Personal encounters with the ‘almighty’ result in better mental health

April 26, 2019

For thousands of years, people have reported experiencing deeply moving encounters with a higher power or an ultimate reality—either spontaneously or while under the influence of psychedelic drugs.

But, how do such encounters affect them—both in the moment and in the long term? Do they undergo changes in their belief systems? Are they still afraid of death?

Following a comprehensive survey of subjects who claim to have crossed paths with the almighty, researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine report that more than two-thirds of self-identified atheists shed that label after their brush with the eternal, regardless of whether it was spontaneous rendezvous or was facilitated by taking magic mushrooms.

Moreover, the researchers say, a majority of respondents attributed lasting positive changes in their psychological health—e.g., life satisfaction, purpose, and meaning—even decades after their initial experience.

The findings, described in a paper published on April 23 in the journal PLOS ONE, add to evidence that such deeply meaningful experiences may have healing properties, the researchers say. And the study’s design, they add, is the first to systematically and rigorously compare reports of spontaneous God encounter experiences with those occasioned, or catalyzed, by psychedelic substances.

“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.

For the new study, the scientists used data from 4,285 people worldwide who responded to online advertisements to complete one of two 50-minute online surveys about God-encounter experiences. 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.

About 69% of the participants were men, and 88% were white. 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.

Of the total participants, 809 were those who responded to the non-drug survey, whereas 3,476 responded to the psychedelics survey. Respondents were an average age of 38 when they took the survey. The people who said they had a God encounter experience when on 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:

  • About 75% of respondents 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%), benevolence (75%), intelligence (80%), sacredness (75% ), and eternal existence (70%).
  • Although both groups reported a decreased fear of death, 70% of participants in the psychedelics group reported this change, compared with 57% among non-drug respondents.
  • In both groups, about 15% 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%) as the best descriptor of their encounter, while the psychedelics group were most likely (55%) to choose “ultimate reality.”

For future studies, Griffiths said his team would like to explore what factors predispose someone to having such a memorable and life-altering perceived encounter, and they would like to see what happens in the brain during the experience.

Research contact: rgriff@jhmi.edu

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