Taking a new look at psychedelics: Q&A with Roland Griffiths

At TEDMED 2015, psychopharmacology researcher Roland Griffiths shared intriguing research findings about psilocybin, a naturally occurring psychedelic substance that has been used for hundreds of years within some cultures for medical, healing, and religious purposes. We reached out to Roland with some questions about his current research.

We’re especially curious about your research into the connections between psilocybin, spirituality, and consciousness. Can you tell us more? Are there any updates?

_JHU9762 RRG office copy_FotorIn ongoing studies, we’re examining the effects of psilocybin in long-term meditators and in religious leaders from the major faith traditions. We’re also conducting two anonymous internet surveys. One is asking about experiences that some people report of an encounter with God, or the God of their understanding. Another is examining anomalous experiences, such as Near Death Experiences, that produce enduring changes in people’s attitudes and beliefs about death and dying. In both surveys, we want to compare spontaneously occurring experiences with psychedelically occasioned ones. Our hope is that these surveys will allow us to better understand such experiences and how they may differ across faith traditions and occasioning events (e.g. prayer, meditation, spontaneously-occurring, nature experiences, drug-occasioned, etc.).

Our research has shown that a single experience with psilocybin can produce personally meaningful experiences accompanied by enduring positive changes in attitudes, mood and behavior. We’ve recently completed a study suggesting that psilocybin decreases depression and anxiety associated with a life-threatening cancer diagnosis. We’re also following up on a pilot study that suggested the psilocybin may be helpful in treating drug addictions — in this case, cigarette smoking. Finally, we’re initiating a study to explore the efficacy of psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression. In several of our studies we are using fMRI brain imaging methods to examine the acute and persisting changes in brain function that occur after receiving psilocybin.

You’ve opened our eyes to the potential therapeutic benefits of psilocybin – but do they come with risks?

_JHU9895 cancer pamphlet copy_FotorAlthough most participants in our laboratory studies have positive psilocybin experiences, about 30% experience significant fear or anxiety sometime during the session. Even for that 30%, given our careful screening and support, persisting adverse outcomes are virtually non-existent. It can be a different story for haphazard use in the general population. We recently conducted an internet survey of almost 2000 people who described their single most challenging experiences after taking psilocybin. Almost 40% of respondents rated the experience to be among the five most challenging experiences of their lives (yet, curiously, often among the most meaningful of their lives). Notably, about 10 percent said they had put themselves or others at risk of physical harm during the challenging experience, most likely in response to fear or panic, and about 10% reported enduring adverse psychological symptoms lasting a year or more. The contrast between the survey results and the excellent safety track record of the laboratory studies underscores the need for careful screening, preparation, and support.

Why study mystical experiences? What does this work mean to you?

Many of the challenges facing the world today, such as the environmental crisis and hostilities within and between cultures, stem from a lack of appreciation for the profound interconnectedness of all people and all things. This sense of interconnectedness or unity is a core feature of the world’s ethical and moral systems. Our interconnectedness is also a core feature of the mystical or transcendent experiences that occur with high probability after the ingestion of psilocybin under appropriate conditions. Ultimately, systematic prospective study of mystical experiences and their consequences may be critical to the survival of our species and the healing of our planet.

Is there a thought or mantra that you repeat to yourself most often?

I try continually to cultivate deep gratitude for the astonishing mystery of consciousness — that we are aware that we are aware — giving rise in me to uplifting and sacred feelings of wonder about all that we do not and quite possibly can never know.

Watch Roland’s TEDMED 2015 talk, “The science of psilocybin and its use to relieve suffering,” here.