The last post asked the question: Can we derive values from psychedelic experience?
That is to say what, if anything, does psychedelic experience tell us about how to live our lives? Some related questions came up: Is there a common set of values that unites the psychedelic community? To what extent are values actually imbued by the psychedelic experience, and to what extent do they already exist in individuals?
This post takes a closer look at some of the psychedelic literature in light of these questions and suggests some answers.
Psychedelics Increase Big Five Trait Openness
Openness is one of five personality traits in the Big Five or Five Factor Model, a standard and well validated psychometric measurement in personality psychology. The Big Five traits have a strong heritable component (~50%) as well as robust predictive power across personal, interpersonal, and social life domains.
Here is a quick definition of trait openness from Wikipedia:
Openness to experience: (inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious). Appreciation for art, emotion, adventure, unusual ideas, curiosity, and variety of experience. Openness reflects the degree of intellectual curiosity, creativity and a preference for novelty and variety a person has. It is also described as the extent to which a person is imaginative or independent and depicts a personal preference for a variety of activities over a strict routine. High openness can be perceived as unpredictability or lack of focus. Moreover, individuals with high openness are said to pursue self-actualization specifically by seeking out intense, euphoric experiences.
Psilocybin and Openness
A 2011 study by Maclean et al. published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology examined the effects of psilocybin on personality trait openness.1 This research is based on two prior studies, from 2006 and 2011, where participants went through two psilocybin sessions in a controlled setting. They were given personality tests before their sessions, immediately after, 1-2 months after, then 14 months after. Openness was measured according to 6 facets:
The facets of Openness are Fantasy (e.g., “I have a very active imagination”), Aesthetics (e.g., “I am intrigued by patterns I find in art and nature”), Feelings (e.g., “I experience a wide range of emotions and feelings”), Ideas (e.g., “I often enjoy playing with theories or abstract ideas”), Values (e.g., “I consider myself broad-minded and tolerant of other people’s lifestyles”), and Actions (e.g., “I think it’s interesting to learn and develop new hobbies”).
Researchers found “significant increases in Openness after a high-dose psilocybin session that were larger in magnitude than changes in personality typically observed in healthy adults over decades of life experience.” This data is particularly remarkable because Big Five traits are normally stable across a lifespan. There may be very gradual changes over decades and there is some evidence correlating major life events (divorce, firing, promotion) with personality trait change, but the researchers state, “To our knowledge, no study has prospectively demonstrated personality change in healthy adults after an experimentally manipulated discrete event.”
Mystical experience has a special role to play here, as we will see in much of this research. Participants were also assessed along three separate measures of altered states of consciousness to measure intensity of mystical experience.
Moreover, in participants who met criteria for having had a complete mystical experience during their psilocybin session, Openness remained significantly higher than baseline more than one year after the session. This is the first study to demonstrate changes in personality in healthy adults after an experimentally manipulated discrete event.
MDMA-Assisted Psychotherapy and Openness
A 2017 study by Wagner et al. published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology examined the effects of MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for PTSD on traits openness and neuroticism.2 Neuroticism is another of the Big Five traits and measures susceptibility to negative emotions like anxiety, insecurity, anger, and depression.
Participants here went through two introductory psychotherapy sessions with psychiatrists, two sessions using MDMA, and then up to four integration sessions for each MDMA session. The researchers found persisting personality change: “Overall, subjects showed a significant reduction in Neuroticism and an increase in Openness personality traits related to MDMA-assisted psychotherapy that was sustained up to 45.4 months post-treatment.”
MDMA does not induce mystical experience the same way classical psychedelics like psilocybin or LSD do, but emphasis was still placed on “epiphany-type experience” as reported by subjects.
More interesting is the effect of change in Openness and the overall trend for all subjects to have higher scores on openness post-treatment. Individuals scoring higher on Openness tend to seek out new experiences and be open to self-examination, factors that can serve to enhance therapeutic change in both behaviors and cognitions. Qualitatively, and consistently with previous work, therapeutic change seemed to be associated with an epiphany-type experience that subjects consistently reported following the MDMA-assisted psychotherapy sessions and reiterated in the long-term follow-up.
Finally, this study “indicates that Openness plays an important role in PTSD symptom reduction (as measured by the CAPS), such that those who had the greatest increase in Openness concomitantly demonstrated greater decreases in PTSD symptoms, with this effect being greater in the MDMA-assisted psychotherapy group. These findings are consistent with the notion that increased openness may be a mechanism of therapeutic change.”
Naturalistic Psychedelic Use Predicts Trait Openness
A 2017 study by Nour et al. in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs examined the relationship between psychedelics, personality, and political perspectives.3 Results indicate that “psychedelic use was predictive of trait openness, and not trait conscientiousness. Secondly, the degree of ego dissolution experienced during a participant’s most intense psychedelic experience was predictive of trait openness.”
Ego dissolution is a key facet of mystical experience and this is further supporting evidence for the importance of mystical experience for lasting personality change.
Psychedelics and Connectedness
A 2017 paper by Carhart-Harris et al. published in Psychopharmacology describes research with psilocybin for treating treatment-resistant depression, and proposes a general sense of connected as the mechanism for the broad therapeutic benefits of psychedelics.4
A sense of disconnection is a feature of many major psychiatric disorders, particularly depression, and a sense of connection or connectedness is considered a key mediator of psychological well-being, as well as a factor underlying recovery of mental health. One of the most curious aspects of the growing literature on the therapeutic potential of psychedelics is the seeming general nature of their therapeutic applicability, i.e. they have shown promise not just for the treatment of depression but for addictions, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. This raises the question of whether psychedelic therapy targets a core factor underlying mental health. We believe that it does, and that connectedness is the key.
This sense of connectedness, according to the participants in the study, “…encompassed not just connection to others (i.e. social connectedness) and the world in general (e.g. connectedness to nature) but also connection to the self. Post-treatment, participants referred to feeling reconnected to past values, pleasures and hobbies as well as feeling more integrated, embodied and at peace with themselves and their often troubled backgrounds.”
There is again a strong relationship between mystical experience, ego dissolution, and connectedness:
“Items pertaining to a sense of ‘oneness’ form a major part of leading measures of mystical experience, including the recently validated ‘mystical experience questionnaire (MEQ)’. The unitive experience is closely related to the construct of connectedness. We recently found that scores of psychedelic-induced unitive experience correlate highly with scores of ‘ego-dissolution’. Conceptually, one can consider the ego as a counter-force to connectedness.”
Liberal and Anti-Authoritarian Political Views
The same Nour et al. study demonstrating psychedelics predicted trait openness also showed that naturalistic psychedelic use predicts liberal and anti-authoritarian (libertarian) political views.5 These dimensions are defined: “The liberal-conservative political dimension is concerned with the value placed on social and economic equality, whereas the libertarian-authoritarian dimension emphasizes personal freedoms and limited government.”
In this study, psychedelic use (but not cocaine or alcohol use) was associated with liberal and anti-authoritarian political views, openness to new experiences, and nature relatedness, using a large, anonymous Internet survey. Furthermore, the degree of ego dissolution experienced during the most intense recalled psychedelic experience was positively associated with these same four variables, providing evidence for the predictive validity of the Ego-Dissolution Inventory and the potential impact of ego-dissolution experiences on attitudes and beliefs.
Psychedelics, Nature Relatedness, and Wellbeing
As noted above, this same study found that psychedelic use predicts nature relatedness – a person’s sense of closeness and connection with nature and the value they place on the environment. Again, mystical experience and ego dissolution appear to play an important causal role: “In our sample, psychedelic use and ego dissolution were more strongly predictive of nature relatedness than any other dependent variable.”6
Another 2017 study by Forstmann & Sagioglou published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology demonstrated that “experience with classic psychedelics uniquely predicted self-reported engagement in pro-environmental behaviors, and that this relationship was statistically explained by people’s degree of self-identification with nature.”7 The researchers explain:
Results of our study tentatively suggest that experience with classic psychedelic substances may have lasting effects on the way people perceive nature and how strongly they engage in ecological behavior. Specifically, results show that lifetime experience with psychedelic substances (as opposed to other recreationally consumed substance classes) uniquely predicts self-reported nature relatedness, specifically the degree to which people incorporate nature into their self-construal, which in turn predicts self-reported engagement in pro-environmental behavior.
The more people had experience with classic psychedelics, the more they enjoyed spending time in nature, and the more they construed their self as being a part of nature. …the perception of being part of the natural world—rather than being separate from it— that is heightened for people who have experience with classic psychedelics, is largely responsible for the increased pro-environmental behavior that these people report.
This study concludes:
Although correlational in nature, results suggest that lifetime experience with psychedelics in particular may indeed contribute to people’s pro-environmental behavior by changing their self-construal in terms of an incorporation of the natural world, regardless of core personality traits or general propensity to consume mind-altering substances. Thereby, the present research adds to the contemporary literature on the beneficial effects of psychedelic substance use on mental wellbeing, hinting at a novel area for future research investigating their potentially positive effects on a societal level.
Further research demonstrates that nature relatedness is associated with reduced anxiety and increased wellbeing. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Health Psychology surveyed over 500 people and found that connection to nature is associated with happiness and subjective wellbeing.8
A meta-analysis published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2014 sampled 30 studies with data from over 8,000 people and concluded: “Those who are more connected to nature tended to experience more positive affect, vitality, and life satisfaction compared to those less connected to nature…. this meta-analysis shows that being connected to nature and feeling happy are, in fact, connected.”9
So what do we make of all this?
This research shows that psychedelics, in particular psychedelic-induced mystical experience, increases personality trait openness in a way never seen before in experimental studies. It makes sense that, as we also see, that psychedelic use predicts higher than average trait openness in individuals.
Psychedelic experience – again with the value weighted heavily on mystical experience – provides a sense of connectedness with the world, other people, and oneself, which has a broad range of psychological and therapeutic benefits.
Furthermore, psychedelic use predicts liberal and anti-authoritarian (libertarian) political views. Psychedelic use is also associated with connection to nature and in particular the sense that one is part of nature, which in turn is associated with increased happiness and subjective wellbeing.
Some of these effects are undeniably positive, namely the general sense of connectedness as described by Carhart-Harris et al. as well as nature relatedness in so far as it increases subjective wellbeing.
Trait openness is not inherently good or bad, although it does show some association with happiness, positive affect, and quality of life.10 I think there is also a strong case for the value of openness at a societal level, in so far as it manifests in artists, innovators and entrepreneurs who tend to improve the world in important ways.
Liberal and libertarian political views are obviously a little more contentious, depending on where you fall on the political spectrum. To the degree that it has been politicized, so is pro-environmental sentiment and behaviour.
“Mystical experience” comes up again and again in this research and increasingly appears to be the essential ingredient for both the subjective meaning attributed to a psychedelic experience, as well as its practical outcomes. This is certainly the case when it comes to personality trait, value and behavioural change. In fact, most of the lasting effects of psychedelic experience discussed here do not occur without mystical experience, and all are enhanced and strengthened by it.
So what is mystical experience, and why is it seemingly so transformative? What happens at the level of subjective awareness and that of the biological brain when one undergoes mystical experience? We’ll take a deeper look in the next post.
- MacLean KA, Johnson MW, Griffiths RR. Mystical Experiences Occasioned by the Hallucinogen Psilocybin Lead to Increases in the Personality Domain of Openness. Journal of psychopharmacology (Oxford, England). 2011;25(11):1453-1461. doi:10.1177/0269881111420188. ↵
- Wagner MT, Mithoefer MC, Mithoefer AT, et al. Therapeutic effect of increased openness: Investigating mechanism of action in MDMA-assisted psychotherapy. Journal of Psychopharmacology (Oxford, England). 2017;31(8):967-974. doi:10.1177/0269881117711712. ↵
- Matthew M. Nour B.M., B.Ch., M.A., Lisa Evans M.Sc. & Robin L. Carhart- Harris B.Sc., M.A., Ph.D. (2017): Psychedelics, Personality and Political Perspectives, Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, DOI: 10.1080/02791072.2017.1312643. ↵
- Carhart-Harris RL, Erritzoe D, Haijen E, Kaelen M, Watts R (2017) Psychedelics and connectedness. Psychopharmacology:1–4, DOI: 10.1007/s00213-017-4701-y. ↵
- Nour et al. (2017) ↵
- Ibid. ↵
- Matthias Forstmann, Christina Sagioglou (2017):Lifetime experience with (classic) psychedelics predicts pro-environmental behavior through an increase in nature relatedness, Journal of Psychopharmacology, Vol 31, Issue 8, pp. 975-988. https://doi.org/10.1177/0269881117714049. ↵
- Renate Cervinka, Kathrin Röderer, Elisabeth Hefler (2011): Are nature lovers happy? On various indicators of well-being and connectedness with nature, Journal of Health Psychology, Vol 17, Issue 3, pp. 379-388. https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105311416873. ↵
- Capaldi CA, Dopko RL, Zelenski JM. The relationship between nature connectedness and happiness: a meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology. 2014;5:976. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00976. ↵
- Steel, P., Schmidt, J., & Shultz, J. (2008). Refining the relationship between personality and subjective well-being. Psychological Bulletin, 134(1), 138-161. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.134.1.138. ↵