In a new survey of thousands of people who reported a personal encounter with “ultimate reality” or God, a majority say the experience led to lasting positive changes in their psychological health, life satisfaction, purpose and meaning even decades after the initial encounter.
The study, conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, is the first to systematically and rigorously compare reports of spontaneous God encounter experiences, including those catalyzed by psychedelic substances, such as magic mushrooms or ayahuasca.
Their findings are published in the journal PLOS ONE.
“Experiences that people describe as encounters with God or a representative of God have been reported for thousands of years, and they likely form the basis of many of the world’s religions,” says lead researcher Roland Griffiths, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
“And although modern Western medicine doesn’t typically consider ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ experiences as one of the tools in the arsenal against sickness, our findings suggest that these encounters often lead to improvements in mental health.”
The historic and widespread anecdotal evidence for their benefits led to the research team’s latest effort to research the value, and possible downsides, of such encounters, Griffiths says.
The researchers looked at data from 4,285 people worldwide who responded to online advertisements to complete one of two 50-minute online surveys about God encounter experiences. Of the total participants, 809 were those who responded to the non-drug survey, whereas 3,476 responded to the psychedelics survey.
The surveys asked participants to recall their single most memorable encounter experience with the “God of their understanding,” a “higher power,” “ultimate reality” or “an aspect or representative of God, such as an angel.” They also asked how respondents felt about their experience and whether and how it changed their lives.
Around 69 percent of the participants were men, and 88 percent were white. The average age was 38. Of those who reported using a psychedelic, 1,184 took psilocybin (“magic mushrooms”); 1,251 said they took LSD; 435 said they took ayahuasca (a plant-based brew originating with indigenous cultures in Latin America); and 606 said they took DMT (N,N-dimethyltryptamine), also a naturally occurring substance found in certain plants and animals.
Those who said they had a God encounter experience while taking a psychedelic reported that these experiences happened at age 25 on average, whereas those whose experience was spontaneous reported having it at an average age of 35.
Among other key findings:
- Around 75 percent of participants in both the non-drug and psychedelics groups rated their “God encounter” experience as among the most meaningful and spiritually significant in their lifetime, and both groups attributed to it positive changes in life satisfaction, purpose and meaning;
- Independent of psychedelics use, more than two-thirds of those who said they were atheists before the experience no longer identified as such afterward;
- Most participants, in both the non-drug and psychedelics groups, reported vivid memories of the encounter experience, which frequently involved communication with some entity having the attributes of consciousness (approximately 70 percent), benevolence (approximately 75 percent), intelligence (approximately 80 percent), sacredness (approximately 75 percent) and eternal existence (approximately 70 percent);
- Although both groups reported a decreased fear of death, 70 percent of participants in the psychedelics group reported this change, compared with 57 percent among non-drug respondents;
- In both groups, around 15 percent of the respondents said their experience was the most psychologically challenging of their lives;
- In the non-drug group, participants were most likely to choose “God” or “an emissary of God” (59 percent) as the best descriptor of their encounter, while the psychedelics group were most likely (55 percent) to choose “ultimate reality.”
For future research, Griffiths said his team would like to investigate what factors predispose someone to having such a memorable encounter, and they would like to see what happens in the brain during the experience.
“Continuing to explore these experiences may provide new insights into religious and spiritual beliefs that have been integral to shaping human culture since time immemorial,” says Griffiths.
In addition, says Griffiths, “We want to be clear that our study looks at personal experiences and says nothing about the existence, or nonexistence of God. We doubt that any science can definitively settle this point either way.”
Griffiths has been researching psychedelic drugs for nearly two decades. Some of his earlier studies have used psilocybin to explore mystical-type experiences and their consequences in healthy volunteers, and the therapeutic potential of the drug in helping people to quit smoking or to ease mental distress in cancer patients.
Source: Johns Hopkins Medicine