Moving Past Mysticism in Psychedelic Science

This commentary (2021) examines the role of mystical frameworks within psychedelic research and identifies the problem of putting subjective experiences into a black box by labeling them as ‘ineffable’ and inaccessible to scientific inquiry. The authors recommend a theoretic shift away from supernatural or nonempirical belief systems in favor of a secular framework that aims to measure those experiences more objectively.

Abstract

“The mysticism framework is used to describe psychedelic experiences and explain the effects of psychedelic therapies. We discuss risks and difficulties stemming from the scientific use of a framework associated with supernatural or nonempirical belief systems and encourage researchers to mitigate these risks with a demystified model of the psychedelic state.”

Authors: James W. Sanders & Josjan Zijlmans

Notes

This article builds further on the work by Johnson (2020) and others that investigate the tension between the empirical (scientific) method and that of supernatural/mystical explanations.

Specifically, the authors take issue with ‘mystical experiences’ as a (final) explanation for the efficacy of psychedelic therapies. The peak experience on psychedelics has been described as ineffible, a sense of unity, timelessness, etc.

The construct of mystical experiences has been captured in tools such as the Mystical Experience Questionnaire (MEQ). Tools that have good predictive validity, those who score higher on the MEQ are also those who see the most positive therapeutic outcomes (e.g. Agin-Liebes et al., 2021). But, the authors question that this should not be where we stop. In the article, they argue that we should supersede the mystical framework. To find a deeper, more empirical, explanation.

A risky blend of mysticism and science

The mysticism framework creates a black-box, a place that we should (or can’t) look into. Framing it this way, the authors argue, creates unfounded pessimism as to our possibility of understanding psychedelic experiences.

It also frames the experience in these terms for (future) participants in psychedelic trials, retreats, or treatment centers. It might let them fall back on mysticism as the (unexplainable) explanation, without learning from their own interpretation of the experience.

Mysticism is defined, by the American Psychological Association, “by its association with divine and supernatural sources of knowledge and truth.” Although this definition isn’t shared by all researchers, it is a concern that patients/participants are encouraged to seek for such an experience. Even at this time, retreats can/are using the language of researchers to frame a psychedelic experience (and it’s therapeutic effects) in mystical terminology.

We argue that the integration of mysticism into research and clinical practice risks creating unrealistic and potentially problematic expectations and associations when presented to laypeople, including vulnerable groups pursuing psychedelics as interventions for serious health issues.

Demystifying our concepts

Only replacing the term mystical experience won’t be the answer. Terms such as ‘oceanic boundlessness’ and ‘peak experience’ may be more appropriate, but without rethinking the underlying construct we are no further along.

What is needed, and what is now possible, is a better understanding of what has been labelled mystical experiences. Nowadays we have access to brain scans (fMRI, PET, etc), double-blind placebo-controlled studies, and other modes than psychedelics to induce these experiences (e.g. meditation, expectancy effects, hypnotism).

A vision for the future

Demystified psychedelic research has the potential to enlighten subjective experiences of the psychedelic state.

If we have a deeper explanation of a phenomenon, we can use that knowledge to create a brighter future. This goes both for scientists as lay people.

This is already happening through the neuroscience of psychedelics. The REBUS model by Carhart-Harris and Friston (2019)argue[s] that the negative or limiting beliefs about the self that typify certain mental disorders are relaxed and reconfigured during psychedelic treatment.”

The explanatory power of their framework goes beyond explaining (part of) mental disorders and also touches upon (parts of) the mystical experience: “They theorize that the “connected” and “unitive” feelings that are associated with the acute effects of psychedelics are the result of a psychopharmacological disruption to high-level beliefs about one’s own sense of separation from the environment and other beings.”

Validation of this model is necessary, but that is exactly what the scientific method is capable of. And then, by knowing better how psychedelics work, we can improve them even further. Heck, the authors argue that the knowledge gained through psychedelic research could help us find the causal factors (in the brain, leaving societal factors aside) that lead to depression and other mental ills.

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