Despite their classification as Schedule I substances, scientists and psychologists (and famously the C.I.A.) have conducted studies on psychedelics for decades. The therapeutic use of psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin, or magic mushrooms, has been a focal point of this research to understand whether psychedelic-based psychotherapies can treat depression, anxiety, PTSD, substance abuse, and other mental health issues. But researchers are also interested in understanding how psychedelics generally impact human psychology– even in healthy individuals.
Yet, despite the encouraging and compelling findings that psychedelic studies yield, the mainstream attitude toward psychedelics hasn’t changed. Medical and therapeutic treatments involving LSD or magic mushrooms are not the subject of debates at the legislative level, unlike cannabis. Psychedelics and their use remain at the margins, and the communities of “psychonauts” committed to psychedelic mysticism strike most as fringe. But a new, pioneering study titled “Predicting Responses to Psychedelics: A Prospective Study,” could change everything. Published Friday in the scientific journal Frontiers of Pharmacology, a team of U.K. and U.S. researchers say their study shows direct links between the use of psychedelics and increased psychological well-being.
Most people who have experimented with psychedelics, or those use them on a regular basis, probably have an appreciation for the difficulty of predicting how they’re going to react to a given dose. That same uncertainty exists in the scientific literature, too. Scientists don’t have a good sense of how to predict and gauge responses to psychedelics. But being able to do so is essential for determining the therapeutic potential of psychedelics.
To address that gap, researchers designed a study to improve how well we are able to predict acute (read: immediate) and longer-term responses to psychedelics. And they invited more than 650 individuals who through their own initiative planned to take a psychedelic, to participate in an online survey about their experiences. Participants took a survey at five different time points. The first, before they took psychedelics; the second, the day of taking one, forming a “baseline;” the third, directly after the experience, then two more times at two weeks and four weeks after taking the psychedelic. This makes it a “prospective study,” because it gathers data as the study progresses, rather than afterward. The prospective design gives researchers a better grasp of cause-and-effect relationships, something that has eluded psychedelic researchers for years.
Analyzing the survey data, the researchers were able to draw some very significant conclusions. Not only were they able to determine the factors that led to a better experience versus a bad trip, they were also able to gauge how a subject’s experience affected their personal sense of well-being. And their conclusions are even more compelling. According to the researchers, psychedelic use, with few exceptions, increases a person’s sense of well-being.
So how did researches come to the remarkable conclusion that psychedelic-use increases well-being? First, they broke down the anatomy of a psychedelic experience to see if there were any factors that allowed them to predict positive or negative experiences. They factored in the participants’ “set,” or their mental attitude toward taking psychedelics. In other words, their mindset going into the experience. Additionally, they considered the subject’s intentions for taking a psychedelic. Intentions ranged from wanting a mystical experience to recreation to confronting difficult feelings and memories. Finally, researchers considered the environment of the experience. Were psychedelic users in a space that made them feel comfortable and safe? How did that influence their experience?
In addition to those contextual factors, researchers also broke down the psychedelic experience into three components. On one hand, there’s the intense, epiphanic “mystical-type” peak experience. On the other, there’s the “challenging” experience—the proverbial “bad trip.” For both, the researchers gathered data about the presence of visual effects and hallucinations. They also recorded what researchers call “extra-pharmacological factors,” things like mood, personality, attitude, outlook, etc.
Using this complex experimental setup, researchers forwarded two related hypotheses. One, that subjective well-being would increase substantially two weeks after the psychedelic experience. And two, that the nature of the psychedelic experience—good trip or bad trip—would predict the extent of the change in subjective well-being. But what they found exceeded their expectations.
Let’s break down what the study concluded. First, the researches say their data supports the general principle that psychedelics enhance psychological well-being, even in already healthy individuals. For researchers, this makes psychedelics an anomaly among drugs with potential for misuse. Unlike other drugs, psychedelics appear to have more positive associations with mental health than negative.
But the findings get even more interesting. For example, those who used psychedelics more often in the past had higher levels of well-being at baseline. However, those same individuals experienced smaller improvements in well-being after the psychedelic experience tracked in the study. Conversely, those with less prior psychedelics experiences showed more improvement in well-being compared to their baseline.
Additionally, the study produced fascinating results regarding the nature of a person’s trip and how it influences well-being. For example, researchers found that psychologically complex trips are more influential in predicting long-term outcomes. Superficial responses, like visuals or other sensory effects, had a less significant effect on long-term outcomes. In other words, the power of psychedelics does not lie in the psychedelia of tripping.
When it came to good trips versus bad trips, researchers found that mystical-type “peak” experiences were more conducive to positive well-being than challenging experiences. But having a “bad trip” did not necessarily exclude the possibility of increased well-being. In fact, for some, well-being increased despite negative, challenging trips. But in the 2-4 week period following the trip, it took longer for that sense of well-being to emerge. However, most participants who had a bad trip reported a negative influence on their well-being in general.
In a nutshell, researchers say using psychedelics increases well-being. Further, having a positive psychedelic experience that produces a mystical, peaking experience is the most conducive to increased well-being. As such, the study calls for further research into identifying the factors that are conducive to producing a good trip and protecting against those that lead to challenging, bad trips.
And for all you psychonauts out there, here is perhaps the most important takeaway from this pioneering study: “Feeling ready for the psychedelic experience and having clear intentions, especially those relating to connecting with nature, spirituality, or recreation, were conducive to a mystical-type experience and/or protective against a challenging experience.”
In other words, having a positive attitude when you dose with psychedelics doesn’t just make a huge difference on your trip, it also impacts your long-term sense of well-being afterward.
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