This theory-building article (2022) proposes that the dream, hypnagogic and psychedelic states share common features that make them conducive to supporting some aspects of scientific creativity and examines the putative underlying neurophenomenological and cognitive processes involved. The psychedelic state may have the potential to enhance creativity as a result of phenomena like brain hyperconnectivity, meta-cognitive awareness and more.
“Creativity, that is the creation of ideas or objects considered both novel and valuable, is among the most important and highly valued of human traits, and a fundamental aspect of the sciences. Dreams and hypnagogic states have been highly influential in promoting scientific creativity and insight, contributing to some important scientific breakthroughs. Phenomenologically, the latter states of consciousness share a great deal of overlap with the psychedelic state, which has also been associated with facilitating scientific creativity on occasion. The current article proposes that the dream, hypnagogic and psychedelic states share common features that make them conducive to supporting some aspects of scientific creativity and examines the putative underlying neurophenomenological and cognitive processes involved. In addition, some notable occurrences of scientific insights that have emerged from these types of altered states are reviewed and shared common features are presented, providing a ground for future research. The psychedelic state may have its own characteristic features making it amenable to creativity enhancement, such as brain hyperconnectivity, meta-cognitive awareness, access to a more dependable and sustained altered state experience, and potential for eliciting sustained shifts in trait openness. The contextual factors which may contribute to the enhancement of scientific creativity and insight will be evaluated. While research in this area is limited, further work to elucidate how psychedelics may best contribute to scientific creativity enhancement is warranted.”
Mystical experiences are often described as being among the most profound and meaningful events of a person’s life, and are reliably occasioned by psychedelic substances under the appropriate conditions. Various factors may contribute to the occurrence of mystical experiences, including set and setting, drug dosage, trait absorption, drug type, intention and states of surrender and acceptance.
Mystical experiences are described as having facets of unity, oneness and interconnectedness, transcendence of time and space, deeply felt positive mood, a sense of sacredness, reverence or awe, ineffability and a noetic quality. They occur in both religious and non-religious individuals.
Some researchers have criticised the term ‘mystical’ for its perceived supernatural connotations, but it is a well-established term in the scientific literature and has been the subject of serious scientific study.
Psilocybin-occasioned mystical experiences have been associated with eliciting quantum change in personal emotion, cognition and behaviour, and are comparable to the birth of a child or death of a parent.
Psychedelic use is associated with increased appreciation for life, prosocial feelings for others, greater sense of life meaning and purpose, greater self-acceptance and spirituality, and increased concern with social and planetary values. Mystical experiences are often associated with psychological health benefits, including existential anxiety, addiction, depression, and anxiety. These experiences are important mediators of clinical outcomes associated with psychedelic usage. A mystical experience, together with emotional breakthrough experiences, have been found to predict long-term positive psychological changes in psilocybin users, with intensity of the mystical experience positively influencing clinical outcomes.
Mystical experiences occuring in healthy populations of psychedelic users are also associated with enduring benefits, including enhanced psychological well-being, life satisfaction and life meaning/purpose, as well as positive changes in attitudes, moods and behaviour. These benefits may have positive implications for cognition and general mental and physical health.
Psychedelics enhance suggestibility, and clinicians should avoid directive priming or integration pre or post psychedelic experience in a clinical context. They should also avoid imposing their own personal spiritual or religious beliefs on people undergoing psychedelic sessions. It has been argued that interpretation of mystical experiences from a neutral and purely secular and reductionist standpoint may have limitations. A diverse and nuanced approach that encompasses multiple narrative frameworks may be beneficial, as well as an inclusive client-centered interfaith approach centered on self-reflection and ethical meaning making.
Frequent, repeated spiritual or mystical experiences without subsequent integration can potentially result in spiritual narcissism, spiritual bypass, or transpersonal crises, which can be treated with sensitive and respectful therapeutic support, and the reinforcement of the internal nature of the experience to the individual.
Various factors may act to predict and potentiate the occurrence of psychedelic mystical experiences. These factors will be examined and potential means of mitigating these suggested.
Set and setting
Ingestion of psychedelic substances is not the cause of mystical experiences, but rather a catalyst that occasions them. The context surrounding psychedelic usage determines the experience, including the occurrence of mystical experiences. Modern psychotherapeutic contexts ensure a comfortable and secure setting, provide interpersonal support in the session, and encourage participants to focus their attention inwards during the psychedelic session. However, little research has yet been conducted which systematically explores these factors for their efficacy. In a study using LSD, 12.5% of participants reported complete mystical experiences. In another study using psilocybin, 61% of participants reported complete mystical experiences.
While more research is required to explore the pharmacodynamic differences between psychedelics and how this might influence the occurrence of mystical experiences, the profound differences in outcomes between the Johns Hopkins studies and the LSD study are likely influenced by the substantial differences in context.
One seminal study by Pahnke comprised an important early study on psychedelics and mystical experiences. Although the religious ‘set’ of the divinity students participating in the study may have influenced the long-term outcomes, similar levels of occasioned mystical experiences have been reported in studies examining psychedelic usage in a much more varied naturalistic context.
A supportive context is important when using 5-MeO-DMT, considered one of the most powerful psychedelic substances known. A supportive context includes a calm and comfortable group setting overseen by experienced facilitators, a health screening, preparatory and post-session discussions, and intent by participants to help ensure the well-being of others. One double-blind placebo-controlled study found that optimistic attitudes towards life and few psychological problems in past weeks were predictive of oceanic boundlessness, a state associated with feelings of unity and transcendence of time and space.
Psychedelic substance dosage is a key predictor of mystical experiences, with higher dosages more likely to trigger adverse reactions. Psilocybin dosage is also strongly associated with ego dissolution experiences, which are considered a key aspect of the mystical experience. In the seminal Griffiths et al. study on psilocybin and mystical experiences, 61% of people underwent complete mystical experiences. A follow up study found that 44.4% of people experienced complete mystical experiences at 20 mg/70 kg of psilocybin.
Psilocybin dosages of 25 mg are commonly used in clinical studies, but the required dose may vary markedly between individuals, making individualised dose escalation beneficial.
Together with set and setting and drug dosage, trait absorption is one of the most important predictors of mystical experiences in psychedelic sessions, and is strongly correlated with personality trait openness to experience.
Absorption can be enhanced by fully immersing yourself in an external stimulus, by using comfortable settings, by entering a flow state, by using hypnosis, by using music, by conducting a meditation, or by using psychedelics in a ritualistic fashion. Trait absorption is higher in psychedelic microdosing groups compared to non-microdosing controls, and psilocybin usage increases trait absorption for a month following usage.
A psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy session is usually held in a comfortable setting with music playing through headphones. This promotes absorption and increases the likelihood of a mystical experience occurring.
While mystical experiences are associated with usage of a range of classical psychedelics, the consistency by which these experiences occur may vary. For example, complete mystical experiences were reported in 30% of cases of mescaline usage, 37% of cases of DMT usage, and 47% of cases of psilocybin usage.
Participants on a four-day psychospiritual retreat programme reported that 5-MeO-DMT usage was associated with complete mystical experiences in 75% of cases. This dosage is considered to be among the lower dosage range for 5-MeO-DMT, but still occasioned mystical experiences with a statistical equivalence of 30 mg/70 kg psilocybin.
Having clear intentions prior to a psychedelic session is predictive of mystical experiences, and using psychedelics with an emotional intent or a spiritual motivation is associated with greater likelihood of mystical-type experiences and well-being scores.
The ability to let go and surrender at the beginning of a psilocybin session is an important predictor of mystical experiences occurring within a session, whereas a state of mental apprehension is negatively predictive of mystical experiences. A state of surrender is a disposition to mentally let go and surrender to the experience of taking psychedelics. This disposition can be fostered by developing rapport with any therapists present prior to the session, and having the experience in a safe, secure and soothing setting.
Acceptance is a key aspect of mindfulness and has been found to be predictive of mystical experiences under psilocybin. It is also an important aspect of ACT and ACE models, which have been used in psychedelic therapy.
Music has been associated with mystical-type experiences outside the context of psychedelic usage, and it has been referred to as the “hidden therapist” in psychedelic psychotherapy sessions. It can enhance feelings of wonder and transcendence.
One study found that music with regular, predictable, formulaic phrase structure, and orchestration, a feeling of continuous movement and forward motion, and lower perceptual brightness when compared to pre peak music, were conducive to mystical experiences.
One small study noted that overtone-based music was associated with greater mystical experiences than compositions dominated by Western classical music, but the results were not significant.
Meditation and spiritual practices
Disciplined contemplative practices such as meditation have been associated with the occurrence of mystical experiences, and these experiences are more likely to occur following intensive or sustained long-term practice.
Even shorter-term meditation practice prior to a psilocybin experience can yield beneficial effects. In one double-blind study, participants who engaged in spiritual practices for 1 – 2 months prior to psilocybin experiences rated their psilocybin experiences as among the top five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives.
Meditation practice and psilocybin use appear to have a reciprocal and reinforcing relationship, with meditation practice associated with greater levels of oceanic boundlessness in a psilocybin session, and ego-dissolution experiences under a psychedelic being perceived positively in reference to meditation practice. Meditation and yoga practice are associated with increased levels of trait absorption, which is related to self-transcendence. It is plausible that the association is bidirectional, with a training effect of meditation experience fostering an increase in trait absorption.
Immersion in natural settings can elicit spiritual feelings and mystical experiences, and LSD inventor Albert Hofmann described mystical experiences in nature in his younger days, which he would credit with his decision to pursue a career in chemistry.
Nature-based settings may promote meditative, reflective mind states, increase mindfulness, and promote states of absorption, which may help promote the occurrence of mystical experiences. Awe and interconnectedness are also associated with mystical experiences, and may be enhanced in nature-based settings.
Using psychedelics with the intent to connect with nature has been associated with increased likelihood of mystical experiences and greater well-being scores, suggesting that incorporation of more nature-based practices, content and settings into psychedelic therapy models may be beneficial.
Future research avenues
Future research should seek to recruit more heterogeneous study samples and more thoroughly investigate the various factors predictive of mystical experiences and how these may vary between individuals. Micro-phenomenological interviews may be useful in providing a fine-grained assessment of the various facets that make up mystical experiences.
Future research could investigate the synergy between meditation, spiritual practices and psychedelic mystical experiences, and how they might influence outcomes. Also, nature-based settings could be assessed to evaluate the degree to which they might synergise with the latter to elicit mystical experiences.
Psychedelic mystical experiences can enhance psychological flexibility, and mindfulness training and practices designed to boost gratitude or positive emotions may help enhance long-term outcomes. The practice of engaged living, centered on social integration through being of service to others, may be beneficial to promote to an older audience, helping mirror and augment the qualities associated with a psychedelic mystical experience.
Psychedelic drugs have the capacity to reliably induce mystical experiences under the right conditions. Music, meditation and spiritual practices and nature-based settings may contribute to their occurrence or augment their long-term benefits.
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Authors associated with this publication with profiles on BlossomDavid Luke
David Luke is Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Greenwich, where he has been teaching an undergraduate course on the Psychology of Exceptional Human Experience since 2009, and also Honorary Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Psychedelic Research, Imperial College. His research focuses on transpersonal experiences, anomalous phenomena, and altered states of consciousness, especially via psychedelics, having published more than 100 academic papers in this area, including ten books.
Sam Gandy has been working on psychedelics at Imperial College London and the Beckley Foundation, here he studies how psychedelics reconnect us to nature.
Institutes associated with this publicationSynthesis
The Synthesis Institute is a pioneering organization that offers both training and legal psychedelic sessions in The Netherlands. The services offered range from a weekend to 5-day retreats. The price does match the professional and scientific vibe.
Drug Science provides independent information about different drugs and commentary on drug policy. The organisation was founded by David Nutt and aims to provide rational information to improve how the UK (and the wider world) thinks about drugs, including psychedelics.
Imperial College London
The Centre for Psychedelic Research studies the action (in the brain) and clinical use of psychedelics, with a focus on depression.