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Survey of subjective "God encounter experiences": Comparisons among naturally occurring experiences and those occasioned by the classic psychedelics psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, or DMT

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Survey of subjective "God encounter experiences": Comparisons among naturally occurring experiences and those occasioned by the classic psychedelics psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, or DMT

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Naturally occurring and psychedelic drug–occasioned experiences interpreted as personal encounters with God are well described but have not been systematically compared. In this study, five groups of individuals participated in an online survey with detailed questions characterizing the subjective phenomena, interpretation, and persisting changes attributed to their single most memorable God encounter experience (n = 809 Non-Drug, 1184 psilocybin, 1251 lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), 435 ayahuasca, and 606 N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT)). Analyses of differences in experiences were adjusted statistically for demographic differences between groups. The Non-Drug Group was most likely to choose "God" as the best descriptor of that which was encountered while the psychedelic groups were most likely to choose "Ultimate Reality." Although there were some other differences between non-drug and the combined psychedelic group, as well as between the four psychedelic groups, the similarities among these groups were most striking. Most participants reported vivid memories of the encounter experience, which frequently involved communication with something having the attributes of being conscious, benevolent, intelligent, sacred, eternal, and all-knowing. The encounter experience fulfilled a priori criteria for being a complete mystical experience in approximately half of the participants. More than two-thirds of those who identified as atheist before the experience no longer identified as atheist afterwards. These experiences were rated as among the most personally meaningful and spiritually significant lifetime experiences, with moderate to strong persisting positive changes in life satisfaction, purpose, and meaning attributed to these experiences. Among the four groups of psychedelic users, the psilocybin and LSD groups were most similar and the ayahuasca group tended to have the highest rates of endorsing positive features and enduring consequences of the experience. Future exploration of predisposing factors and phenomenological and neural correlates of such experiences may provide new insights into religious and spiritual beliefs that have been integral to shaping human culture since time immemorial.
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RESEARCH ARTICLE
Survey of subjective "God encounter
experiences": Comparisons among naturally
occurring experiences and those occasioned
by the classic psychedelics psilocybin, LSD,
ayahuasca, or DMT
Roland R. GriffithsID
1,2
*, Ethan S. Hurwitz
1,3
, Alan K. DavisID
1
, Matthew W. Johnson
1
,
Robert Jesse
4
1Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine,Nathan
Shock Drive, Baltimore, Maryland, United States of America, 2Department of Neuroscience, Johns Hopkins
University School of Medicine, Nathan Shock Drive, Baltimore, Maryland, United States of America,
3Department of Psychology, University of California San Diego, Gilman Drive, San Diego, California, United
States of America, 4Council on Spiritual Practices, Occidental, California, United States of America
*rgriff@jhmi.edu
Abstract
Naturally occurring and psychedelic drug–occasioned experiences interpreted as personal
encounters with God are well described but have not been systematically compared. In this
study, five groups of individuals participated in an online survey with detailed questions char-
acterizing the subjective phenomena, interpretation, and persisting changes attributed to
their single most memorable God encounter experience (n = 809 Non-Drug, 1184 psilocy-
bin, 1251 lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), 435 ayahuasca, and 606 N,N-dimethyltrypta-
mine (DMT)). Analyses of differences in experiences were adjusted statistically for
demographic differences between groups. The Non-Drug Group was most likely to choose
"God" as the best descriptor of that which was encountered while the psychedelic groups
were most likely to choose "Ultimate Reality." Although there were some other differences
between non-drug and the combined psychedelic group, as well as between the four psy-
chedelic groups, the similarities among these groups were most striking. Most participants
reported vivid memories of the encounter experience, which frequently involved communi-
cation with something having the attributes of being conscious, benevolent, intelligent,
sacred, eternal, and all-knowing. The encounter experience fulfilled a priori criteria for being
a complete mystical experience in approximately half of the participants. More than two-
thirds of those who identified as atheist before the experience no longer identified as atheist
afterwards. These experiences were rated as among the most personally meaningful and
spiritually significant lifetime experiences, with moderate to strong persisting positive
changes in life satisfaction, purpose, and meaning attributed to these experiences. Among
the four groups of psychedelic users, the psilocybin and LSD groups were most similar and
the ayahuasca group tended to have the highest rates of endorsing positive features and
enduring consequences of the experience. Future exploration of predisposing factors and
PLOS ONE | https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0214377 April 23, 2019 1 / 26
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OPEN ACCESS
Citation: Griffiths RR, Hurwitz ES, Davis AK,
Johnson MW, Jesse R (2019) Survey of subjective
"God encounter experiences": Comparisons among
naturally occurring experiences and those
occasioned by the classic psychedelics psilocybin,
LSD, ayahuasca, or DMT. PLoS ONE 14(4):
e0214377. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.
pone.0214377
Editor: Rosemary Frey, University of Auckland,
NEW ZEALAND
Received: August 13, 2018
Accepted: March 8, 2019
Published: April 23, 2019
Copyright: ©2019 Griffiths et al. This is an open
access article distributed under the terms of the
Creative Commons Attribution License, which
permits unrestricted use, distribution, and
reproduction in any medium, provided the original
author and source are credited.
Data Availability Statement: All relevant data are
available on the Open Science Framework public
repository at https://osf.io/ykz5w/ Identifier: DOI
10.17605/OSF.IO/YKZ5W.
Funding: Conduct of this research was primarily
supported by grants from the Council on Spiritual
Practices (CSP, https://csp.org) and the Heffter
Research Institute (HRI, https://heffter.org). Effort
for Roland Griffiths, Ph.D. in writing this
phenomenological and neural correlates of such experiences may provide new insights into
religious and spiritual beliefs that have been integral to shaping human culture since time
immemorial.
Introduction
Salient experiences interpreted as personal encounters with God, gods, or emissaries of God,
have been documented for millennia, have been integral to the development of religious and
spiritual beliefs, and have had a major influence in shaping human culture [15]. Such experi-
ences, which often occur unexpectedly and in absence of drugs or physical illness, may involve
visions, voices, or what is felt to be a mental or extrasensory apprehension of that which is
encountered. Descriptions of such experiences sometimes overlap with mystical-type experi-
ences, which have also been well documented and have been a focus of substantial empirical
research [3,6]. The majority of rigorous empirical studies of mystical experiences [711] have
used the Hood M Scale, which is based on the conceptual model of mystical experience
described by Stace [4] and emphasizes a sense of unity as a central defining characteristic of
mystical experience. Stace [4], but not all scholars of religion [12], explicitly exclude vision and
voice phenomena from the descriptive definition of mystical experience thus suggesting that
some God encounter experiences may be more appropriately classified as religious but not
mystical experiences.
God encounter and mystical experiences have also been described after ingestion of classic
psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), N,N-dimethyltrypta-
mine (DMT), and mescaline, all of whose actions are mediated at the serotonin 2A receptor
[1315]. Historically, the use of psychedelic-containing plants and fungi in ceremonial and
religious contexts dates back hundreds and likely thousands of years [1619]. Indeed, the
Aztecs called one or more species of psilocybin mushrooms Teonana
´catl, which is translated
as "flesh of the gods" or "God’s flesh" [17,18]. More recently, the classic psychedelics have
sometimes been called "entheogens," a term derived from ancient Greek meaning "becoming
God within" and used to refer to plants or drugs ingested in a religious context for spiritual
purposes [20]. Contemporary use of the classic psychedelics in formal religious or spiritual
contexts include the use of mescaline in the peyote cactus by Native American Indians [21,22],
and the use of DMT in ayahuasca by several religious groups most prominently represented by
the Santo Daime and União do Vegetal churches which originated in South America and have
more recently been established throughout the world [23]. In addition, spiritual exploration is
reported to be a primary motive for contemporary illicit use of classic psychedelics [24,25].
In addition to historical and contemporary reports of religious and spiritual use of psyche-
delics, a series of double-blind studies using the Hood M Scale, which was developed to mea-
sure naturally occurring mystical experiences, showed that the classic psychedelic compound
psilocybin could reliably and dose-dependently occasion salient mystical experiences in
healthy psychedelic-naïve participants, most of whom had no history of having had a sponta-
neously occurring mystical experience [2628]. An extension of this research developed and
validated the Mystical Experience Questionnaire (MEQ30) for measuring single psychedelic-
occasioned mystical experiences [29,30]. Like the M Scale, the MEQ30 is based on the concep-
tual model of mystical experience described by Stace [4], which emphasizes a sense of unity
and does not make reference to God. Although previous laboratory studies of psilocybin did
Comparison of naturally occurring and psychedelic drug–occasioned God encounter experiences
PLOS ONE | https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0214377 April 23, 2019 2 / 26
manuscript was partially provided by NIH grant
RO1DA03889. Dr. Davis was supported by NIDA
grant T32DA07209. Robert Jesse, who is convener
of CSP, contributed to writing the manuscript.
Personnel from HRI had no role in study design,
data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or
preparation of the manuscript.
Competing interests: Roland Griffiths is on the
Board of Directors of the Heffter Research Institute
and Robert Jesse is convener of the Council on
Spiritual Practices. This does not alter our
adherence to PLOS ONE policies on sharing data
and materials.
not assess God encounter experiences per se, some participants in the laboratory studies spon-
taneously described such experiences [31].
Despite the compelling empirical similarity between naturally-occurring and psychedelic-
occasioned mystical experiences, there has been debate among scholars of religion about
whether or not mystical experiences occasioned by psychedelics can be considered to be "genu-
ine" mystical or religious experiences. Although some have argued, largely on conceptual
grounds, that drug-induced experiences are not religious experiences [3234], others have
argued for and cited indirect empirical support suggesting the equivalence of naturally occur-
ring and psychedelic mystical experiences [35,36].
The present study was undertaken to advance our understanding of both naturally occur-
ring and psychedelic-occasioned religious experiences that are interpreted as an encounter
with God (e.g., the God of your understanding), Higher Power, Ultimate Reality, or an Aspect
or Emissary of God (e.g., an angel). [Nota bene: To simplify the writing of the present report,
the term "God encounter experience" will be used as a label to refer to all four descriptive vari-
ants of these experiences. We have chosen to capitalize the word "God" to be consistent with
the survey instructions and question wording.] This study was an internet survey of a large
international sample of individuals who reported having had such an experience. Detailed
questions were asked to characterize participant demographics and the subjective phenomena,
interpretation, and persisting changes attributed to their single most memorable God encoun-
ter experience. The data allowed comparison between those who did and did not ingest a psy-
chedelic drug, comparison among four different types of classic psychedelic substances
(psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, and DMT), and examination of whether such God encounter
experiences fulfill criteria for being mystical experiences.
Methods
Participant recruitment
Participants were recruited primarily via internet advertisements, email invitations, and online
social networks. Two different participant groups were recruited corresponding to two ver-
sions of the questionnaire. The purpose of both was stated as: "In this survey, we want to char-
acterize various experiences of encounters with something that someone might call: God (e.g.,
the God of your understanding), Higher Power, Ultimate Reality, or an Aspect or Emissary of
God (e.g., an angel)." However, one group (the Psychedelic Group) completed the question-
naire based on an experience of encountering something that occurred after taking a classic
hallucinogen (e.g., psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, DMT, etc.). The other group (the Non-Drug
Group) completed the questionnaire based on an experience that occurred in absence of taking
a psychoactive drug. Internet and email advertisements provided a webpage link to the appro-
priate version of the questionnaire. Participants were informed that study participation was
anonymous, they could choose to stop answering questions at any time, and if they did not
complete the questionnaire their specific responses would not be used. The Institutional
Review Board of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine approved all study
procedures.
Survey administration
The questionnaires were designed to take approximately 50 minutes to complete and partici-
pants were required to complete the survey in one sitting. The questionnaires were hosted on a
widely used online survey administration website (www.qualtrics.com) with security and pri-
vacy features that make it suitable for anonymous survey data collection and storage. No com-
pensation was provided for study completion.
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PLOS ONE | https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0214377 April 23, 2019 3 / 26
Inclusion criteria
Participants in the psychedelic version of the questionnaire were required to fulfill the follow-
ing inclusion criteria: (1) Were at least 18 years old; (2) Read, write, and speak English fluently;
(3) Had not completed the questionnaire previously; (4) Had a God encounter experiences (as
described above) after taking a dose of a classic hallucinogen that had moderate to strong psy-
choactive effects. Participants in the non-drug version of the questionnaire were required to
fulfill inclusion criteria 1, 2, and 3 as well as the additional criterion that they had had a God
encounter experience (as described above) but that they had never had such an experience
after having taken a psychoactive drug. This final exclusion criterion assured that responses
from non-drug respondents were not confounded by having had a drug-occasioned God
encounter experience.
Participants who met the inclusion criteria were directed to the remaining items in the
questionnaire. In completing the questionnaire, participants were instructed to answer the
items in reference to their single most memorable experience.
Survey description
Details of questionnaire items are provided in the Results. Briefly, participants answered basic
demographic questions, wrote a brief textual description of their encounter experience, and
answered a series of questions about the details of their experience such as the style of commu-
nication (e.g. visual, auditory), their interpretation of qualities of that which was encountered
(e.g., benevolent, intelligent, sacred), and persisting changes attributed to the experience.
Within the survey questionnaire, participants also completed the Mystical Experience Ques-
tionnaire (MEQ30) [29,30] with the instructions to answer questions according to their feel-
ings, thoughts, and experiences at the time of the encounter. Complete mystical experience
was defined a priori as having scores 60% or above on all four MEQ30 subscales [30]. Partici-
pants in the psychedelic version of the study indicated which of several classic hallucinogens
they believe they had taken: psilocybin mushrooms, psilocybin, LSD (acid), ayahuasca, DMT
(other than ayahuasca), mescaline, peyote cactus, or other.
Statistical analyses
Data analysis for psychedelic drug users was restricted to those who indicated they had taken
one of the four major categories of psychedelic drugs: psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, and DMT
(other than ayahuasca).
Demographic data: For demographic comparisons between the Non-Drug Group and the
Psychedelic Group, dichotomous variables were analyzed with Chi-square and continuous
variables were analyzed with ANOVA. For demographic comparisons among the non-drug,
psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, and DMT groups, dichotomous variables were analyzed with a
general linear model with a logit link and continuous variables were analyzed with ANOVA.
For pairwise comparisons among groups, Bonferroni corrections were used to control for
Type I error rate.
Comparison of ratings of experience between the Non-Drug Group and the Psychedelic
Group: Dichotomous data for: 1. endorsement and non-endorsement of questionnaire items,
and 2. complete and incomplete mystical experiences were coded as 1 and 0, respectively, and
were analyzed using a general linear model in SPSS 24.0.0.0, with a logit link and Type III
Sums of Squares. The following dichotomous covariates, which differed between the Non-
Drug and Psychedelic groups (see Results), were included in the model: age at time of study
participation (>32 years), age at time of experience (>23 years), sex, White race, college
Comparison of naturally occurring and psychedelic drug–occasioned God encounter experiences
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graduate, U.S. resident, income (>$50K/year), ever married. Continuous data were analyzed
using ANOVA with the same covariates and Type III Sums of Squares.
Comparison of ratings of experience among the Non-Drug, Psilocybin, LSD, Ayahuasca,
and DMT groups: Dichotomous data were coded as described above and were analyzed using
a general linear model in SPSS, with a logit link and Type III Sums of Squares, including the
eight covariates described above. Continuous data were analyzed using ANOVA with the same
covariates and Type III Sums of Squares. For both sets of analyses, pairwise comparisons
among the groups were adjusted using the Bonferroni method to control for Type I error rate.
Results for all of the analyses described above, including those which also used a Bonferroni
correction, were considered significant when p0.001. These conservative statistical criteria
were used in order to focus on robust differences between groups.
Religious orientation data: Comparisons among Non-Drug and Psychedelic groups for
three religious orientation categories (atheist, monotheist, and other) were analyzed using Chi
square tests. Pairwise comparisons among groups were conducted using z-tests for indepen-
dent proportions. For comparison of changes in religious orientation before and after the
encounter experience, z-tests of dependent proportions were used within each group. Bonfer-
roni corrections were used to control for Type I error rate. Results were considered significant
when the adjusted p0.05.
In the Results section, tables with dichotomous measures present percentage of participants
in the group who endorsed the item or showed the effect; tables of continuous measures show
means and standard deviations of the group. For completeness, supplemental tables show esti-
mated means and standard errors of the estimate from the statistical analyses. For the dichoto-
mous measures, the difference between the group percentage data (expressed as a proportion)
and the estimated means were relatively small, with the mean difference across measures of
0.01 (range 0.00–0.08).
Results
Survey completion
During recruitment (12/03/2014–08/01/2016), 12,725 individuals began the survey. Of these,
1,702 were excluded because they did not meet the inclusion criteria, and 5,165 were excluded
because they did not complete the questionnaire, with 82% and 93% of these failing to com-
plete 25% and 50%, respectively, of the questionnaire items. Additionally, 401 were excluded
because they indicated taking multiple substances, 602 because they reported taking a sub-
stance other than psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, or DMT, 271 because they answered the survey
based on multiple rather than a single encounter experience, 104 because their responses
raised concerns about the validity of their data overall, 34 because they indicated at the end of
the survey that they did not want their responses included in the analyses, and 161 because of
nonsystematic coding errors. Thus 4,285 individuals provided useable data. The median time
to complete the questionnaire was 50 minutes. A written response in the open-ended com-
ment section at the end of the questionnaire was provided by 67% of participants.
Participant characteristics
Tables 1and 2present participants’ reported characteristics for the different participant sub-
groups. Participants were, on average 38.3 years of age at the time of the survey. Sixty-nine per-
cent were male, 88% were White, and 48% had a college or graduate degree. Participants were,
on average 27.2 years of age at the time of their experience, which occurred on average 11.0
years before completing the study.
Comparison of naturally occurring and psychedelic drug–occasioned God encounter experiences
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As shown in Table 1, compared to the Psychedelic Group, the Non-Drug Group was signifi-
cantly older and more likely to be female, white, not Hispanic, college educated, married, and
a resident of the United States, and had a higher household income.
The differences between the psychedelic and non-drug participants shown in Table 1 were
generally true for each of the four psychedelic groups alone (Table 2, indicated by data in bold
font). Table 2 also shows that, compared to the other psychedelic groups, the Ayahuasca
Group was older at the time of the experience and survey, more likely to be female, college
Table 1. Participant characteristics in the Non-Drug Group and combined Psychedelic Group
1
.
Measure Non-Drug Group
(N = 809)
Psychedelic Group
(N = 3476)
Pvalue
2
Age at time of study participation in years (mean, SD) 56.2 (13.7) 34.1 (12.8) p0.001
Age at time of encounter experience in years (mean, SD) 35.7 (15.0) 25.3 (9.1) p0.001
Years since the experience (mean, SD) 20.5 (15.4) 8.8 (10.6) p0.001
Sex (% male) 27% 79% p0.001
Race (%)
3
p0.001
White 93% 86%
Black/African American 1% 1%
Asian 2% 3%
Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander 0% 0%
Native American 1% 1%
Mixed Race 3% 9%
Ethnicity (% Hispanic) 4% 9% p0.001
Education (%)
4
p0.001
No high school diploma or equivalent (GED) 1% 3%
High school diploma or equivalent (GED) 2% 13%
Some college or vocational training 23% 42%
Bachelor’s degree 30% 25%
Master’s degree 27% 12%
Advanced professional degree 16% 5%
Annual household income (%)
5
p0.001
Under $25,000 11% 36%
$25,000—$49,999 22% 27%
$50,000—$74,999 17% 13%
$75,000—$99,999 13% 8%
$100,000—$150,000 21% 10%
$150,000 + 15% 6%
Ever Married (%) 76% 46% p0.001
Country of residence (%)
6
p0.001
United States 75% 59%
Canada, Europe, Australia 21% 31%
Other (%) 4% 10%
1
Subject characteristics at time of survey completion unless otherwise specified.
2
Dichotomous demographic variables were analyzed with Chi-square to compare between Non-DrugGroup and Psychedelic Group. Continuous demographic
variables were analyzed with ANOVA. Results were considered significant when p0.001.
3
Proportion White race compared between Non-Drug Group and Psychedelic Group.
4
Proportion having bachelor’s degree or higher compared between Non-Drug Group and Psychedelic Group.
5
Proportion having income less than $50,000 compared between Non-Drug Group and Psychedelic Group
6
Proportion with United States country of residence compared between Non-Drug Group and Psychedelic Group.
https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0214377.t001
Comparison of naturally occurring and psychedelic drug–occasioned God encounter experiences
PLOS ONE | https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0214377 April 23, 2019 6 / 26
educated, married, not a U.S resident, and have a higher income. In contrast, the DMT Group
was significantly younger at the time of the study than the other psychedelic groups. Open
ended text responses from those in the DMT other than ayahuasca group indicated that this
group was comprised primarily of those who smoked DMT; of the 606 DMT users, only 3
wrote comments suggesting an intranasal route of administration.
Details of the encounter
As shown in Table 3, only about 20% of participants went into the experience with an inten-
tion of having an encounter experience. The Non-Drug Group was significantly more likely
than the Psychedelic Group of being alone during the encounter (58% vs. 35%). All survey par-
ticipants endorsed involvement of one or more senses during the encounter. For both groups,
the primary senses engaged during the encounter were visual (48% vs. 75%), auditory (36% vs.
49%), bodily sensation/tactile (43% vs. 48%), and extrasensory (64% vs. 86%) for the Non-
Drug and Psychedelic groups, respectively, with these differences being significant for all
except tactile. Most participants (~65%), from both groups endorsed communication (i.e. an
exchange of information with the entity). Participants from both groups endorsed similar rates
of their having had an emotional response during the encounter (~90%), having ascertained a
message, mission, or insight (~75%), or having acquired predictions about the future (~20%).
As shown in Table 4, the pattern of differences between psychedelic and non-drug partici-
pants shown in Table 3 also occurred in each of the four psychedelic groups. Across the psy-
chedelic groups, the Psilocybin and LSD groups did not significantly differ on any of these
items. Likewise, the Ayahuasca and DMT groups differed on only 3 of the 21 items. The DMT
Group tended to have the highest rates of endorsement among the drug groups and these dif-
ferences were significantly higher than the Psilocybin and LSD groups on several sensory and
communication items.
Memory, realism, and mystical features of the encounter experience
As shown in Table 5, both groups provided high ratings of the vividness of their memories of
the experience, with the Non-Drug Group having significantly higher ratings (92 vs. 76 of
Table 2. Participant characteristics for Non-Drug, psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, and DMT groups
1,2,3
.
Measure Non-Drug Group
(N = 809)
Psilocybin Group
(N = 1184)
LSD Group
(N = 1251)
Ayahuasca Group
(N = 435)
DMT Group
(N = 606)
Age at time of study participation in years (mean, SD) 56.2 (13.7) 33.0 (11.4)
c
35.0 (14.8)
b
40.5 (12.2)
a
30.0 (8.3)
d
Age at time of encounter experience in years (mean, SD) 35.7 (15.0) 25.1 (9.0)
b
22.1 (5.9)
c
35.1 (11.3)
a
25.3 (7.8)
b
Years since the experience (mean, SD) 20.5 (15.4) 7.9 (8.1)
b
12.9 (14.5)
a
5.3 (4.1)
c
4.7 (3.3)
c
Sex (% male) 27% 81%
b
80%
b
66%
a
82%
b
Race (% White) 93% 85%
a
87%
a
86%
a
87%
a
Ethnicity (% Hispanic) 4% 10%
a
8%
a
13%
a
8%
a
Education (% Bachelor’s college degree or higher) 74% 42%
a
39%
a
62%
b
33%
a
Annual household income (% <$50,000) 33% 65%
a
62%
a
56%
a
67%
a
Ever Married (%) 76% 45%
b
45%
b
61%
a
39%
b
Country of residence (% United States resident) 75% 60%
a
63%
a
44%
b
63%
a
1
Participant characteristics at time of survey completion unless otherwise specified.
2
Within a row, bold font indicates significant difference from the Non-Drug Group; for the drug groups, values not sharing a common letter are significantly different.
3
Dichotomous demographic variables were analyzed with a general linear model with a logit link. Continuous demographic were analyzed with ANOVA. Results were
considered significant when p0.001. Pairwise comparisons among groups were adjusted using Bonferroni method to control for Type 1 error.
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100). Both groups provided relatively high similar ratings that the experience was more real
than everyday normal reality. Table 5 also shows that factor and total scores on the Mystical
Experience Questionnaire were uniformly high (0.70) in both groups, with the exception
that the Transcendence of time and space factor was only intermediate in the Non-Drug
Group. These scores were significantly higher in the Psychedelic Group than the Non-Drug
Group, as was the percentage of participants in the group having a "complete" mystical experi-
ence (64% vs. 43%).
Table 6 shows that the pattern of differences between psychedelic and non-drug partici-
pants shown in Table 5 occurred in each of the four psychedelic groups. The Psilocybin and
LSD groups did not differ significantly on any of these measures. On measures of mystical
experience, the DMT Group was significantly higher than the Psilocybin and LSD groups on
Table 3. Details of the encounter in the Non-Drug Group and combined Psychedelic Group
1,2
.
Questionnaire Item Non-Drug
Group
(N = 809)
Psychedelic
Group
(N = 3476)
Details of initiating the encounter (percentage endorsing the item)
Went into the experience with the intention of encountering that which
was encountered
16% 22%
The encounter was initiated by that which was encountered (not by me) 55% 45%
Was alone (not with other people) at the time of the encounter 58% 35%
Senses with which you interacted during the encounter (percentage endorsing
the item)
Visual 48% 75%
Auditory (aural) 36% 49%
Bodily sensation/tactile (sense of touch) 43% 48%
Taste (gustatory) 3% 10%
Smell (olfactory) 6% 12%
Extrasensory 64% 86%
Communication (percentage endorsing the item)
There was communication (1-way or 2-way exchange of information) 63% 67%
Communication was a 2-way exchange of information 22% 25%
Communication was a 1-way exchange of information (from it to you) 23% 25%
Communication was a 1-way exchange of information (from you to it) 4% 2%
Communication was visual (e.g. gestures) 15% 25%
Communication was verbal-auditory 26% 21%
Communication was somatic (e.g. touch/kinesthetic) 17% 14%
Communication was extrasensory-telepathic 45% 60%
Immediate results of the encounter (percentage endorsing the item)
You had an emotional response during the encounter 91% 88%
That which was encountered had an emotional response during the
encounter
23% 25%
You ascertained a message, task, mission, or insight from the encounter 78% 75%
You acquired predictions about the future 21% 24%
1
Within a row, bold font indicates significant difference from the Non-Drug Group.
2
Data are the percentage of the participants in the group that endorsed the items as positive. Statistical comparisons
were adjusted for eight covariates (see Statistical section). Results were considered significant when p0.001.
Estimated means and standard errors of the estimate are presented in Table A in S1 File.
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Transcendence of time and space, Ineffability, Total score, and the percentage showing com-
plete mystical experiences.
Interpretation of that which was encountered
Participants were asked to indicate which of four descriptors best described what was encoun-
tered. As shown in Table 7, the Non-Drug Group was significantly more likely than the Psy-
chedelic Group to endorse encountering God (the God of your understanding) (41% vs. 18%)
or an Emissary of God (18% vs. 9%). Conversely, endorsement of encountering Ultimate Real-
ity was significantly more likely in the Psychedelic Group than the Non-Drug Group (55% vs.
26%, respectively). Rates of endorsement for Higher Power did not significantly differ between
the Non-Drug Group and Psychedelic Group (15% vs 19%).
Table 4. Details of the encounter in the Non-Drug, psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, and DMT groups
1,2
.
Questionnaire Item Non-Drug
Group
(N = 809)
Psilocybin Group
(N = 1184)
LSD Group
(N = 1251)
Ayahuasca Group
(N = 435)
DMT Group
(N = 606)
Details of initiating the encounter (proportion endorsing the item)
Went into the experience with the intention of encountering that which was
encountered
16% 20%
a
18%
a
29%
a,b
30%
b
The encounter was initiated by that which was encountered (not by me) 55% 44%
b
38%
b
55%
a
56%
a
Was alone (not with other people) at the time of the encounter 58% 43%
a
36%
a
12%
b
35%
a
Senses with which you interacted during the encounter (percentage endorsing the
item)
Visual 48% 72%
a
74%
a
72%
a,b
83%
b
Auditory (aural) 36% 45%
a
49%
a,b
50%
a,b
58%
b
Bodily sensation/tactile (sense of touch) 43% 46%
a
50%
a
47%
a
48%
a
Taste (gustatory) 3% 8%
a
11%
a
8%
a
11%
a
Smell (olfactory) 6% 10%
a
13%
a
11%
a
13%
a
Extrasensory 64% 87%
a
85%
a
85%
a
89%
a
Communication (percentage endorsing the item)
There was communication (1-way or 2-way exchange of information) 63% 64%
a
60%
a
80%
b
80%
b
Communication was a 2-way exchange of information 22% 24%
a
20%
a
40%
b
28%
a
Communication was a 1-way exchange of information (from it to you) 23% 23%
a
22%
a
22%
a
38%
b
Communication was a 1-way exchange of information (from you to it) 4% 2%
a
2%
a
2%
a
1%
a
Communication was visual (e.g. gestures) 15% 23%
a,b
21%
a
29%
b,c
36%
c
Communication was verbal-auditory 26% 21%
a
19%
a
25%
a
25%
a
Communication was somatic (e.g. touch/kinesthetic) 17% 12%
a
12%
a
18%
a
18%
a
Communication was extrasensory-telepathic 45% 57%
a
52%
a
71%
b
75%
b
Immediate results of the encounter (percentage endorsing the item)
You had an emotional response during the encounter 91% 88%
a
89%
a
86%
a
89%
a
That which was encountered had an emotional response during the
encounter
23% 23%
a
22%
a
28%
a,b
33%
b
You ascertained a message, task, mission, or insight from the encounter 78% 74%
a
73%
a
82%
a
74%
a
You acquired predictions about the future 21% 24%
a
25%
a
27%
a
21%
a
1
Within a row, bold font indicates significant difference from the Non-Drug Group; for the drug groups, values not sharing a common letter are significantly different.
2
Data are the percentage of the participants in the group that endorsed the item as positive. Statistical comparisons were adjusted for eight covariates (see Statistical
section). Pairwise comparisons were adjusted using Bonferroni method and results were considered significant when p0.001. Estimated means and standard errors of
the estimate are presented in Table B in S1 File.
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Interestingly, despite differences in the preferred descriptors of that which was encoun-
tered, there was a striking similarity in the relative percentages of each group that endorsed the
11 attributes of that which was encountered (Table 7). Furthermore, more than half of each
group endorsed the attributes of benevolence, intelligence, sacredness, consciousness, being
eternal, and being all-knowing. The Non-Drug Group was significantly more likely to endorse
benevolence, agency, and being petitionable, and less likely to endorse being malicious than
the Psychedelic Group. About 70% of both groups endorsed that that which was encountered
existed, at least in part, in some other dimension or reality, and that which was encountered
continued to exist after the encounter. Those participants who endorsed a given attribute as
present then rated the degree to which that attribute applied on a 100-point scale (e.g. from
"not at all" to "completely"). Mean ratings of the attributes of sacred, intelligent, benevolent,
and conscious were 89 in both groups, with benevolent and sacred significantly higher in the
Non-Drug Group. The only other attribute that was significantly different between groups was
positively judgmental, with mean ratings of 87 and 77 in the Non-Drug and Psychedelic
groups respectively.
Table 8 shows that the pattern of differences between Psychedelic and Non-Drug groups
shown in Table 7 occurred in each of the four psychedelic groups. The Non-Drug Group
endorsed having had an encounter with God (the God of your understanding) at a signifi-
cantly higher rate than each of the four psychedelic groups alone and, conversely, endorsed
having encountered Ultimate Reality at a significantly lower rate than the four psychedelic
groups. With regard to the attributes of that which was encountered and the additional inter-
pretation items, there were both similarities and differences among the drug groups (Table 8).
Table 5. Memory, realism, and mystical features of the encounter experience in the Non-Drug Group and com-
bined Psychedelic Group
1,2
.
Questionnaire Item Non-Drug
Group
(N = 809)
Psychedelic
Group
(N = 3476)
Memory for encounter (ratings from 0 to 100)
Vividness of memories of the encounter 91.9 (14.2) 76.2 (23.6)
Realism of the encounter (ratings from 0 to 100)
Superficial dream-like level of reality 25.0 (35.3) 41.9 (37.7)
Reality similar to everyday normal consciousness 54.5 (40.2) 40.6 (36.0)
More real than everyday normal consciousness 72.7 (36.3) 76.5 (32.2)
Mystical Experience Questionnaire:Factor and total scores (proportion of
maximum possible score)
Mystical factor .73 (0.22) .81 (0.17)
Positive mood factor .78 (0.21) .80 (0.18)
Transcendence of time and space factor .54 (0.33) .73 (0.23)
Ineffability factor .77 (0.25) .85 (0.18)
Total Score .70 (0.21) .79 (0.15)
Mystical Experience Questionnaire:"Complete" mystical experience
Percentage of participants fulfilling criteria for complete experience 43% 64%
1
Within a row, bold font indicates significant difference from the Non-Drug Group.
2
For continuous measures, data are means and standard deviations. Dichotomous data for complete mystical
experiences are percentage of participants in the group. Statistical comparisons for continuous and dichotomous data
were adjusted for eight covariates (see Statistical section). Results were considered significant when p0.001.
Estimated means and standard errors of the estimates are presented in Table C in S1 File.
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The Psilocybin and LSD groups did not significantly differ on any of these items. Likewise, the
Ayahuasca and DMT groups differed on only 2 of the 18 items. The Ayahuasca Group had sig-
nificantly higher rates of endorsement than the Psilocybin and LSD groups of the positive
attributes of that which was encountered of benevolence, intelligence, conscious, and being
petitionable. For the 100-point ratings of the degree to which attributes applied, the only sig-
nificant differences between the psychedelic groups was for the attribute of conscious, with
DMT>LSD and Psilocybin, and Ayahuasca>LSD.
Comparison of encounter experience relative to other lifetime experiences
Participants were asked to rate several dimensions of their encounter experience relative
to other experiences over their lifetimes. As shown in Table 9, ratings of personal meaning
and spiritual significance were similar, with more than 74% of the Non-Drug and Psyche-
delic groups indicating the experience to be among the top 5 most meaningful and spiritu-
ally significant experiences of their lifetime, and 34% and 42%, respectively, indicating
that the experience was the single most spiritually significant experience of their life.
The percentage endorsement and relative ratings of psychological insight and psychological
challenge were numerically lower than those for meaning and spiritual significance,
with ratings but not percentage endorsement being significantly higher in the Psychedelic
Group.
Table 10 shows that the pattern of similarities and differences between Psychedelic and
Non-Drug groups shown in Table 9 occurred in each of the four psychedelic groups. The Psi-
locybin, LSD, and DMT groups did not significantly differ on any of these measures. The
Table 6. Memory, realism, and mystical features of the encounter experience in the Non-Drug, psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, and DMT groups
1,2
.
Questionnaire Item Non-Drug
Group
(N = 809)
Psilocybin
Group
(N = 1184)
LSD Group
(N = 1251)
Ayahuasca
Group
(N = 435)
DMT Group
(N = 606)
Memory for the encounter (ratings from 0 to 100)
Vividness of memories of the encounter 91.9 (14.2) 75.6 (23.3)
a
76.6 (23.8)
a
81.0 (21.2)
a
72.9 (24.6)
a
Realism of the encounter (ratings from 0 to 100)
Superficial dream-like level of reality 25.0 (35.3) 42.7 (37.2)
a
40.4 (37.3)
a
37.1 (37.4)
a
47.2 (38.8)
a
Reality similar to everyday normal consciousness 54.5 (40.2) 42.1 (35.4)
a
40.7 (35.9)
a
42.6 (38.0)
a
36.0 (35.7)
a
More real than everyday normal consciousness 72.7 (36.3) 74.7 (32.5)
a
76.8 (32.5)
a
79.4 (30.3)
a
77.5 (32.2)
a
Mystical Experience Questionnaire:Factor and total scores (proportion of
maximum possible score)
Mystical factor .73 (0.22) .80 (0.17)
a
.81 (0.18)
a
.83 (0.16)
a
.81 (0.17)
a
Positive mood factor .78 (0.21) .79 (0.18)
a
.79 (0.19)
a
.81 (0.17)
a
.81 (0.18)
a
Transcendence of time and space factor .54 (0.33) .70 (0.24)
a
.71 (0.24)
a
.72 (0.22)
a
.84 (0.19)
b
Ineffability factor .77 (0.25) .84 (0.18)
a
.84 (0.18)
a
.84 (0.18)
a,b
.88 (0.17)
b
Total Score .70 (0.21) .78 (0.15)
a
.79 (0.15)
a
.80 (0.14)
a,b
.82 (0.14)
b
Mystical Experience Questionnaire:"Complete" mystical experience
Percentage of participants fulfilling criteria for complete experience 43% 62%
a
61%
a
65%
a,b
73%
b
1
Within a row, bold font indicates significant difference from the Non-Drug Group; for the drug groups, values not sharing a common letter are significantly different.
2
For continuous measures, data are means and standard deviations. Dichotomous data for complete mystical experiences are percentage of participants in the group.
Statistical comparisons for continuous and dichotomous data were adjusted for eight covariates (see Statistical section). For both types of analyses, pairwise comparisons
were adjusted using Bonferroni method and results were considered significant when p0.001. Estimated means and standard errors of the estimate are presented in
Table D in S1 File.
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Ayahuasca Group was usually numerically higher than the other groups and sometimes signif-
icantly higher than the Psilocybin and LSD groups.
Persisting changes attributed to the encounter
The Non-Drug and Psychedelic groups had largely similar responses to a series of questions
probing persisting changes that they attributed to the encounter experience. As shown in
Table 11, both groups rated positive, desirable changes, generally of moderate strength
(mean = 2.0, see table footnote) across nine persisting effect items. The only significant differ-
ence was that rating of positive changes in spiritual awareness in everyday life was greater in
the Non-Drug Group. Furthermore, the majority of both groups endorsed a desirable change
in contemplative, prayer, or meditation practice, a desirable change in understanding religious
Table 7. Interpretation of that which was encountered in the Non-Drug Group and combined Psychedelic
Group
1,2,3
.
Questionnaire Item Non-Drug
Group
(N = 809)
Psychedelic
Group
(N = 3476)
Best descriptor of that which was encountered (percentage endorsing the item)
God (the God of your understanding) 41% 18%
Ultimate Realty 26% 55%
Higher Power 15% 19%
An aspect or emissary of God (e.g. an angel) 18% 9%
Attributes to that which was encountered (percentage endorsing the item)
3
Benevolent (i.e. kind, compassionate, altruistic) 86% 70%
Intelligent 80% 78%
Sacred 81% 71%
Conscious (i.e. self-aware) 71% 68%
Eternal 70% 70%
All Knowing 66% 59%
Agency (e.g. could it affect outcomes, events, or material objects in this
reality)
47% 36%
Petitionable (e.g. in response to prayer or petition, it might change events
or circumstances)
32% 18%
Positively Judgmental (e.g. inclined toward strong approval or reward) 23% 29%
Negatively Judgmental (e.g. inclined toward strong disapproval or harsh
punishment)
5% 6%
Malicious (i.e., unkind, cruel, vengeful) 1% 9%
Additional interpretation of that which was encountered (percentage
endorsing the item)
That which was encountered existed, as least in part, in some other
dimension or reality
68% 69%
You were completely the same as that which was encountered 32% 47%
That which was encountered continued to exist after the encounter 74% 65%
1
Within a row, bold font indicates significant difference from the Non-Drug Group.
2
Data are the percentage of the participants in the group that endorsed the items as positive. Statistical comparisons
were adjusted for eight covariates (see Statistical section). Results were considered significant when p0.001.
Estimated means and standard errors of the estimate are presented in Table E in S1 File.
3
Response options for these questions were Yes, No, and I don’t know.
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traditions of others, and decreased fear of death. The Psychedelic Group was significantly
more likely to endorse a decreased fear of death than the Non-Drug Group (70% vs. 57%).
Table 12 shows that the pattern of similarities and differences between Non-Drug and Psy-
chedelic groups shown in Table 11 occurred in each of the four psychedelic groups. The Psilo-
cybin, LSD, and DMT groups did not significantly differ on any of these measures, with the
exception that a larger proportion of the DMT Group endorsed a decreased fear of death. The
Ayahuasca Group had significantly higher ratings than the Psilocybin and LSD groups on pos-
itive changes in life satisfaction, social relationships, spiritual awareness in everyday life, atti-
tudes about life, attitudes about self, mood, and behavior.
Changes in identification as atheist and monotheist
As rated retrospectively, before the encounter experience, the Non-Drug Group, compared to
the Psychedelic Group, was less likely to identify their religious orientation as atheist (3% vs.
Table 8. Interpretation of that which was encountered in Non-Drug, psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, and DMT groups
1,2,3
.
Items Non-Drug
Group
(N = 809)
Psilocybin
Group
(N = 1184)
LSD Group
(N = 1251)
Ayahuasca
Group
(N = 435)
DMT
Group
(N = 606)
Best descriptor of that which was encountered (percentage endorsing the item)
God (the God of your understanding) 41% 16%
a
19%
a
21%
a
16%
a
Ultimate Realty 26% 57%
a,b
59%
b
46%
a
48%
a
Higher Power 15% 19%
a,b
16%
a
21%
a,b
25%
b
An aspect or emissary of God (e.g. an angel) 18% 9%
a
6%
a
12%
a
12%
a
Attributes to that which was encountered (percentage endorsing the item)
3
Benevolent (i.e. kind, compassionate, altruistic) 86% 66%
b
66%
b
85%
a
75%
a
Intelligent 80% 73%
a
73%
a
91%
b
87%
b
Sacred 81% 71%
a,b
68%
b
80%
a
69%
a,b
Conscious (i.e. self-aware) 71% 62%
a
64%
a
80%
b
77%
b
Eternal 70% 70%
a
72%
a
75%
a
63%
a
All Knowing 66% 58%
a
58%
a
66%
a
59%
a
Agency (e.g. could it affect outcomes, events, or material objects in this reality) 47% 34%
a
38%
a
41%
a
31%
a
Petitionable (e.g. in response to prayer or petition, it might change events or
circumstances)
32% 17%
b
17%
b
26%
a
16%
b
Positively Judgmental (e.g. inclined toward strong approval or reward) 23% 29%
a
26%
a
29%
a
33%
a
Negatively Judgmental (e.g. inclined toward strong disapproval or harsh
punishment)
5% 8%
a
8%
a
6%
a
10%
a
Malicious (i.e., unkind, cruel, vengeful) 1% 9%
a
10%
a
7%
a
8%
a
Additional interpretation of that which was encountered (percentage endorsing the
item)
That which was encountered existed, as least in part, in some other dimension or
reality
68% 65%
a
66%
a,b
76%
b,c
76%
c
You were completely the same as that which was encountered 32% 46%
a,b
52%
b
44%
a,b
42%
a
That which was encountered continued to exist after the encounter 74% 64%
a
68%
a
75%
a
53%
b
1
Within a row, bold font indicates significant difference from the Non-Drug Group; for the drug groups, values not sharing a common letter are significantly different.
2
Data are the percentage of the participants in the group that endorsed the items as positive. Statistical comparisons were adjusted for eight covariates (see Statistical
section). Pairwise comparisons were adjusted using Bonferroni method and results were considered significant when p0.001. Estimated means and standard errors of
the estimate are presented in Table F in S1 File.
3
Response options for these questions were Yes, No, and I don’t know.
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21%) or other (50% vs. 67%), but more likely to identify as a monotheist (47% vs. 12%)
(Table 13). In both groups, identification as atheist decreased significantly from before to after
the experience (3% to 1% and 21% to 8%, respectively) (z-test of proportions, p0.05 for both
groups). The proportion of participants in each group that identified as atheist before the
encounter but no longer identified as atheist after the encounter (74% and 67%, respectively)
was not significantly different. In the Psychedelic Group, identification as monotheist signifi-
cantly decreased and identification as Other significantly increased from before to after the
experience (p0.05). The proportion of the Non-Drug Group identifying as monotheist or
Other did not differ significantly from before to after the experience.
Table 14 shows that the pattern of differences between Non-Drug and Psychedelic groups
and between before vs. after the experience shown in Table 13 occurred in each of the four psy-
chedelic groups. As with the Non-Drug Group, identification as atheist decreased significantly
from before to after the experience in each of the four psychedelic groups (z-tests of propor-
tions, p0.05). The proportion identifying as monotheist decreased significantly in the Psilo-
cybin and LSD groups, and the proportion identifying as other increased significantly in the
Psilocybin, LSD, and DMT groups (p0.05).
Discussion
This cross-sectional internet survey study with 4,285 participants is the first study to provide a
direct and detailed comparison of naturally occurring (non-drug) and psychedelic-occasioned
Table 9. Comparison of encounter experience relative to other lifetime experiences in the Non-Drug Group and
combined Psychedelic Group
1,2,3
.
Questionnaire Item Non-Drug Group
(N = 809)
Psychedelic Group
(N = 3476)
Rating relative to other lifetime experiences (ratings from 1 to 8)
How personally meaningful was the encounter 6.85 (1.14) 6.91 (1.06)
How spiritually significant was the encounter 6.91 (1.30) 7.05 (1.31)
How personally psychologically insightful was the encounter 5.94 (2.19) 6.53 (1.60)
How psychologically challenging was the encounter 4.21 (2.79) 5.27 (2.41)
Percentage rating the item as among the top 5 or single most of lifetime
How personally meaningful was the encounter 74% 78%
How spiritually significant was the encounter 78% 83%
How personally psychologically insight was the encounter 58% 67%
How psychologically challenging was the encounter 32% 44%
Percentage rating the item as the single most of lifetime
How personally meaningful was the encounter 28% 27%
How spiritually significant was the encounter 34% 42%
How personally psychologically insight was the encounter 22% 27%
How psychologically challenging was the encounter 12% 17%
1
Within a row, bold font indicates significant difference from the Non-Drug Group.
2
For continuous measures, data are means and standard deviations. Dichotomous data are the percentage of the
participants in the group that endorsed the item as positive. Statistical comparisons for continuous and dichotomous
data were adjusted for eight covariates (see Statistical section). Results were considered significant when p0.001.
Estimated means and standard errors of the estimates are presented in Table G in S1 File.
3
Rating options ranged from 1 = no more than routine, everyday experience; 5 = similar to experiences that occur on
average once every 5 years; 6 = among the 10 most in my life; 7 = among the 5 most of my life; 8 = the single most of
my life.
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experiences that participants interpreted as an encounter with God (using any of four descrip-
tors of such experiences). The study also provides new information about the characteristics
and consequences of such experiences and permits comparison of experiences among those
who consumed psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, or DMT.
Because of the large number of outcome measures and complexity the results, this Discus-
sion section will first summarize the most salient similarities and differences between the non-
drug and the psychedelic-occasioned experiences followed by a summary of comparisons
among the four psychedelic groups.
Similarities and differences between Non-Drug and psychedelic-occasioned
experiences
Despite a few demographic differences (e.g. age, sex, country of residence), there were striking
similarities in the details and consequences of the encounter experiences between the Non-
Drug and Psychedelic groups, many of which are consistent with numerous historical descrip-
tions of naturally occurring God encounter and mystical experiences [1,3]. In both groups, the
encounter experiences were largely unbidden, with only about one in five participants indicat-
ing they had an intention for such an experience. All participants reported one or more senses
being involved, with extrasensory, visual, auditory, and tactile senses being the most frequently
endorsed. The majority as well as similar proportions of both groups reported communication
(i.e. an exchange of information with that which was encountered), having a personal
Table 10. Comparison of encounter experience relative to other lifetime experiences in the Non-Drug, psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, and DMT groups
1,2,3
.
Questionnaire Item Non-Drug Group
(N = 809)
Psilocybin Group
(N = 1184)
LSD Group
(N = 1251)
Ayahuasca Group
(N = 435)
DMT Group
(N = 606)
Rating relative to other lifetime experiences (ratings from 1 to 8)
How personally meaningful was the encounter 6.85 (1.14) 6.83 (1.05)
a
6.87 (1.10)
a,b
7.13 (0.88)
b
6.97 (1.07)
a,b
How spiritually significant was the encounter 6.91 (1.30) 6.99 (1.43)
a
6.97 (1.41)
a
7.30 (0.88)
b
7.14 (1.26)
a,b
How personally psychologically insightful was the encounter 5.94 (2.19) 6.49 (1.52)
a
6.48 (1.72)
a
6.77 (1.43)
a
6.54 (1.62)
a
How psychologically challenging was the encounter 4.21 (2.79) 5.13 (2.41)
a
5.26 (2.46)
a,b
5.61 (2.25)
b
5.33 (2.42)
a,b
Proportion rating the item as among the top 5 or single most of lifetime
How personally meaningful was the encounter 74% 75%
a
77%
a,b
83%
b
81%
a,b
How spiritually significant was the encounter 78% 81%
a
81%
a
89%
b
85%
a,b
How personally psychologically insight was the encounter 58% 65%
a
68%
a
71%
a
67%
a
How psychologically challenging was the encounter 32% 42%
a
44%
a
46%
a
47%
a
Proportion rating the item as the single most of lifetime
How personally meaningful was the encounter 28% 23%
a
26%
a
36%
b
30%
a,b
How spiritually significant was the encounter 34% 41%
a
40%
a
47%
a
47%
a
How personally psychologically insight was the encounter 22% 24%
a
28%
a,b
34%
b
29%
a,b
How psychologically challenging was the encounter 12% 14%
a
18%
a,b
21%
b
18%
a,b
1
Within a row, bold font indicates significant difference from the Non-Drug Group; for the drug groups, values not sharing a common letter are significantly different.
2
For continuous measures, data are means and standard deviations. Dichotomous data are percentage of participants in the group that endorsed the item as positive.
Statistical comparisons for continuous and dichotomous data were adjusted for eight covariates (see Statistical section). For both types of analyses, pairwise comparisons
were adjusted using Bonferroni method. Results were considered significant when p0.001. Estimated means and standard errors of the estimate are presented in
Table H in S1 File.
3
Rating options ranged from 1 = no more than routine, everyday experience; 5 = similar to experiences that occur on average once every 5 years; 6 = among the 10 most
in my life; 7 = among the 5 most of my life; 8 = the single most of my life.
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emotional response during the encounter, and having ascertained a message, mission, or
insight, while only about one in five reported having acquired predictions about the future or
that which was encountered having an emotional response during the encounter. Both groups
provided moderately high ratings on the vividness of their memories of the encounter, that the
experience seemed more real than everyday consciousness, and on the total score and most
subscales of the Mystical Experience Questionnaire. Likewise, similar high proportions of the
two groups endorsed a range of qualities attributed to that which was encountered, with the
majority endorsing benevolent, intelligent, sacred, conscious, eternal and all knowing, but
fewer than one in ten endorsing negatively judgmental or malicious. The majority of both
groups endorsed that that which was encountered existed, at least in part, in some other reality
and that it continued to exist after the encounter. About three-quarters or more of both groups
indicated that the encounter was among the 5 most personally meaningful and spiritually sig-
nificant experiences of their lifetimes, with about one in three indicating that it was the single-
most such experience. With regard to persisting changes attributed to the experience, most
Table 11. Persisting changes attributed to the encounter in the Non-Drug Group and combined Psychedelic
Group
1,2
.
Questionnaire Item Non-Drug
Group
(N = 809)
Psychedelic
Group
(N = 3476)
Persisting changes attributed to the encounter experience (ratings from -3 to
+3)
3
Personal sense of well-being or life satisfaction 2.38 (0.99) 2.21 (1.03)
Your life’s purpose 2.16 (1.08) 1.97 (1.14)
Your life’s meaning 2.21 (1.07) 1.99 (1.15)
Your social relationships (e.g. family, friends, neighbors, strangers etc.) 1.76 (1.31) 1.67 (1.25)
Your spiritual awareness in everyday life 2.44 (0.86) 2.16 (0.99)
Your attitudes about life 2.27 (1.00) 2.18 (1.00)
Your attitudes about self 2.16 (1.07) 2.06 (1.06)
Your mood 1.54 (1.21) 1.53 (1.19)
Your behavior 1.77 (1.15) 1.58 (1.14)
Persisting changes attributed to encounter experience (percentage endorsing
the item)
Desirable change in contemplative, prayer, or meditation practice 89% 85%
Undesirable change in contemplative, prayer, or meditation practice 1% 1%
Desirable change in understanding religious or spiritual traditions other
than your own
79% 86%
Undesirable change in understanding religious or spiritual traditions
other than your own
1% 2%
Decreased fear of death 57% 70%
Increased fear of death 1% 3%
1
Within a row, bold font indicates significant difference from the Non-Drug Group.
2
For continuous measures, data are means and standard deviations. Dichotomous data are the percentage of the
participants in the group that endorsed the item as positive. Statistical comparisons for continuous and dichotomous
data were adjusted for eight covariates (see Statistical section). Results were considered significant when p0.001.
Estimated means and standard errors of the estimates are presented in Table I in S1 File.
3
Rating options ranged from -3 = Strong negative change that I consider undesirable to +2 Moderate positive change
that I consider desirable and +3 = Strong positive change that I consider desirable.
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participants in both groups endorsed desirable change in contemplative, prayer, or meditation
practice and in understanding religious or spiritual traditions other than their own, and both
groups had moderate to strong mean ratings of desirable changes in life satisfaction, purpose,
meaning, spiritual awareness in everyday life, attitudes about life and self.
Despite these many similarities, there were some notable differences in details and conse-
quences of the encounter experiences between the Non-Drug and Psychedelic groups. To
emphasize the most robust differences between groups, this discussion will focus on significant
differences (p0.001) in proportions of the two groups with the additional requirement that
the difference was >10%. Compared to the Psychedelic Group, the Non-Drug Group was
more likely to be alone at the time of the experience (58% vs. 35%) and less likely to endorse
visual, auditory, or extrasensory senses being involved. Interestingly, the Non-Drug Group
was more than twice as likely to endorse God (the God of your understanding) as the best
descriptor of that which was encountered (41% vs. 18%), but less than half as likely to endorse
the descriptor Ultimate Reality (26% vs. 55%). Consistent with the most common attributes of
"God" in monotheistic traditions, the Non-Drug Group was significantly more likely to
endorse that which was encountered had agency (could affect events in this reality) and was
Table 12. Persisting changes attributed to the encounter in the Non-Drug, psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, and DMT groups
1,2
.
Items Non-Drug
Group
(N = 809)
Psilocybin
Group
(N = 1184)
LSD Group
(N = 1251)
Ayahuasca
Group
(N = 435)
DMT Group
(N = 606)
Persisting changes attributed to the encounter experience (ratings from -3 to +3)
3
Personal sense of well-being or life satisfaction 2.38 (0.99) 2.17 (1.03)
a
2.14 (1.10)
a
2.46 (0.84)
b
2.26 (0.97)
a,b
Your life’s purpose 2.16 (1.08) 1.94 (1.13)
a
1.92 (1.20)
a
2.16 (0.98)
a
1.99 (1.14)
a
Your life’s meaning 2.21 (1.07) 1.99 (1.15)
a,b
1.90 (1.21)
b
2.20 (1.01)
a
2.02 (1.12)
a,b
Your social relationships (e.g. family, friends, neighbors, strangers etc.) 1.76 (1.31) 1.68 (1.21)
a
1.54 (1.31)
a
2.03 (1.09)
b
1.69 (1.25)
a
Your spiritual awareness in everyday life 2.44 (0.86) 2.15 (0.96)
b
2.08 (1.07)
b
2.36 (0.85)
a
2.21 (0.95)
a,b
Your attitudes about life 2.27 (1.00) 2.14 (1.01)
a
2.14 (1.04)
a
2.36 (0.84)
b
2.24 (0.98)
a,b
Your attitudes about self 2.16 (1.07) 2.03 (1.06)
a
2.00 (1.12)
a
2.30 (0.84)
b
2.10 (1.03)
a,b
Your mood 1.54 (1.21) 1.52 (1.19)
a
1.39 (1.24)
a
1.82 (1.04)
b
1.63 (1.16)
a,b
Your behavior 1.77 (1.15) 1.56 (1.15)
b
1.47 (1.18)
b
1.90 (0.96)
a
1.64 (1.13)
a,b
Persisting changes attributed to the encounter experience (proportion endorsing
the item)
Desirable change in contemplative, prayer, or meditation practice 89% 86%
a
83%
a
88%
a
85%
a
Undesirable change in contemplative, prayer, or meditation practice 1% 1%
a
1%
a
1%
a
1%
a
Desirable change in understanding religious or spiritual traditions other
than your own
79% 85%
a
86%
a
87%
a
86%
a
Undesirable change in understanding religious or spiritual traditions
other than your own
1% 3%
a
1%
a
1%
a
2%
a
Decreased fear of death 57% 70%
a,b
67%
a
73%
a,b
77%
b
Increased fear of death 1% 3%
a
4%
a
3%
a
3%
a
1
Within a row, bold font indicates significant difference from the Non-Drug Group; for the drug groups, values not sharing a common letter are significantly different.
2
For continuous measures, data are means and standard deviations. Dichotomous data are percentage of participants in the group that endorsed the items as positive.
Statistical comparisons for continuous and dichotomous data were adjusted for eight covariates (see Statistical section). For both types of analyses, pairwise comparisons
were adjusted using Bonferroni method. Results were considered significant when p0.001. Estimated means and standard errors of the estimate are presented in
Table J in S1 File.
3
Rating options ranged from -3 = Strong negative change that I consider undesirable to +2 Moderate positive change that I consider desirable and +3 = Strong positive
change that I consider desirable.
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petitionable (responsive to prayer or petition), and less likely to endorse that the participant
was the same as that which was encountered. The Psychedelic Group was more likely to
endorse decreased fear of death.
Both groups showed moderately high scores on the Mystical Experience Questionnaire
(MEQ-30). The Psychedelic Group, however, was significantly higher than the Non-Drug
Group in total scores, each of the four factor scores, and proportion of the group fulfilling a
priori criteria for having had a "complete" mystical experience (43% vs. 64%). It seems likely
that the higher MEQ-30 scores in the Psychedelic Group may be due in part to the fact that the
MEQ-30 was developed and validated to assess such experiences occasioned by psilocybin
[29,30], and therefore may have more sensitivity to psychedelic experiences. These findings
indicate that theistically interpreted, naturally occurring God encounter experiences may fulfill
Stace’s [4] criteria for mystical experience that make no reference to God. The findings also
suggest that the MEQ-30 may be useful for assessing naturally occurring spiritual and God
encounter experiences.
Fig 1 presents a summary of the most notable similarities and differences between the Non-
Drug Group and the Psychedelic Group.
A recent cross-sectional internet survey study by Yaden and colleagues [37] examined reli-
gious, spiritual, and mystical experiences (RSMEs) and psychedelic use. In their study, a group
of participants reporting that they had used one or more psychedelic substance that had influ-
enced their lifetime RSMEs were compared to a group reporting they had not used a psyche-
delic that influenced their RSMEs. The study showed that the psychedelic group attributed to
their lifetime RSMEs a greater sense of purpose and spirituality and a reduced fear of death.
Consistent with Yaden et al., psychedelic users in the present study were more likely to endorse
Table 13. Religious orientation before and after the encounter experience for Non-Drug Group and the combined
Psychedelic Group
1,2,3
.
Measure Non-Drug Group
(N = 809)
Psychedelic Group
(N = 3476)
Identification as atheist (percentage of group)
Before the experience 3% 21%
After the experience 1% 8%
Identification with major monotheistic tradition
Before the experience 47% 12%
After the experience 41% 7%
Identification as Other (not atheist or major monotheistic tradition)
Before the experience 50% 67%
After the experience 59% 85%
1
Within a row, bold font indicates significant difference from the Non-Drug Group.
2
Data are the percentage of the participants in the group that endorsed identification with the religious orientation.
Statistical comparisons between groups were conducted with Chi Square tests. Pairwise comparisons between groups
for each of the religious affiliation categories were conducted with z tests for independent proportions with
Bonferroni adjustment (p0.05). In both groups, identification as atheist decreased significantly from before to after
the experience (p0.05, z-tests for dependent proportions with Bonferroni adjustment).
3
Participants were asked to select the best descriptor from among 24 descriptors provided to designate their religious
orientation immediately before the encounter experience and again after the experience. For analysis, data are
expressed in three categories: atheist (those choosing the atheist descriptor); monotheist (those choosing Christian,
Jewish or Islam descriptors), or other.
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Table 14. Religious orientation before and after the encounter experience for Non-Drug, psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, and DMT groups
1,2,3
.
Measure Non-Drug Group
(N = 809)
Psilocybin Group
(N = 1184)
LSD Group
(N = 1251)
Ayahuasca Group
(N = 435)
DMT Group
(N = 606)
Identification as atheist (percentage of group)
Before the experience 3% 21%
b
22%
b
12%
a
25%
b
After the experience 1% 9%
b
9%
b
3%
a
7%
a,b
Identification with major monotheistic tradition
Before the experience 47% 12%
a,b
15%
a
9%
b,c
7%
c
After the experience 41% 8%
a,b
9%
a
6%
a,b
5%
b
Identification as Other (not atheist or major monotheistic tradition)
Before the experience 50% 68%
a
62%
a
80%
b
68%
a
After the experience 59% 84%
a,b
82%
a
91%
c
88%
b,c
1
Within a row, bold font indicates significant difference from the Non-Drug Group; for the drug groups, values not sharing a common letter are significantly different.
2
Data are the percentage of the participants in the group that endorsed identification with the religious orientation. Statistical comparisons between groups were
conducted with Chi Square tests. Pairwise comparisons between groups for each of the religious affiliation categories were conducted with z tests for independent
proportions with Bonferroni adjustment (p0.05). In all five groups, identification as atheist decreased significantly from before to after the experience (p0.05, z-tests
for dependent proportions with Bonferroni adjustment).
3
See Table 13 for explanation of religious orientation categories.
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Fig 1. Similarities and differences in God encounter experiences between Non-Drug and psychedelic participants. Summary of
notable similarities and differences in details, features, interpretation, and persisting changes of God encounter experiences between
the Non-Drug Group (naturally occurring experiences) and the combined Psychedelic Group (psychedelic-occasioned experiences).
Approximate percentages of the participants in the groups that endorsed the item are presented for some items; actual percentages
are presented in Tables 311 and Results section.
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decreased fear of death. In contrast to Yaden et al., in the present study, the great majority of
items assessing persisting changes attributed to the encounter experience were not different
between the psychedelic and nonpsychedelic users (Table 11) and psychedelic users rated their
persisting spiritual awareness in everyday life significantly lower than nonpsychedelic users.
Although the Yaden et al. study and the present study both focus on the effects of psychedelic
substances on spiritual experiences, there are important differences in methods that could par-
tially explain these inconsistencies. Notably, the focus of the Yaden et al. study was on broadly
described lifetime religious, spiritual, and mystical experiences in contrast to the present study
which focused much more narrowly on a single experience of an encounter with something
that might be called God, Higher Power, Ultimate Reality, or an Aspect or Emissary of God. In
further contrast to the present study, Yaden and colleagues did not assess whether the RSMEs
occurred on the same occasions that the psychedelic substances were taken, did not exclude
the possible use of non-psychedelic drugs during the time of the RSMEs, and had much
smaller sample sizes (330 and 330 vs. 809 and 3476).
Similarities and differences among different psychedelics
Psilocybin and LSD groups were very similar. Except for some small but significant dif-
ferences in age and years since the experience, the Psilocybin and LSD groups were not signifi-
cantly different on any of the 76 items assessing the details and consequences of the encounter
experience. This finding is interesting because, although psilocybin and LSD are both classic
psychedelics whose primary effects are mediated at the 5HT
2A
receptor, they have different
molecular structures, profiles of receptor activity, durations of action, with likely differences in
functional potency and selectivity (e.g. [38]).
Ayahuasca Group compared to the other psychedelic groups. Demographically, the
Ayahuasca Group was the most unique of the psychedelic groups, being more likely to be
older, female, college educated, married, and not a U.S. resident, and less likely to be atheist.
These differences and the finding that the ayahuasca users were significantly less likely to have
been alone at the time of the experience are consistent with ayahuasca being used in structured
group settings for religious or spiritual purposes throughout the world [23]. The Ayahuasca
Group was more likely to endorse having had communication with that which was encoun-
tered than did the Psilocybin and LSD groups. With regard to attributes of that which was
encountered, the Ayahuasca Group tended to have the highest rates of endorsement of positive
attributes of that which was encountered, with these being significantly higher than psilocybin
and LSD for benevolence, intelligence, conscious, and being petitionable. Likewise, with regard
to comparisons to other lifetime experiences and persisting changes, the Ayahuasca Group
generally had the numerically highest ratings or highest rates of endorsement on questions
indicating positive outcomes, with these being significantly higher than psilocybin and LSD
for being spiritually significant and for increasing life satisfaction, social relationships, spiritual
awareness in everyday life, attitudes about life and self, mood, and behavior. Although demo-
graphic differences between groups were adjusted statistically, detailed information about con-
text of use was not obtained and, thus, it is not possible to determine the extent to which the
differences in positive attributes to that encountered and to positive attributions to the experi-
ence and its consequences were due to the common use of ayahuasca in a structured religious/
spiritual group context [23,39]. However, this is an important consideration because the
potent influence of both psychological set and physical setting on the effects of classic psyche-
delics is well-known to researchers and practitioners who work with these compounds [40
42].
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DMT Group compared to the Ayahuasca Group. As described above, the demographics
of the DMT Group differed from the Ayahuasca Group and the ayahuasca users were less
likely to be alone at the time of the experience. However, across the other 76 items assessing
the details and consequences of the encounter experience, there were only a few differences.
Notably, and consistent with the structured group religious use of ayahuasca [23,39], the DMT
Group had significantly lower positive changes in their social relationships and were less likely
to endorse that that which was encountered was petitionable or continued to exist after the
encounter. DMT users also were more likely to endorse that communication was 1-way (from
it to you) and less likely to endorse that communication was 2-way.
DMT Group compared to the psilocybin and LSD groups. Demographically, the DMT
Group was similar to the Psilocybin and LSD groups except for being younger and having had
the experience more recently. Despite the demographic similarities, the DMT Group differed
significantly from the Psilocybin and LSD groups on 16 of 76 items assessing details and conse-
quences of the experience. The DMT Group was more likely than the Psilocybin and LSD
groups to have gone into the experience with the intention of an encounter, the encounter was
more likely to have been initiated by the other, 1-way or 2-way communication was more
likely to have occurred, the communication was more likely to be visual or extrasensory, and
that which was encountered was more likely to be benevolent, intelligent, conscious, and to
have existed in some other dimension but was less likely to continue to exist after the encoun-
ter. Compared to the Psilocybin and LSD groups, the DMT Group had significantly higher
total scores on the Mystical Experience Questionnaire, with higher scores on ineffability and
transcendence of time and space factors, and with a greater proportion of the group fulfilling
criteria for a complete mystical experience. This survey cannot distinguish whether these dif-
ferences in DMT experience from Psilocybin and LSD reflect true pharmacological differences
versus differences in expectancy and context. It is plausible that popular beliefs about DMT
effects, with special interest in DMT-occasioned entity encounter experiences, may have
biased DMT users toward having such experiences [5,4345] (www.dmt-nexus.me).
Several of the findings described above are consistent with the conclusion that N,N-dimeth-
yltryptamine accounts both for similarities between the DMT and Ayahuasca groups as well as
the differences of each of these groups from the psilocybin and LSD groups. Although ayahua-
sca is an admixture of plants, N,N-dimethyltryptamine is considered to be the principal psy-
chedelic component [46], as it is for those who use DMT alone. The overall profile of effects
with the DMT Group was most similar to the Ayahuasca Group despite differences in demo-
graphics, popular beliefs about expected effects, and contexts of administration. Furthermore,
DMT (other than in ayahuasca) is most commonly smoked, thus having a very rapid onset
and short duration of effects [47], in contrast to ayahuasca which is ingested orally with a
slower onset and longer duration of action [46]. Taken together, these results suggest that N,
N-dimethyltryptamine produces robust effects across a wide range of conditions. Furthermore,
the observation that significant differences or direction of differences from the Psilocybin and
LSD groups were generally similar in the DMT and Ayahuasca groups suggests that N,N-
dimethyltryptamine produces a unique profile of effects that is phenomenologically distinct
from two widely used classic psychedelics (psilocybin and LSD), which were indistinguishable
on all measures assessed in this survey.
Changes in identification as atheist from before to after the experience
An interesting finding of the present study was that, in the Non-Drug Group and each of the
psychedelic groups, most of those who identified their religious affiliation as atheist before the
experience no longer identified as atheist after the encounter, with this difference being
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significant in all groups. This outcome is consistent with sudden religious conversion experi-
ences that are well-described in the psychology of religion literature [1,6 (chapter 8)], with
Paul’s experience of encountering Jesus on the road to Damascus as the prototype. An impor-
tant future direction of research with psychedelic drugs will be to extend prospective research
on psychedelic drug-occasioned experiences [2628] to assess possible changes in religious
orientation or affiliation including identification as atheist.
Encounter experiences are not infrequently psychologically challenging
Although most participants rated the encounter as among the most personally meaningful and
spiritually significant experiences of their lives, about one-third rated the experience as among
the 5 most psychologically challenging experiences of their lives, with about 15% indicating
that it was the single most psychologically challenging experience of their lifetime. That such
experiences may be both attractive and extremely difficult is consistent with the classic descrip-
tion of the dual nature of encounters with the "Holy" both as "mysterium tremendum" (refer-
ring to its awfulness and absolute overpoweringness) and "mysterium fascinans" (referring to
its fascinating and attractive nature) by the theologian Rudolf Otto [48]. Likewise, that psyche-
delic experiences can involve both positive emotion including transcendence as well as highly
distressing feelings such as fear and insanity have been well-documented [29,49,50].
Can psychedelic drugs occasion genuine God encounter experiences?
Although some scholars of religion have argued on conceptual grounds that drug-occasioned
experiences are not genuine religious experiences [3234], Stace [4] and Smith [35,51] counter
with the Principal of Causal Indifference, which asserts that if two experiences are phenome-
nologically indistinguishable, it cannot be concluded that one is genuine but the other is not.
Although there are both similarities and differences in the God encounter experiences
described by the Non-Drug and Psychedelic groups, the most robust generality across a wide
range of questions is that the descriptive details, interpretation, and consequences of these
experiences are markedly similar. The findings that the preferred descriptor of that which was
encountered was "God" in the Non-Drug Group, but "Ultimate Reality" in the Psychedelic
Group suggest that such labels may reflect differences in semantics and conceptual interpreta-
tion rather than phenomenological or functional differences in the experience.
It should be noted that neither descriptive studies of such experiences, no matter how
detailed, nor the emerging science of neurotheology, no matter how strong the associations
demonstrated between brain processes and religious experience, can definitively address onto-
logical claims about the existence of God [5,52,53,54]. We acknowledge that contentious
issues arise from attempting to draw ontological conclusions about participants’ phenomeno-
logical experiences of "God" or "Ultimate Reality," which some believe to be beyond ordinary
material reality/consciousness [5556]. Such conceptual issues have been discussed at length
by scholars of the psychology of religion who routinely use empirical methods in the study of
religious, spiritual, and mystical experiences [6].
Study strengths and limitations
The methodological strengths of this study include the detailed information assessed about a
single experience in a large sample, exclusion from the Non-Drug Group of anyone who
reported ever in their lifetime having had a God encounter experience after taking any psycho-
active drug, exclusion from the Psychedelic Group of those whose experience occurred after
taking multiple substances, and statistical adjustment for demographic differences between
groups. However, there are a number of limitations of this study. One limitation is that the
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data are based entirely on self-reports collected retrospectively, often years after the experience
occurred. Self-report is limited by social desirability or other implicit biases. For example, par-
ticipants may have been more willing to provide affirmative responses to our survey questions
because of their belief, whether accurate or not, that we may have wanted such responses.
Although the majority of participants indicated that they had vivid memories, the very long
delay between the experience and completing the questionnaire (on average over a decade)
raises further concerns about whether these memories may have changed over time. Further
study limitations include that the survey was time-consuming (averaging 50 minutes), uncom-
pensated, and anonymous, which could have contributed to sample selection bias. On the
other hand, these features also suggest that participants were highly motivated to provide
detailed information about these experiences which they considered to be among the most
meaningful of their lives. A related study limitation is that we do not know how representative
the study samples are of the larger populations of individuals who may have had such experi-
ences. Although the demographic characteristics of the Psychedelic Group were quite similar
to those of past internet surveys of mystical-type and adverse experiences after psilocybin use
[29,49], it is notable that only 1% of both the Non-Drug and Psychedelic Groups were Black/
African-American, which would appear to significantly underrepresent this racial group.
Future research should address this limitation by specifically recruiting individuals from a
variety of diverse backgrounds to better understand these phenomena among non-White
participants.
Conclusions
This is the first study to provide a detailed comparison of naturally occurring (non-drug) and
psychedelic-occasioned experiences that participants frequently interpreted as an encounter
with God or Ultimate Reality. Although there are interesting differences between non-drug
and psychedelic experiences, as well as between experiences associated with four different psy-
chedelic drugs (psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, and DMT), the similarities among these groups
are striking. Participants reported vivid memories of these encounter experiences which fre-
quently involved communication with something most often described as God or Ultimate
Reality and having the attributes of being conscious, benevolent, intelligent, sacred, eternal,
and all-knowing. The encounter experience fulfilled a priori criteria for being a complete mys-
tical experience in about half of the participants. Similar to mystical-type experiences, which
are often defined without reference encountering a sentient other, these experiences were
rated as among the most personally meaningful and spiritually significant lifetime experiences,
with persisting moderate to strong positive changes in attitudes about self, life satisfaction, life
purpose, and life meaning that participants attributed to these experiences. Future exploration
of biological and psychological predisposing factors and the phenomenological and neural cor-
relates of both the acute and persisting effects of such experiences may provide a deeper under-
standing of religious and spiritual beliefs that have been integral to shaping human cultures
since time immemorial.
Supporting information
S1 File. Supporting information tables A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, and J provide estimated
means and standard errors of the estimate for data presented in the published manuscript
in Tables 3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11 and 12, respectively.
(PDF)
Comparison of naturally occurring and psychedelic drug–occasioned God encounter experiences
PLOS ONE | https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0214377 April 23, 2019 23 / 26
S2 File. Questionnaire of naturally occurring (i.e. non-drug) God encounter experiences.
(PDF)
S3 File. Questionnaire of God encounter experiences occasioned by classic psychedelics.
(PDF)
Acknowledgments
The authors acknowledge Karen C. Miller for her encouragement of this research and Linda
Felch for statistical analyses.
Author Contributions
Conceptualization: Roland R. Griffiths, Ethan S. Hurwitz, Robert Jesse.
Data curation: Roland R. Griffiths, Ethan S. Hurwitz.
Formal analysis: Roland R. Griffiths, Ethan S. Hurwitz, Alan K. Davis.
Funding acquisition: Roland R. Griffiths.
Investigation: Roland R. Griffiths, Ethan S. Hurwitz.
Methodology: Roland R. Griffiths, Ethan S. Hurwitz, Robert Jesse.
Project administration: Roland R. Griffiths, Ethan S. Hurwitz.
Resources: Roland R. Griffiths.
Supervision: Roland R. Griffiths.
Validation: Roland R. Griffiths, Ethan S. Hurwitz.
Writing – original draft: Roland R. Griffiths, Ethan S. Hurwitz, Alan K. Davis.
Writing – review & editing: Roland R. Griffiths, Ethan S. Hurwitz, Alan K. Davis, Matthew
W. Johnson, Robert Jesse.
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Comparison of naturally occurring and psychedelic drug–occasioned God encounter experiences
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... The early understanding of the DMT experience was largely supported by editorial, non-peer-reviewed, or popular science publications and reports 2,24,25,33-35 . However, recent efforts have been undertaken to substantiate these works with more rigorous systematic methodologies 2,16,17,19,21,27,36 , with few studies specifically examining inhaled-DMT 21,27,37,30 . ...
... The early understanding of the DMT experience was largely supported by editorial, non-peer-reviewed, or popular science publications and reports 2,24,25,33-35 . However, recent efforts have been undertaken to substantiate these works with more rigorous systematic methodologies 2,16,17,19,21,27,36 , with few studies specifically examining inhaled-DMT 21,27,37,30 . ...
... The shared qualities amongst DMT and certain non-drug induced altered states of consciousness 17,18,21,27 , in concurrence with the growing evidence of an endogenous mammalian source of DMT 39,40 , has led to the increasingly accepted hypothesis that endogenous DMT may be responsible for particular alternate states of consciousness 17,21,27 . However, it is not clear that endogenous DMT release occurs in sufficient concentrations or with sufficient selectivity to produce pharmacological effects 41,42 . ...
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Encounters with apparently sentient beings are reported by half of all first time users of the naturally occurring psychedelic DMT, yet the question of DMT beings and plant sentience, interspecies communication, discarnate consciousness, and perhaps even dialoguing with the divine has never been systematically explored. Offering cutting-edge insights into this visionary domain, this book distills the potent exchange of ideas that occurred at Tyringham Hall, including presentations and discussions on DMT entities, the pineal gland, the possibility of DMT as a chemical messenger from an extraterrestrial civilization, the Amazonian shamanic perspective on invisible entities, morphic resonance, and the science behind hallucinations. Contributors to the talks and discussions include many leading thinkers in this field, including Rupert Sheldrake, Rick Strassman, Dennis McKenna, Graham Hancock, Jeremy Narby, Erik Davis, Ede Frecska, Luis Eduardo Luna, Peter Meyer, Jill Purce, David Luke, and Cosmo Feilding Mellen, among many others. Includes chapters on: Dr Graham St John The Pineal Enigma: The Dazzling Life and Times of the 'Spirit Gland' Dr Dennis J. McKenna Is DMT a Chemical Messenger from an Extraterrestrial Civilization? Dr Jeremy Narby Amazonian Perspectives on Invisible Entities Peter Meyer Concerning the Nature of the DMT Entities and their Relation to Us Dr Erik Davis How to Think about Weird Beings Dr Ede Frecska The Second Foundation of Knowledge, True Visions, and Plant Sentience Dr Andrew Gallimore The Neurobiology of Conscious Interaction with Alternate Realities and Their Inhabitants Dr Rupert Sheldrake Morphic Resonance, Psychedelic Experiences and Collective Memory Dr Rick Strassman The Nature of the DMT Beings: Perspectives and Prospects Graham Hancock Psychedelics, Entities, 'Dark Matter' and Parallel Dimensions Dr Rick Strassman The Nature of the DMT Beings: Perspectives and Prospects Dr David Luke Entheogenic plant sentience and DMT entities: A summary of what we think we know
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Background and aims: Psychedelic entity experiences are examined from perspectives of evolutionary psychology and neurophenomenology. Their similarities with other entity experiences illustrate the need for a general biological explanation of entity experiences. Mechanisms are proposed to involve innate modules, operators, and intelligences that underlie ordinary cognitive inferences and provide the basis for supernatural thought. Methods: Comparisons of ayahuasca and dimethyltryptamine (DMT) entity experiences with other types of entity experiences show their fundamental similarities to conceptions of spirit guides, mythological beings, divinities, extraterrestrials, angels, celestial beings, demons, gnomes, dwarfs, elves, and others. Entities exemplify the properties of anthropomorphism, exhibiting qualities of humans. Comparative methods are proposed to identify common features and differences in psychedelic and other entity experiences. Results: Features of psychedelic entities reflect the functions of principal innate operators and modules (i.e., animacy detection, social role inferences, and mind reading) that have central roles in the explanation of the genesis of spirit experiences and beliefs. Humans' innate psychology includes diverse forms of self and alien self-phenomena, providing mechanisms for explaining psychedelic entity experiences. Neurophenomenological approaches illustrate that the physiological effects of psychedelics can account for release of innate modules and mental organs. The concept of the phantasy mode of consciousness provides a mechanism through which our unconscious causal and explanatory mechanisms produce accounts of encounters with non-human beings. The extensive interaction of DMT with the receptorome explains why these experiences give such a powerful sense of ontological certainty. Conclusion: Psychedelic entity experiences share central features with a robust innate human tendency to attribute agency, intentionality, causality, and personhood and to create accounts involving human-like qualities and entities.
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Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences with participant-attributed increases in well-being. However, little research has examined enduring changes in traits. This study administered psilocybin to participants who undertook a program of meditation/spiritual practices. Healthy participants were randomized to three groups (25 each): (1) very low-dose (1 mg/70 kg on sessions 1 and 2) with moderate-level (“standard”) support for spiritual-practice (LD-SS); (2) high-dose (20 and 30 mg/70 kg on sessions 1 and 2, respectively) with standard support (HD-SS); and (3) high-dose (20 and 30 mg/70kg on sessions 1 and 2, respectively) with high support for spiritual practice (HD-HS). Psilocybin was administered double-blind and instructions to participants/staff minimized expectancy confounds. Psilocybin was administered 1 and 2 months after spiritual-practice initiation. Outcomes at 6 months included rates of spiritual practice and persisting effects of psilocybin. Compared with low-dose, high-dose psilocybin produced greater acute and persisting effects. At 6 months, compared with LD-SS, both high-dose groups showed large significant positive changes on longitudinal measures of interpersonal closeness, gratitude, life meaning/purpose, forgiveness, death transcendence, daily spiritual experiences, religious faith and coping, and community observer ratings. Determinants of enduring effects were psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experience and rates of meditation/spiritual practices. Psilocybin can occasion enduring trait-level increases in prosocial attitudes/behaviors and in healthy psychological functioning. Trial Registration ClinicalTrials.gov Identifier NCT00802282
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Experiences of profound existential or spiritual significance can be triggered reliably through psychopharmacological means using psychedelic substances. However, little is known about the benefits of religious, spiritual, or mystical experiences (RSMEs) prompted by psychedelic substances, as compared with those that occur through other means. In this study, 739 self-selected participants reported the psychological impact of their RSMEs and indicated whether they were induced by a psychedelic substance. Experiences induced by psychedelic substances were rated as more intensely mystical (d = .75, p < .001), resulted in a reduced fear of death (d = .21, p < .01), increased sense of purpose (d = .18, p < .05), and increased spirituality (d = .28, p < .001) as compared with nonpsychedelically triggered RSMEs. These results remained significant in an expanded model controlling for gender, education, socioeconomic status, and religious affiliation. These findings lend support to the growing consensus that RSMEs induced with psychedelic substances are genuinely mystical and generally positive in outcome.
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Chapter
This chapter will summarize structure-activity relationships (SAR) that are known for the classic serotonergic hallucinogens (aka psychedelics), focusing on the three chemical types: tryptamines, ergolines, and phenethylamines. In the brain, the serotonin 5-HT2A receptor plays a key role in regulation of cortical function and cognition, and also appears to be the principal target for hallucinogenic/psychedelic drugs such as LSD. It is one of the most extensively studied of the 14 known types of serotonin receptors. Important structural features will be identified for activity and, where possible, those that the psychedelics have in common will be discussed. Because activation of the 5-HT2A receptor is the principal mechanism of action for psychedelics, compounds with 5-HT2A agonist activity generally are quickly discarded by the pharmaceutical industry. Thus, most of the research on psychedelics can be related to activation of 5-HT2A receptors. Therefore, much of the discussion will include not only clinical or anecdotal studies, but also will consider data from animal models as well as a certain amount of molecular pharmacology where it is known.
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Acute adverse psychological reactions to classic hallucinogens ("bad trips" or "challenging experiences"), while usually benign with proper screening, preparation, and support in controlled settings, remain a safety concern in uncontrolled settings (such as illicit use contexts). Anecdotal and case reports suggest potential adverse acute symptoms including affective (panic, depressed mood), cognitive (confusion, feelings of losing sanity), and somatic (nausea, heart palpitation) symptoms. Responses to items from several hallucinogen-sensitive questionnaires (Hallucinogen Rating Scale, the States of Consciousness Questionnaire, and the Five-Dimensional Altered States of Consciousness questionnaire) in an Internet survey of challenging experiences with the classic hallucinogen psilocybin were used to construct and validate a Challenging Experience Questionnaire. The stand-alone Challenging Experience Questionnaire was then validated in a separate sample. Seven Challenging Experience Questionnaire factors (grief, fear, death, insanity, isolation, physical distress, and paranoia) provide a phenomenological profile of challenging aspects of experiences with psilocybin. Factor scores were associated with difficulty, meaningfulness, spiritual significance, and change in well-being attributed to the challenging experiences. The factor structure did not differ based on gender or prior struggle with anxiety or depression. The Challenging Experience Questionnaire provides a basis for future investigation of predictors and outcomes of challenging experiences with classic hallucinogens.