Consciousness, Religion, and Gurus: Pitfalls of Psychedelic Medicine

This opinion article (2020) describes three pitfalls of psychedelic research, namely 1) consciousness terminology, 2) religious beliefs of clinicians, and 3) clinical boundaries.


“This viewpoint identifies pitfalls in the study of psychedelic compounds, including those that pose challenges for the potential use of psychedelics as medicines. They are as follows: (1) Sloppiness regarding use of the term “consciousness”. (2) Inappropriate introduction of religious/spiritual beliefs of investigators or clinicians. (3) Clinical boundaries and other ethical challenges associated with psychedelic treatments.”

Author: Matthew W. Johnson


Psychedelics hold promise as a bridge between psychology (e.g. talk therapy) and psychiatric medications (e.g. SSRIs). The effects are long-lasting if the acute experience elicits behavior change. Or in other words, both the biological processes (e.g. plasticity) and psychological insight (e.g. processing trauma) contribute to positive outcomes.

But psychedelic therapy and research are not without pitfalls, this article describes three of these:

  1. Consciousness – the term not being used in the right way
    1. If used, it should be defined as it could mean many different things
    2. Psychedelic research has not substantially contributed to understanding consciousness
      1. Research with psychedelics that looks at the Default Mode Network (DMN) is far from conclusive or specific to psychedelics
      2. Researchers could make falsifiable hypotheses that, with psychedelics, we could help to find answers to ‘easy problems’ of consciousness
    3. That psychedelics alter our subjective experience, does not equal them (directly) being a tool to study consciousness
  2. Religious/spiritual beliefs of investigators/clinicians – being introduced where not appropriate
    1. These beliefs are defined as supernatural ones (vs spiritual as being supportive, something that is of course encouraged)
    2. One should be supportive of patients with religious beliefs, but work (and do science) from a secular perspective
    3. This should also apply to the space (setting) where therapy is being given (e.g. no Buddha statues)
      1. This changes of course when explicitly given in such a setting (e.g. a Buddhist psychedelic retreat)
  3. Ethical challenges (e.g. clinical boundaries)
    1. With psychedelics in play, one should be extra cautious about not overstepping clinical boundaries
    2. This ranges from sexual and inappropriate relationships to offering the therapists worldview (playing guru)
    3. Multiple therapy sessions without psychedelics and a transparent process could help with these challenges

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