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 labelling them as ‘ineffable’ and inaccessible to scientific inquiry. The authors recommend a theoretic shift away from supernatural or nonempirical belief systems in favour of a secular framework that aims to measure those experiences more objectively.
“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
A critique of this paper was written by Jylkkä (2021). A tweet thread by Matthew Baggot also highlighted some positive and negative aspects of this study (also saying that some of the concerns are already being addressed).
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.
The mysticism framework is used to describe psychedelic experiences and explain the effects of psychedelic therapies.
Strange tension lurks behind the scientific investigation of psychedelic substances, as users may adopt supernatural or otherwise nonempirical belief systems to reconcile the “ontological shock” of a psychedelic experience. Are we, as scientific researchers, doing enough to avoid a conflation between science and the supernatural?
In 1960, philosopher W. T. Stace theorized a distinct type of “mystical consciousness” achieved through a variety of cultural practices. The associated psychometric tools (the Mystical Experience Questionnaire, Hood’s Mysticism Scale, and specific dimensions of the Altered States of Consciousness Questionnaire) persist in use.
Within psychedelic science, we are concerned that the use of the mysticism framework creates a “black box” mentality, in which researchers treat certain aspects of the psychedelic state as beyond the scope of scientific inquiry.
We are concerned that the use of mystical terminology in psychedelic research will lead to misinterpretation of research findings, and that this problem will be exacerbated when mystical beliefs about what psychedelic experiences mean are conflated with scientific research. We argue that the integration of mysticism into research and clinical practice risks creating unrealistic expectations and associations for laypeople, including vulnerable groups pursuing psychedelics as interventions for serious health issues.
Stace’s mystical consciousness was based on an assumption that psychedelic states are infrequent, transient, and difficult to observe. Contemporary researchers should feel as limited as Stace, and should use methods that do not assume a mystical framework of explanation from the start.
The Mystical Experience Questionnaire has been shown to produce reliable results in factor analyses and predict treatment outcomes, but we question whether this kind of psychometric validation can be taken as strong support for the mystical consciousness concept. Mysticism is sometimes taken for granted in psychedelic science circles, but the science of mysticism struggles to differentiate the causal roles of beliefs and acute experiences in questionnaire responses. This is why other self-report measures may predict therapeutic outcomes with fewer conceptual complications.
■ A VISION FOR THE FUTURE
Psychedelic research can enlighten subjective experiences of the psychedelic state. By introducing cognitive neuroscience concepts into the discussion of psychedelic experiences, people can gain a more realistic concept of personal agency regarding their treatment.
Researchers have used the computational framework of predictive processing to argue that psychedelic treatment relaxes and reconfigures negative or limiting beliefs about the self. This theory may help explain the “connected” and “unitive” feelings associated with psychedelic use.
A clear and accessible model of why psychedelic therapies are showing such promising results could help us to fine-tune psychedelic therapies to maximize therapeutic outcomes or develop diverse therapeutic modalities that work by addressing the same psychological needs.
Psychedelic research must be re-conceptualized to avoid damaging the credibility of the field. New questionnaires must be explored to measure the experience of interest, and theories must describe the relationship between the data we collect and the psychobiological concepts we employ.
Find this paper
Commentary Theory Building
Linked Research Papers
Notable research papers that build on or are influenced by this paperPsychedelic-induced mystical experiences: An interdisciplinary discussion and critique
This review (2023) discusses the limitations and biases in using psychometric assessments to measure "mystical" experiences in psychedelic research. The authors argue that the existing operationalizations of mystical experiences fail to acknowledge their Christian bias and suggest more culturally-sensitive approaches. They also propose complementary "non-mystical" approaches to understanding similar phenomena for more robust theoretical and empirical approaches.