Personal Encounters With 'God' Confer Lasting Mental Health Benefits

Megan Brooks

April 30, 2019

Profound religious experiences are linked to lasting mental health benefits, new research suggests.

In a survey study of more than 4000 individuals, those who reported having profound personal experiences with "ultimate reality" or God, whether spontaneously or through use of a psychedelic drug, often reported lasting, positive changes in their psychological health even decades after the experience.

"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," lead investigator Roland Griffiths, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland, told Medscape Medical News.

The findings were published online April 23 in PLOS One.

First Study of Its Kind

"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," the authors say.

"Naturally occurring and psychedelic drug–occasioned experiences interpreted as personal encounters with God are well described but have not been systematically compared," they note.

A total of 4285 individuals completed an online survey in which they were asked to recall their single most memorable encounter with the "God of their understanding," a "higher power," "ultimate reality," or "an aspect or representative of God, such as an angel."

Of the group, 809 reported a naturally occurring experience (nondrug group), and the remaining 3476 reported a psychedelic-induced experience.

In the latter group, 1184 used psilocybin; 1251, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD); 435, ayahuasca; and 606, N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT).

The average age of the respondents was 38 years when they took the survey. The God encounter experience occurred, on average, at age 25 in the psychedelics group and at age 35 in the nondrug group.

Vivid Memory, Positive Change

Three quarters (75%) of respondents in both the nondrug and the psychedelics groups rated their God encounter as among the most meaningful and spiritually significant in their lifetime, and both groups said it led to positive psychological changes in their lives.

Most had vivid memories of the experience, which often involved communicating with an entity having the attributes of consciousness, benevolence, intelligence, sacredness, and eternal existence.

Participants in the nondrug group were most likely to choose "God" or "an emissary of God" (59%) as the best descriptor of their encounter; those in the psychedelics group were most likely to choose "ultimate reality" (55%).

Both groups reported being less fearful of dying after the experience, although this was more common in the psychedelics group than in the nondrug group (70% vs 57%). About 15% of both groups said their experience was the most psychologically challenging of their lives.

"That such experiences may be both attractive and extremely difficult is consistent with the classic description of the dual nature of encounters with the 'Holy' both as 'mysterium tremendum' (referring to its awfulness and absolute overpoweringness) and 'mysterium fascinans' (referring to its fascinating and attractive nature) by the theologian Rudolf Otto," the authors write.

"Likewise, that psychedelic experiences can involve both positive emotion including transcendence as well as highly distressing feelings such as fear and insanity have been well-documented," they note.

The survey does not provide data on how frequently these experiences occur on a population level. Also, it relied on self-reported responses to a questionnaire, which carries substantial risk for biased or inaccurate responses, the researchers point out.

Looking ahead, Griffiths said his team would like to explore potential factors that may predispose someone to have such a profound encounter and to investigate what happens in the brain during the experience.

"Although modern Western medicine doesn't typically consider 'spiritual' or 'religious' experiences as one of the tools in the arsenal against sickness, our findings suggest that these encounters often lead to improvements in mental health," he said.

Support for the study was provided by the Council on Spiritual Practices and the Heffter Research Institute. Griffiths is on the board of directors of the Heffter Research Institute.

PLoS One. Published online April 23, 2019. Abstract

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