Discussions on the nature of reality abound in psychedelic circles. Perhaps this is simply because philosophical people are also attracted to psychedelics. It is possible, however, that taking a psychedelic might actually change one’s beliefs about the nature of reality. A recent study from Imperial College London, published at the end of 2021, investigated this question and found that psychedelic experiences really do produce lasting changes in such beliefs. After a psychedelic experience, participants were found to show reductions in “physicalist” or “materialist” beliefs, and increases in “panpsychic” and “fatalistic” beliefs. In other words, people who have had psychedelic experiences were more prone to believing in a mysterious form of fate and that consciousness is fundamental to the universe—they move away from the scientific narrative of a cold impersonal universe to one filled with purpose and meaning. In the latter picture, our minds are not evolutionary accidents but are instead the force at the center of reality.
These findings raise a crucial question: Do psychedelics help us see reality more clearly, or do they lead us into a world of fantasy?
Philosophers refer to questions around the nature of reality, consciousness, and free will as metaphysics. In the Sixties, American youth suddenly took an interest in such topics and turned their attention to Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, with many attributing this newfound interest to the use of LSD. Even today, discussions around consciousness and the true nature of reality pervade psychedelic circles. To date, however, the link between psychedelic use and metaphysical thinking has been entirely anecdotal.
In order to test whether psychedelics really do change our beliefs about the nature of reality, researchers at Imperial College’s Centre for Psychedelic Research in London gave people questionnaires to complete before and after their psychedelic experiences. For some, this would be their first trip, while others had experienced psychedelics before. The researchers studied participants attending ayahuasca retreats and those taking part in a clinical trial of psilocybin for depression, and tracked changes in their beliefs for six months following the experience. The data from these questionnaires not only allowed the scientists to see if participants’ beliefs genuinely did change, but also to see precisely how they changed. The researchers asked subjects to indicate how strongly they aligned with several different metaphysical positions, including physicalism, materialism, panpsychism, and dualism.
Physicalism, or materialism, can be thought of as the belief that matter is fundamental, with mind emerging from physical stuff. Panpsychism, on the other hand, holds mind and matter to be equally fundamental, with everything in existence being conscious as a result. While physicalists think that matter is primary, panpsychists think that consciousness is a fundamental feature of the universe. Finally, dualism is the belief that mind and matter exist as fundamentally different substances, a position that is sometimes associated with a belief in an immaterial soul that can survive death.
Lead researcher on the study Dr. Chris Timmermann found that psychedelic experiences really did shift which of these beliefs participants aligned with. “We saw that psychedelics tended to shift people away from the physicalist/materialist view, towards endorsing a more dualistic perspective. We also saw that people tended to endorse more views concerning panpsychism—the idea that everything in the universe is conscious,” he tells DoubleBlind. “Finally, they become warmer around the idea of fate.”
The form of fate Dr. Timmermann investigated, however, was not the fate of cold scientific determinism. “We specifically measured the idea of a spiritual fate, as opposed to a scientific fate, the idea that our future is determined by mysterious forces that are unknown to us.” One might think of this “fate” in terms of destiny and purpose, rather than the kind of “fate” we get from the uncaring laws of science determining what will happen to us.
The researchers were also interested in whether these belief shifts were related to changes in mental health. Psychedelics have been found to have highly therapeutic effects, yet we do not know if changes in metaphysical beliefs are integral to this, or whether they are merely a tangential side effect. One idea, expressed in Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind, is that psychedelics allow us to take refuge in “comforting delusions,” such as life after death, and thereby ease our psychological existential angst. Another position is that psychedelics can provide us with a deeper understanding around our place in the universe, providing us with greater existential peace. Both of these perspectives hold that changes in metaphysical beliefs are integral to the therapeutic process, but what does the data say?
The researchers found that in patients who received psilocybin for depression, those who had greater reductions in depression tended to also show greater shifts in their beliefs, away from hard-physicalism/materialism. This improvement in mental health also correlated with participants believing in the existence of a “unifying spiritual principle.” The study’s findings indicate that these changes in our metaphysical beliefs may actually be a mechanism by which psychedelics ease our suffering.
These findings provide the first hard scientific evidence that psychedelics can change our most profound beliefs on a psychological level, but how does this relate to what is happening on a neurobiological level? Dr. Timmermann offers an explanation: “I think this effect can be explained in an elegant way by a principle proposed by Prof. Robin Carhart-Harris, ‘REBUS,’ or ‘Relaxed Beliefs Under pSychedelics.’ The idea is that the way the brain usually constructs our world and our sense of identity is one of building stories, predictions, and models of the world. These stories can be adaptive, they can help us deal with the environment, but when we encounter mental health issues, the problem is that they become very rigid. Psychedelics appear to affect the processes in the brain that create these stories, making them more malleable. This provides a freedom to jump between different stories and to explore new ways of being in the world.” This principle has previously been used to explain how our sense of identity can change under the influence of psychedelics, but the study’s findings indicate that these effects may even extend to our deepest beliefs about the nature of reality.
How much control do we have over the extent to which our beliefs may change, on account of a psychedelic? The fact that similar effects were reported in group ayahuasca retreats and in clinical trials of psilocybin with individual patients suggests a level of the effects’ context-independence. Set and setting may not necessarily play a key role on this particular issue, but individual psychological differences might be influential. While all participants were between their early 30s and late 50s, the researchers found that the younger an individual was and the more impressionable they were, the larger the change in their metaphysical beliefs. The level of emotional synchrony with others that individuals experienced on the ayahuasca retreat was also linked to larger belief changes. The scientists used questionnaires to investigate how much individuals felt emotionally connected to the group during the experience and found that those with a more profound sense of being part of the collective had larger changes in their beliefs. They also found that the extent of belief change correlated with how many times individuals had taken a psychedelic, with greater use of psychedelics being associated with a greater shift away from physicalism.
Could the finding that psychedelics alter our most deeply held metaphysical beliefs account for the impact they had on culture in the Sixties? According to Dr. Timmermann, the answer is a “yes,” along with his hypothesis that this also led to them being outlawed. Indeed, President Nixon, father of the Drug War, dubbed acid evangelist Timothy Leary the “most dangerous man in America.” “Some people say that periods of psychedelic use are like islands in history, and, after they become popular, there’s something about the larger culture that resists the introduction of chaos in society that psychedelics might induce, and then they get shut down. Maybe the last wave of this is what happened in the Sixties with psychedelics,” says Timmerman. “It’s interesting what’s happening in these times where psychedelics have become an object of commercial and medical interest, and that they’re becoming sanctioned. Maybe now we’ve reached a point where the information revolution has allowed us to become aware of the nuances of psychedelic use and how we can contain that chaos so that it’s helpful and meaningful.” He suggests that where we’re at in history today is an “invitation for us to engage with this with a larger degree of awareness of the benefits, the pitfalls and the opportunities of the psychedelic experience.”
So, do psychedelics help us see reality more clearly, or do they provide us with potentially comforting delusions? It’s not as easy as some might hope to dismiss psychedelic-induced beliefs as delusions using science. Science is a method we use to examine what the universe does, but it can’t tell us what the ultimate nature of reality is, nor give us a worldview. That’s a job for philosophy. On the other hand, many psychedelic “insights” are incompatible with each other. Anecdotally, some people report discovering that there is an ultimate purpose to existence, while others feel that they’ve seen the purposelessness of existence, coming to see reality as a joyous dance with no true “meaning” beyond itself. So while it remains very possible that psychedelics produce genuine insight, it also seems likely that they can also produce delusions. Disentangling which beliefs fall into which categories will likely be the job of science, philosophy, and the psychedelic community for many years to come.