology, instead rose to prominence studying people’s relationships to alcohol, cigarettes, and sedatives. Only after he’d established himself as a legit substance-use investigator did he submit a safe research plan to the authorities.

After a decades-long dry spell, in 2000, Griffiths and Richards—who had since moved to Johns Hopkins—were the first of many to get a green light and funds to resume rigorous psilocybin studies. They began their project, funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, where Pahnke had left off: with mystical experiences and their effects on the mindsets of healthy volunteers. They wanted to know what would happen to the moods and psychologies of stable-brained people who ingested psilocybin, and what those changes had to do with any spiritual strangeness that might occur while they were under the influence. The men noted in their work that many cultures have centuries-old histories of using hallucinogens, a legacy and tradition researchers are now beginning to respect rather than dismiss for its nonmodern non-Westernness.

Their first endeavor was essentially a more rigorous, updated version of the Good Friday Experiment. In a double-blind study, the scientists gave 36 volunteers psilocybin in one session and a placebo during the next—or vice versa. When stimulated by the chemical, 61 percent of the subjects had a “complete mystical experience” that satisfied all of the criteria. One participant later told of a conversation with God—who had appeared as golden streams of light—assuring them that everything that exists is perfect, even if their limited corporeal self couldn’t fully understand that. More than a year later, two-thirds of participants ranked their trip in the top five most spiritually significant moments in their lives.

Following this toe-dip back into mysticism, the Johns Hopkins group continued to investigate the links among psychedelics, spiritual episodes, and quality of life. In a follow-on from 2011, the majority of participants had complete mystical experiences, which produced “positive changes in attitudes, mood, and behavior” that stuck around long after the compounds were metabolized. In a study the same year that looked into personality traits, people who had had a mystical experience scored much higher for openness after the trip than they had before. The transformation was larger than adults—cemented in their ways—normally make over decades of natural maturation.

Next the scientists investigated whether psychedelics—which seemed to so alter psychology and perspective—might help curb addiction, as some decades-old and not-so-meticulous studies had suggested. In 2014 the team did a small trial with smokers. After two or three doses of psilocybin, along with cognitive behavioral therapy, 80 percent of the subjects quit for at least six months, the investigators found. Varenicline, the best smoking-cessation drug on the market at the time, had just around a 35 percent success rate, while cognitive behavioral therapy on its own typically led fewer than 30 percent of smokers to stop. Something else also stood out: If someone had a mystical experience while tripping, they were even more likely to succeed.

Regulation and stigma had also hampered early research into psychedelics' effects on anxiety and depression in cancer patients, so the Johns Hopkins team picked that back up too. Here their work, including the study in which Clark Martin participated, found the same spiritual uptick. The substances appeared to perhaps kick-start new patterns in the brain: less sad and scared ones, with shifted perspective and priorities.

As his own trip progressed, Martin—at last flying comfortably high—was ready to find out what the drugs might be able to do for him. With the psilocybin coursing through his system, he stayed in his mental cathedral and waited for an answer from the God he’d reached out to.

And waited.

None came.

The silence did not disturb Martin, though. And soon another vision appeared. There he was: living on a bubble. Its surface was thick, yet fragile like a balloon, but it was the size of a planet. Other people were here too, living within different parts of its membrane.

It’s tempting to view this as a metaphor, the way a dream interpreter might read into your nighttime interludes. But to Martin the images weren’t abstractions. They weren’t to be parsed. Meaning wasn’t the point. “I didn’t get hung up with them or try to make sense of them,” he says of his Earth balloon, his gymnasium sanctuary, his absent God. He just experienced them.

That was new for Martin, who had navigated his life only with logic and rationality. This trip, though, was just about being alive and alert to every interaction, feeling whatever feelings he had, sensing whatever sensations arose. To use the hip lingo of mindfulness, he was Present.

After the session ended, so did his depression.

a close up of pink flowers on a table: In studies, when patients see or feel a spiritual presence while they're on psychedelics, they may have a greater chance of lasting positive changes to their mental well-being. © Provided by Popular Science In studies, when patients see or feel a spiritual presence while they're on psychedelics, they may have a greater chance of lasting positive changes to their mental well-being.

Martin didn’t hear from any deities, but plenty of other trippers have. Scientists want to understand how their perceptions compare to godly encounters sober people have, in terms of quality, authenticity, and lasting effect. Alan Davis, an Ohio State professor of social work who collaborated on mental health and substance abuse studies as a postdoc in Griffiths' lab and is still affiliated with it, believes the mystical aspect of trips is a factor in their success. “It seems to be a big piece of the puzzle,” he says.

To gather a wide variety of accounts—from a larger number of mind-altered and sober subjects than they could accommodate in the lab—Davis and his Johns Hopkins colleagues created an internet-based survey to find out about people’s “God encounter experiences.” The survey asked individuals about their most memorable rendezvous with a supreme figure, either when sober or when they had taken a psychedelic. More than 4,000 responded. They published the results in 2019.

The sober group was more likely than the other one to label the being God. The psychedelic users instead tended to call it Ultimate Reality. But both sets generally agreed that whatever they’d encountered was “conscious, benevolent, intelligent, sacred, eternal, and all-knowing.” And the majority said the experience left them with more purpose and meaning, greater satisfaction with their lives, and a decreased fear of death.

Perhaps the most striking result, though, involved people from both groups who hadn’t subscribed to the idea of a higher power to start with. After their hangout with an omniscient entity, more than two-thirds became believers. (If you’ve ever tried to change an atheist’s mind, you know how big a feat that is.)

The shift means, essentially, that they thought the experience revealed something true about the world. As the paper put it, “The majority of both groups endorsed that that which was encountered existed, at least in part, in some other reality and that it continued to exist after the encounter.”

One participant, a data architect in his 40s who wished to remain anonymous because his substance use occurred outside a clinical setting, has had plenty of mystical encounters, but he views these chemical creations as internal. “Psychedelics allow you to explore your own mind,” he says. For instance, when he met Jesus Christ while under the influence of ayahuasca, he believed he was simply meeting “the construct of Christ that exists in my own mind.”

Whether or not such occurrences reveal something about the actual nature of the universe doesn’t necessarily change the clinical outcomes. “If someone did have a God-encounter experience,” Davis says, “and because of this they say, ‘I now know that God exists,’ people get rubbed the wrong way: ‘You can’t possibly know that. You can’t prove that to be true.’ As a scientist, I agree with that.”

However, if it’s not real, he adds, “That doesn’t make the experience any less valuable. The clinician part of me is like, ‘Does it matter if it’s true?’”

Whether the mystical experiences are real or imagined, or both, the positive changes they produce in people stick around, and scientists are closing in on some potential chemical reasons why psychedelics so often leave folks feeling misty-eyed and spiritual.

Johns Hopkins' Roland Griffiths and colleague Frederick Barrett, a cognitive neuroscientist, laid out the basics in a 2017 paper called “Classic Hallucinogens and Mystical Experiences: Phenomenology and Neural Correlates.” To start, certain psychedelics stick to serotonin receptors called 5-HT2A in the central nervous system, producing classic trippy effects in ways neuroscientists don’t totally understand yet. But the substances seem to most affect a framework in the brain called the default mode network, which typically lights up when you’re pointing your attention inside yourself and not toward the outside world—like when you’re daydreaming. When you pop or sip or chomp on a hallucinogen, this grid calms down, and its connections and oscillations change. Since in its sober state, it’s all about self-contemplation, Griffiths and Barrett suspect that disrupting it results in the opposite: the “dissolution of the self,” or the loss of your sense of being a lone individual. That could also explain the feeling of connectedness to everything outside who you are.

Changes in this network also remove your sense of space and time. Voila: mystical experience.

Is that really…it?

Not quite, according to Bar-Ilan University’s Ido Hartogsohn, a scholar of science, technology, and society. He postulates that psychedelic encounters with the seemingly divine feel so significant—so real—because the drugs also enhance the meaning people impose on experiences. Consider that if you had a simple nighttime dream in which you met God, you’d be more likely to wake up, shake your head, and tell the story as a funny anecdote than you’d be to ditch your atheism. Hartogsohn’s work is more philosophical than neurological, but the people wielding the fMRI machines could devise ways to investigate his ideas.

And perhaps they will. Because no one really knows for sure yet why these drugs make people mystical, what that mysticality really means, or exactly why any of it changes people’s personalities for the better, boosts them out of mood disorders, or rids them of addictions. Those questions merit answers. The science’s consistent results have helped erode the stigma surrounding hallucinogens and taken them beyond the province of hippies, military experiments, and fringe academics. After approvals and research funding resumed in the late 1990s, that work largely happened through drug-focused nonprofit organizations like the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies and the Heffter Research Institute. Now universities have membership cards too. In April 2019, Imperial College London spun up the Centre for Psychedelic Research. Johns Hopkins opened its center the same year. Clinical trials are ongoing or have been approved at the University of Chicago, Yale, New York University, the University of Arizona, and the University of California, San Francisco, among others.

Whatever you make of them, psychedelic treatments hold promise that keeps pushing the research forward. Davis thinks often of a young woman in a Johns Hopkins study who had struggled for a decade with severe depression and social anxiety. She thought about suicide often. But after her treatment with psilocybin, things changed. For example, Davis says, “The look in her eye that she had gone a whole week without thinking of ending her life. It doesn’t get better than seeing hope in somebody.”

Davis believes psychedelics do something deeper than traditional pharmaceuticals or therapies. “Whether that’s because of the mystical experiences or the insight, something is happening at a level that is not just about reducing symptoms,” he says.

That’s what ensued for Clark Martin. Instead of focusing on cosmic connectedness, he thought about how to forge better interpersonal links with people here on the ground—especially his daughter and his father, who was struggling with Alzheimer’s. Martin recalls his intuitive experience of his surroundings, both illusory and physical, and how much the mere presence of psychologist Richards meant to him. He wanted to find a way to be there for others.

“It wasn’t about being smarter or reading more stuff,” he says. “It was having a visceral experience of the alternative”—living a moment emotionally, listening, and just being there—"and understanding it was possible. I don’t think any amount of smarts and education would do the same."

No, it took someone placing a magic-mushroom compound in a chalice—for science—and passing it to a man who’d been almost-dying for far too long.

Correction 11/16/20: This article has been updated to reflect that Walter Pahnke had graduated from Harvard Divinity School when he conducted the Good Friday Experiment.

This story appears in the Fall 2020, Mysteries issue of Popular Science.

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