Noisy Water Review

Psychedelic Drugs and Experiences
of Personal Meaning and Lasting Insight

Dylan Forest

Define the Problem

Psychedelic drugs are a category of “consciousness expanding” substances, and for the purposes of this study will include LSD, psilocybin, mescaline, DMT, LSA, and any plant containing these compounds. Within drug subcultures, psychedelic drugs are often touted as having positive transformative powers on their users. It has been documented in various studies that many users of psychedelic drugs self-report these effects, citing experiences such as instances of epiphany, awakening of spirituality, psychological growth, or tremendous personal meaning. However, due to the paucity of research on contemporary psychedelic drug use and the fact that most experimental psychedelic research was halted after LSD was made illegal in the 60s, it is unclear whether these effects are in fact a direct result of psychedelic drugs. It remains possible that the proliferation of self-reported positive effects among users of psychedelic drugs is in fact a function of that demographic rather than a result of drug use—in other words, the population that is likely to use psychedelic drugs may just also be more likely to seek out and value these types of transformative experiences and to translate their drug experiences into those terms. This paper’s purpose is to attempt to determine, through use of data obtained through a questionnaire and research into available resources on the subject, whether users of psychedelic drugs do in fact experience new insights and positive personal changes as a result of their drug use.

Review of Literature

Psychedelic plants have been used by many indigenous cultures in their spiritual and healing traditions, but it wasn’t until the synthesis of LSD that psychedelics became popularized in Western culture, both scientifically and recreationally. There was initially a great deal of excitement in the scientific community over LSD, with numerous therapeutic uses theorized and with some figures professing it to be a “miracle drug” capable of curing almost any defect in personality or behavior. In the 1950s and 1960s, there were two main types of LSD psychotherapy. The first, called “psycholytic” psychotherapy, based on a psychoanalytical paradigm, administered low doses of LSD repeatedly over time with the aim of uncovering hidden parts of the unconscious. The second, “psychedelic” psychotherapy, administered high doses of LSD in order to induce a transformative experience and permanently change behavior, such as causing an alcoholic to abstain from drinking (Lerner and Lyvers 2006). These studies did have some promising results, but were generally not well-designed. By the 60s there was growing concern about the public abusing hallucinogens, so they were made illegal and there was a subsequent hiatus in psychedelic research until recently (Griffiths et al. 2006).

Following the poorly designed research and concerns about abuse, the dominant paradigm that developed regarding psychedelic use was one that regarded them as inducing a “model psychosis,” similar to a temporary schizophrenia (Lemer and Lyvers 2006). However, more recent studies have suggested that psychedelic experiences should be “approached from a psychological viewpoint and seen as lying on a continuum with normality” (Moro et al. 2011: 189). Aligning with this paradigm is the fact that the altered states of consciousness that can accompany psychedelic use, such as loss of a sense of self or restructuring of perception, can also accompany other psychological triggers such as sensory deprivation or overload, emotional stress, or meditative states. This fact causes one author to conclude that “obviously the phenomena observed in [psychedelic] states form part of the human psychological repertoire and serve as reactions to extreme conditions” (Prepeliczay 2002: 432). This paradigm serves to normalize psychedelic states, rather than view them as a type of self-induced mental illness.

However, it is important to not glorify psychedelics as many were wont to do during the peak of the psychedelic movement in the 60s and 70s. While research does seem to signify that it is possible to obtain positive effects from the controlled use of psychedelic drugs, studies also show again and again that the effects any individual will experience are unpredictable. There have been cases of psychedelics triggering psychotic episodes, though they have been rare and tied to uncontrolled use (Prepeliczay 2002). So, while psychedelics pose little harm in regards to addictive potential or physiological impact, it is important that their psychological risks not be understated, and that in future experiments participants be fully screened for psychological risk factors. Prepeliczay also recommends that recreational users be provided with harm reduction information, such as the importance of preparation, environment, and attitude, commonly referred to as “set and setting” (Prepeliczay 2002).

Several recent studies, following this advice and carefully preparing their participants and their surroundings, have been able to induce mystical experiences by administering psychedelic drugs. One such experiment administered psilocybin, the psychedelic compound present in some mushrooms, to 36 healthy individuals with no history of hallucinogen use. Participants were then monitored throughout the experience and interviewed two months later. In the report of the study, the authors note that “it is remarkable that 67% of the volunteers rated the experiment with psilocybin to be either the single most meaningful experience of his or her life or among the top five most meaningful experiences of his or her life. In written comments, the volunteers judged the meaningfulness of the experience to be similar, for example, to the birth of a first child or death of a parent” (Griffiths et al. 2006: 276). Though we do not yet completely understand the mechanisms through which psychedelic drugs are able to induce this type of meaningful experience, the few experimental studies that have been carried out do seem to indicate that under the right conditions these substances are able to induce such an experience.

Several studies have also found that recreational users report inducing both spiritually significant and personally significant experiences through the use of psychedelic drugs. The intent of this type of study should not be viewed as endorsing illegal drug use, but rather supplementing experimental studies of psychedelic drugs. Since it has been difficult in the time period since the criminalization of LSD use to have experimental studies approved, surveys of recreational users provide much-needed information that adds to our understanding of these substances. One such study extensively interviewed recreational users of LSD in Germany. Among their findings was the fact that “21 out of 26 respondents said their experiences with LSD and psilocybin had given new meaning to their lives, and linked their experiences with these drugs to profound changes in their self-perceptions and understanding of the world. These included insights into the “real” nature of things and mental and natural processes they consider highly relevant in the understanding and construction of their own personality, life values, the world, personal relationships and societal functions” (Prepeliczay 2002: 444). Studies such as these seem to indicate that recreational users are sometimes able to recreate the same positive results that laboratory experiments are.

Though evidence such as I have outlined does seem to point to psychedelic drugs’ ability to induce positive personality changes, it is often not clear whether this ability is a direct result of the drugs themselves or a result of the demographic that is taking them. Psychedelic drug users do differ in several ways from users of other drugs and non-drug users. One study of users of psilocybin-containing mushrooms in the UK concluded that “the demographics suggest that these participants should not be theorized as pathological, nor should their drug use be linked with social or economic marginalization” (Riley and Blackman 2008: 65). Indeed, many theories about drug use that seem to apply seamlessly to users of other drugs do not explain the use of psychedelic drugs. Moro et al. point out that research has a tendency to overlook nonproblematic drug use, most likely because it poses little public health risk (2011). Because of this, we end up with an understanding of all drug use that is based on problem users, and very little scientific understanding of nonproblematic, or possibly even beneficial, use.

Psychedelic drugs users as a subculture have been shown to have certain characteristic that set them apart from other drug-using populations. In one survey of 667 drug users, psychedelic drug users scored significantly higher on the Intrinsic Spirituality Scale than both non-users of drugs and users of non-psychedelic drugs. It was also found that scores on the Purpose in Life scale corresponded negatively with the number of non-psychedelic drugs used, but not with psychedelic drugs. The authors point out, however, that these differences in personality traits may not be as much a result of the particular substance they use, but rather a result of the purpose and meaning of their drug use. They speculate that “autognostic” (introspective) drug use may act as a “training session” whereby users put themselves through exceptional experiences in order to practice coping mechanisms and grow positively as people (Moro 2011). By this logic, then, the positive changes that psychedelic drug users experience may be more about their tendency to seek those changes than about the actual substance that was ingested.

Clearly more research is needed before we can come to any conclusions on the possible benefits of psychedelic drug use. It will continue to be important in future research to draw data from both recreational users and experimental studies, for both offer important insights into this subject. In recent years government approval for psychedelic drug research has become easier to attain again, and as we understand more we will be able to ascertain whether these substances are appropriate for therapeutic use.

Hypothesis

I expect that users of psychedelic drugs will rate their experiences with psychedelic drugs as very personally meaningful and having provided them with lasting insight. I also expect that these same users will rate their non-psychedelic drug use and alcohol use as less meaningful and less conducive to insights. Support of this hypothesis would also support the theory that psychedelic substances have some intrinsic property that encourages these positive effects, and that the positive effects are not just a function of the demographic obtaining them.

Methodology

In order to test my hypothesis, a web-based questionnaire was designed and made available online. Due to the time constraints on this research and the isolated nature of many drug subcultures, a posting was made on the online classifieds site craigslist.org, briefly describing the survey and seeking respondents who have had at least one experience with psychedelic drugs. No stricter guidelines were made as far as who was eligible to respond to the survey, so it is likely that this sample is not composed entirely, or even mostly, of regular or highly experienced drug users. It is also likely that due to the electronic format of the questionnaire, the sample is of higher socioeconomic status than the general population and also over representative of younger individuals. The questionnaire was completed by 27 people, 2 of which indicated that they had not tried psychedelic drugs. After discarding the responses of the non-users of psychedelic drugs, a sample of n=25 remained.

The sample was 37.5% male and 62.5% female. 70.8% of respondents were in the 21-29 year age range, 16.7% were in the 30-39 range, 4.2% were 40-49, and 8.3% were older than 60. 25% were high school graduates, with the remaining 75% either holding some type of college degree or currently a college student. In addition to indicating that they had tried psychedelic drugs, every respondent also reported that they had tried both non-psychedelic drugs and alcohol.

Table 1 illustrates the responses to the main questions on the questionnaire. Respondents were asked how much they agreed or disagreed with several statements about their drug experiences. To gauge insights gained from psychedelic drug use, the statement used was “Psychedelic drug use has provided me with helpful insights that remained relevant beyond the immediate drug experience.” To gauge the meaningfulness of the drug experience, the statement used was “I have had psychedelic drug experiences that were very personally meaningful.” These statements were also responded to separately for both non-psychedelic drug use and alcohol use.

Table 1 – personal meaning and insights obtained from varying substance use

  Strongly disagree Disagree Undecided/ No opinion Agree Strongly agree Total
Psychedelic drugs
Lasting insight 4% 8% 12% 36% 40% 100%
Personally meaningful 4% 12% 4% 32% 48% 100%
Non-psychedelic drugs
Lasting insight 4.2% 16.7% 16.7% 41.7% 20.8% 100%
Personally meaningful 4.2% 12.5% 4.2% 54.2% 25% 100%
Alcohol
Lasting insight 20.8% 25% 20.8% 20.8% 12.5% 100%
Personally meaningful 12.5% 20.8% 16.7% 33.3% 16.7% 100%

In addition, respondents were asked whether they felt the different categories of substances had had a negative effect on them overall. 12% agreed or strongly agreed that psychedelic drugs had had a negative impact on them, 8.4% agreed or strongly agreed that non-psychedelic drugs had had a negative impact, and 45.8% agreed or strongly agreed that alcohol had had a negative impact. Also, while 20% indicated that they believe psychedelic drugs are dangerous, 50% indicated they believe non-psychedelic drugs are, and 84.4% reported a belief that alcohol is dangerous.

Conclusion

It is worth mentioning that during the survey process, I received emails from 5 different respondents who wished to inform me that it was very difficult to reply to the section of the questionnaire about non-psychedelic drug use because of the grouping of drugs. In the interest of making the questionnaire quick to complete, I had grouped all illegal drugs that had not been listed in the psychedelic drug definition together. This made it so that respondents were asked to make generalizations about a category that included both marijuana and heroin. All of the respondents who contacted me indicated that the differences between marijuana and the other drugs in the category made it difficult to respond, with one individual calling it “impossible.” An improvement upon this questionnaire would group marijuana by itself, and the remainder of illegal drugs separately. I expect that that grouping would yield very different responses to the questions about non-psychedelic drugs.

Despite that and other limitations, the data appears to support the hypothesis that the same demographic reports obtaining more lasting insights and meaningful experiences from the use of psychedelic drugs than from the use of non-psychedelic drugs or alcohol. At 76% agreeing or strongly agreeing that psychedelic drug experiences had left them with lasting insights, and 80% agreeing or strongly agreeing that psychedelic experiences had been very personally meaningful, these positive effects seem to be in the majority of experiences. This data supports the theory that insights and meaning derived from psychedelic drug use is not entirely a function of the make-up of the population that uses psychedelic drugs. It seems to suggest, rather, that specifically psychedelic compounds, in the right setting, have the potential to encourage these positive effects. It also suggests that a sociological understanding of psychedelic drug use cannot simply borrow from theory that was developed to explain other types of drug use, particularly problematic use. I do suspect that psychedelic drug users are more likely to translate their experiences with non-psychedelic drugs and alcohol into these terms and to report their experiences with those substances as meaningful and producing insights. Future research comparing whether non-users of psychedelic drugs report similar levels of insight and meaning from non-psychedelic substances would bring more light to this concept.

The results of this study, though tentative because of the small size of the sample and the relatively brief survey process, support previous findings outlined earlier in the literature review. Findings such as these point out the need for further research both exploring potential therapeutic uses for psychedelic drugs and pursuing a more accurate understanding of recreational psychedelic drug use. Doing so will definitely enhance our ability to reduce drug-related harm, and may eventually provide an opportunity to use these compounds to help people. We certainly will never know until the matter is investigated fully.

References

Moro, Levente , Simon, Katalin, Bard, Imre, & Racz, Jozeph. 2011. "Voice of the Psychonauts: Coping, Life Purpose, and Spirituality in Psychedelic Drug Users." Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 43(3):188-198. Retrieved Jul 19, 2012 (web.ebscohost.com).

Griffiths, R., Richards, W., McCann, U., & Jesse, R.. 2006 “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance.” Psychopharmacology 187: 268-283. Retrieved Jul 19, 2012 (web.ebscohost.com).

Lerner, Michael & Lyvers, Michael. 2006 “Values and Beliefs of Psychedelic Drug Users: a Cross-Cultural Study.” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 38(2): 143-147. Retrieved Jul 19, 2012 (web.ebscohost.com).

Riley, Sarah C. E., & Blackman, Graham. 2008 “Between Prohibitions: Patterns and Meanings of Magic Mushroom Use in the UK.” Substance Use & Misuse 43: 55-71. Retrieved Jul 19, 2012 (web.ebscohost.com).

Prepeliczay, Susanna. 2002 “Socio-Cultural and Psychological Aspects of Contemporary LSD Use in Germany.” Journal of Drug Issues 32(2): 431-451. Retrieved Jul 19, 2012 (web.ebscohost.com).

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