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Religious Leaders Are Being Given Psilocybin To Investigate Its Mystical Properties

Although there is a large body of historical evidence supporting psychedelic substance use in ritualistic and ceremonial settings, modern science has much to learn about the elusive relationship between the way in which these substances affect the mind and the indescribable mystical/spiritual experiences brought on by them. Two teams of researchers, one at Johns Hopkins University and another at New York University, are simultaneously conducting a study in which religious leaders, or teachers of congregations and spiritual communities, are given psilocybin, the psychoactive constituent of ‘magic’ mushrooms, in order to investigate mysterious properties that this substance possesses.

Thus far, the group of volunteers for the trials consists of thirteen religious leaders including a Zen Buddhist roshi, an Episcopalian, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, a Reform Christian and more. Their search for participants is still ongoing, however, as they have yet to receive Imam, Catholic or Hindu priest participants, among others. The researchers involved in this study hope that these volunteers will be able to use their vocabulary and spiritual understanding to help decipher the mysterious nature of the psychedelic-induced mystical experience, and how theses experiences compare to those brought on through what are considered "traditional methods."

After their psilocybin sessions, the trial participants are given a survey known as the MEQ (Mystical Experience Questionnaire), a survey commonly administered by religious teachers to those who feel they have experienced something of a divine nature. In an examination of the responses, the researchers have found a consistent overlap between the mystical experiences brought on through solitary spiritual practice and those brought on by psilocybin, which comes as no surprise. “All we’re doing is finding conditions that increase the likelihood of the mystical experiences, and we still don’t know their ultimate cause,” says Roland Griffiths, PhD, Johns Hopkins principal investigator.

As to the purpose and reliability of these types of experiences, regardless of their origin, scientists are no closer to a consensus than they were in 1902 when father of American psychology, William James published the first methodical investigation on them. In order to investigate such experiences, James advocated that his colleagues use an unprecedented approach in which they needed to shed their reliance on “medical materialism” to identify the therapeutic value of these spiritual encounters, despite having no knowledge of how they occur. In James’ search, he described the individuals who had such experiences as demonstrating notable increases in long-lasting happiness and selflessness, not unlike the effects reported after psilocybin sessions.

Aside from the difficulty in pinpointing the origin of these experiences, studying them in general has always been incredibly difficult as they are rare and very unpredictable. Although such experiences are attainable through practices like fasting, prayer, meditation, et cetera, these methods are not consistent or reliable enough and differ wildly in effectivity between people. This is where the psilocybin and religious leader trials come in to play, as the similarities between the traditional mystical experience and those brought on by psilocybin suggest that these types of substances may reveal the hidden nature of, and conclusively validate, these ineffable moments.

It is no secret that there is a correlation between religiosity and well-being. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 40% of the highly-religious individuals they surveyed described themselves as “very happy,” while only 29% of the non-religious individuals claimed to very happy. Also, 65% of the highly-religious individuals had donated money, time or physical possessions in the past week where only 41% of the non-religious claimed to have done so. This is not to say, however, that religiosity and the culture surrounding it produces selflessness, but rather it is perpetuated by the mystical states that some of these individuals may regularly be achieving in their solitary spiritual practice.

The hope of the Johns Hopkins and NYU researchers is that the religious leaders participating in their study will be able to subjectively compare and contrast the different types of experiences in ways in which neuroscience cannot. So far, the researchers have found that a sense of “unity” or oneness with all things is the most common result of both types of mystical experiences, which correlates directly with an increase in selflessness. “If I’m not different than you, then I need to take care of you the way I would take care of me,” said Griffiths.

In light of this discovery, NYU lead investigator, Anthony Bossis is not surprised that this sense of unity is present within the world’s six principal religions - Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Daoism and Hinduism. Not unlike careers in healthcare, psychiatry and other onerous lines of work, religious leaders can become emotionally taxed over time and experience a condition known as “clergy burnout,” which can make it difficult to fulfill the duties to which they have sworn. The study’s researchers hypothesized that a reconnection with whatever mystical occurrence that lead them on their life’s path in the first place may revitalize their energy and passion needed for supporting their congregants. Their theory, thus far, has proven to be correct. “They have increased passion for the scripture, for giving sermons, for helping people,” Bossis says. “If that’s sustained it will be remarkable."

At this point in time, the researchers’ number one priority is to make psilocybin available for those who are enduring end-of-life distress, not unlike what Albert Hofmann once envisioned for the substance LSD. Ideally, we will soon have official treatment centers in which individuals experiencing this and other types of psychiatric distress can take psychedelic substances in a safe, carefully-monitored and supportive setting. At New York City’s Horizons Conference, NYU chief of addiction psychiatry, Stephen Ross shared that other possible avenues for psilocybin science include helping with criminal recidivism, eating disorders, conflict resolution and more.

As the medicinal validity of the substances involved in this ongoing ‘psychedelic renaissance’ continues to garner recognition and approval, we may soon find ourselves finally moving past the stigma that has impeded this sort of research for decades. In order to maintain the quality of the attention that studies involving mystical experiences are beginning to receive, it is crucial that researchers continue to frame their findings in a strictly scientific context. The example set forth by William James over a century ago has proven helpful in doing this, as he dedicated an entire portion of his investigation to justifying the scientific relevance of such occurrences. He managed to demonstrate to his cynics that the purpose of mystical experiences, if there were a purpose, does not change the fact that these experiences possess the ability to alter one’s entire life perspective; an occurrence that is deserving of scientific analysis.


Johnson, M. W., A. Garcia-Romeu, M. P. Cosimano, and R. R. Griffiths. "Pilot Study of the 5-HT2AR Agonist Psilocybin in the Treatment of Tobacco Addiction." Sage Journals. Journal of Psychopharmacology, n.d. Web. 23 Jan. 2017.

Griffiths, R. R., W. A. Richards, U. Mccann, and R. Jesse. "Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance."Psychopharmacology 187.3 (2006): 268-83. Web.

Jesse, R., and R. R. Griffiths. "Psilocybin Research At Johns Hopkins: A 2014 Report" Council on Spiritual Practices (n.d.): n. pag. CSP. Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Web.

Mitchell, Travis. "Religion in Everyday Life." Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project. N.p., 12 Apr. 2016. Web. 23 Jan. 2017.

Ospina, M. B., K. Bond, M. Karkhaneh, L. Tjosvold, B. Vandermeer, Y. Liang, L. Bialy, N. Hooton, N. Buscemi, D. M. Dryden, and T. P. Klassen. "Meditation Practices for Health: State of the Research." Evidence Report/technology Assessment. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 23 Jan. 2017.

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