Psychologists have long been interested in understanding the human capacity for intense well-being. Abraham Maslow, a pioneer of humanistic psychology, in particular coined the term “peak experiences” to refer to states in which a person feels intensely positive emotions such as great ecstasy, wonder and awe (Klavetter & Mogar, 1967). He considered peak experiences to be a sign of psychological health and thought that such experiences were particularly common in people who were fulfilling their deepest human potentials. Maslow conceptualised peak experiences as a perception of “Being” or “ultimate reality” in a mystical sense, although other researchers have used the term more broadly to refer to the most wonderful or best experiences in a person’s life.
Pioneering studies in the 1960’s investigated the potential of psychedelic drugs such as LSD to induce peak experiences. For example, one study on LSD-assisted psychotherapy found that under the influence of LSD some people had experiences involving feelings of intense beauty, a sense of deeper perception of reality, and of self-transcendence (Klavetter & Mogar, 1967). Furthermore, those who had such experiences believed that they had gained lasting benefits, including greater insight into themselves and their relationships, and that they had become clearer about their values in life. On the other hand, some of the participants in the study did not have a peak experience and reported that they found the experience disappointing and confusing, or felt that they had temporarily gone mad. Hence, some people seem more likely to benefit from psychedelic drugs than others. For example, people who are highly open to new experiences seem to benefit most, while people who are emotionally unstable or rigidly conventional in their views are prone to greater anxiety and negative, disturbing experiences (Studerus, Kometer, Hasler, & Vollenweider, 2011).
Research on psychedelic drugs was unfortunately suppressed in the 1970’s and has been resumed only in more recent years, and today uses somewhat more rigorous scientific methods. One well-known study, which I have discussed elsewhere, also found that psilocybin, the active component of magic mushrooms, can induce profoundly positive experiences in certain people (Griffiths, Richards, McCann, & Jesse, 2006). In this study mentally stable adults volunteered to take psilocybin under supportive conditions. About two-thirds of participants had a “complete mystical experience” involving feelings of intense joy, timelessness, a sense of oneness with the universe and ego-transcendence, and feelings of profound insight into reality. In a fourteen month follow-up, nearly all of the participants who had a mystical experience said they regarded it as one of the most personally significant moments of their lives.
The effects of psychedelic drugs are sensitive to features of the setting they are taken in. In the Griffiths et al. study psilocybin was administered in a safe comfortable setting with an assistant present to provide emotional support as needed to the volunteers. This helped to maximise the chance that they had a positive outcome. However, recreational users of psilocybin may be more casual about the kind of setting they create so the outcomes could be more variable. A recent study attempted to understand the outcomes of psilocybin use in more naturalistic recreational settings (Cummins & Lyke, 2013). In particular, the authors wanted to know how common peak experiences are among users and how they might compare to peak experiences reported by non-users. They gave a survey to 34 psilocybin users and 67 non-users, asking them to recall a peak experience, defined as the best experience or group of experiences in their lives. They then completed a questionnaire assessing the degree to which their peak experience involved alterations in their state of consciousness. Altered states of consciousness were assessed along three dimensions: oceanic boundlessness, which involves subjectively positive, mystical or transcendental experiences; visionary restructuralization, involving visual hallucinations and synaesthesia (crossover of sensory experiences, e.g. seeing music); and dread of ego dissolution, which includes negative experiences such as anxiety about one’s mental processes. Additionally, participants were asked if the peak experience had been induced by psilocybin and if they were under the influence of any other drugs at the time.
Among psilocybin users, 47% reported that their peak experience had occurred under the influence of psilocybin, while the other users said that it had not. Consistent with previous research, those who reported that their peak experience occurred under psilocybin said that it involved very high levels of oceanic boundlessness and visionary restructuralization, as well as relatively high levels of dread of ego dissolution. This is comparable to the findings of the study by Griffiths et al. in which about a third of participants experienced a high level of anxiety at some stage even though they rated their overall experience as being highly positive. Perhaps more interesting was that psilocybin users whose peak experience had not been induced by psilocybin also reported that their peak experience involved high levels of oceanic boundlessness (their questionnaire scores being nearly as high as those who had their peak experience under psilocybin), as well as moderately high levels of visionary restructuralization (although somewhat lower than the other psilocybin users) but very low levels of dread of ego dissolution. For both groups of psilocybin users, their peak experiences involved considerably higher levels of oceanic boundlessness and visionary restructuralization compared to the peak experiences of those who had never used psilocybin. This indicates that lifetime peak experiences of psilocybin users involved more profound alterations of consciousness, whether they had or had not been induced by psilocybin, compared to the lifetime peak experiences of people who had never used.
These results raise some fascinating questions that the study design was not able to answer. For example, it is unknown why some psilocybin users had the most wonderful experience of their lives under psilocybin while other users did not. Situational factors, such as the setting in which the drug was taken might have played a role, plus characteristic of the users themselves might also be a factor. For example, differences in the personality trait of absorption, one’s propensity to experience episode of “total attention”, are strongly linked to how profoundly a person responds to psilocybin (Studerus, Gamma, Kometer, & Vollenweider, 2012), so it is possible that the two groups of users might have differed on this trait. However, what I find even more intriguing is the fact that psilocybin users who had peak experiences without drugs nevertheless reported that these peak experiences involved intense alterations of consciousness that included visual hallucinations as well as mystical states. It would be interesting to know whether these peak experiences were spontaneous or deliberately sought. For example, there are specific practices designed to produce altered states without drugs, such as shamanic rituals, which can induce visionary experiences.
It is also possible that people who have non-drug peak experiences involving visual phenomena might have distinctive personality traits compared to those who are not prone to such experiences. One study found that people who reported having peak experiences tend to have particular traits such as being more imaginative, less authoritarian and dogmatic, more tender-minded and more experimenting than people who had not reported such experiences (Mathes, 1982). People high in fantasy proneness have a natural tendency to have very vivid imaginative experiences, and it is possible that such people are more inclined to use psilocybin. Hence, the unusual results found by Cummins and Lyke might reflect the pre-existing characteristics of people who use psilocybin.
However, another intriguing possibility is that psilocybin use itself might result in long-term changes in a person’s propensity to experience unusual visual phenomena. In a web-based survey, over 60% of people who had used psychedelic drugs reported that they had had unusual visual experiences while not under the influence of any drug (Baggott, Coyle, Erowid, Erowid, & Robertson, 2011). Furthermore, 23.9% said that such experiences occurred constantly or nearly constantly. Most people said that they were not bothered by them, although 4.2% said such experiences were sufficiently troublesome to warrant seeking treatment. These experiences came in a wide variety of types, including seeing halos or auras around things, things appearing to move or breathe, moving objects leaving after-images, seeing things with eyes open that are not really there, and more. The number of different visual phenomena a person experienced was proportional to the number of times they had taken psychedelic drugs, particularly LSD and psilocybin, although ketamine and salvia were also indicated. The reasons for these findings are not really known, although it could well be the case that taking psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin might increase a person’s propensity to experience hallucinatory visual phenomena in the long-term. If this is true, then it might explain why psilocybin users who had a peak experience that was not induced by drugs reported unusual visual experiences.
In a previous article I speculated about the possibility that psilocybin use could alter the sensitivity of neuroreceptors that underlie individual differences in the trait of absorption, a trait associated with having altered states of consciousness. A related possibility is that psilocybin and similar drugs might also alter the long-term sensitivity of neuroreceptors that underlie the experience of hallucinatory visual phenomena, which might explain why some users experience persistent unusual visual experiences. There is an additional and related possibility that psilocybin use increases a person’s tendency to have mystical peak experiences even when not using drugs. These are very speculative ideas and longitudinal research studies in which people are tracked for some time before and after initiating usage would be needed to determine if psilocybin does have long-term effects on a person’s consciousness. Further research on psychedelic drugs could help provide a deeper understanding of the nature of experiences associated with profound levels of well-being.
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© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.
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Other posts about psychedelic drugs
Psilocybin and personality
Psilocybin and brain function
Psilocybin for anxiety and depression in cancer
DMT, aliens and reality – part 1
DMT, aliens and reality – part 2
DMT: Gateway to Reality, Fantasy or What?
The Spirituality of Psychedelic Drug Users
Can Cannabis Cause Psychosis? A Hard Question to Answer
Baggott, M. J., Coyle, J. R., Erowid, E., Erowid, F., & Robertson, L. C. (2011). Abnormal visual experiences in individuals with histories of hallucinogen use: A web-based questionnaire. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 114(1), 61-67. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2010.09.006
Cummins, C., & Lyke, J. (2013). Peak Experiences of Psilocybin Users and Non-Users. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 45(2), 189-194. doi: 10.1080/02791072.2013.785855
Griffiths, R. R., Richards, W. A., McCann, U., & Jesse, R. (2006). Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance. Psychopharmacology, 187(3), 268-283. doi: 10.1007/s00213-006-0457-5
Klavetter, R. E., & Mogar, R. E. (1967). Peak Experiences: Investigation of Their Relationship to Psychedelic Therapy and Self-Actualization. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 7(2), 171-177. doi: 10.1177/002216786700700206
Mathes, E. W. (1982). Peak Experience Tendencies: Scale Development and Theory Testing. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 22(3), 92-108. doi: 10.1177/0022167882223011
Studerus, E., Gamma, A., Kometer, M., & Vollenweider, F. X. (2012). Prediction of Psilocybin Response in Healthy Volunteers. PLoS ONE, 7(2), e30800. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0030800
Studerus, E., Kometer, M., Hasler, F., & Vollenweider, F. X. (2011). Acute, subacute and long-term subjective effects of psilocybin in healthy humans: a pooled analysis of experimental studies. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 25(11), 1434-1452. doi: 10.1177/0269881110382466