Monday July 24, 2006
Last week I read about some interesting recent research from John Hopkins university. Led by Dr. Roland Griffiths, PhD, from the Neuroscience and Psychiatry and Behavioral Biology department, a team of researchers have explored the connection between mystical experiences – chemically induced, in this case – and behavioural change.
Their paper, published in Psychopharmacology is called “Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance” – and is the first responsibly designed and clinically controlled study of psychedelic agent psilocybin in around four decades. The study concluded that 60% of subjects gave descriptions of their experience that met the criteria for “full mystical experience”, whilst a similar number claimed the experience was amongst the five “most meaningful or spiritually significant” of their lives.
This study would not be particularly interesting if it had only focussed on the experience itself. Much more interestingly it also looked at the connection between this experience and behaviour. Religious or mystical experiences are all very well, of course, but experience is fleeting. Experiences come and they go. The question is what longer term effects such experiences had.
In the study 79% of subjects reported an increase in well-being, and this was generally corroborated by interviews with friends, family members and co-workers of the participants who said that the participants exhibited positive changes in behaviour and attitudes after the experience. This connection is perhaps the most important one, because it really doesn’t matter too much what kind of mystical experiences I have if I still go around frowning and snarling at people and being generally miserable and unfriendly. Even worse, if I have a mystical experience and then go around convinced I’m the Messiah and that all who disavow me should be cast into the flames, then it would almost certainly have been a better thing for me and for the world if I had not had this experience. History is littered with religious fanatics who have built their terrifying conviction upon private religious experiences that have emphatically not been to the benefit of humankind.
In the context of this study, it is interesting to note that all of the participants in the study had some kind of spiritual practice already (I have not read the research directly, so I do not know how this broke down), and this probably included a strong interpretative ethical framework. I suspect that such a prior framework is a necessary condition for the positive changes reported to take place. In addition to this, the research was carried out in highly controlled conditions with prior screening, significant preparation and subsequent monitoring. Dr. Griffiths reported that a third of participants reported significant fear during the experience, and added, “Under unmonitored conditions, it’s not hard to imagine those emotions escalating to panic and dangerous behaviour”.
So whilst this research into the field that is becoming known as neurotheology (somewhat inappropriate, it should be said, when applied to Buddhist experience, but we can let it pass) is certainly thought-provoking, it seems a bit premature to be going out into the fields and tracking down magic mushrooms as a shortcut to our own personal nirvana. Huston Smith, commenting on the study, wisely concluded that,
In the end, it’s altered traits, not altered states, that matter. ‘By their fruits shall ye know them.’ It’s good to learn that volunteers having even this limited experience had lasting benefits. But human history suggests that without a social vessel to hold the wine of revelation, it tends to dribble away. In most cases, even the most extraordinary experiences provide lasting benefits to those who undergo them and people around them only if they become the basis of ongoing work. That’s the next research question, it seems to me: What conditions of community and practice best help people to hold on to what comes to them in those moments of revelation, converting it into abiding light in their own lives?
Read the article here
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