Trait and State Predictors of Transformational Mystical Experience under Psilocybin
Some individuals experience life-changing perspective shifts under consciousness-altering stimuli, while others exposed to the same stimuli do not experience transformative alterations. Such transformative shifts appear to be mediated by a mystical state, also referred to as an ecstatic state or peak experience, consisting of six key dimensions: noetic quality, unity, transcendence of time and space, deeply felt positive mood, ineffability, and sacredness (e.g., Pahnke, 1963). Abraham Maslow (1964) recognized individual differences in the capacity for mystical states, delineating individuals who experience mystical states as “peakers” and those who do not as “non-peakers” and explaining that some individuals with certain mechanistic, goal-oriented, or highly rational traits block, deny, or suppress the experience. William James (1902) discussed identity-based crises and receptive states that allow individuals greater access to transformative mystical experience. This study utilized crowdsourced retrospective survey data to test the hypotheses that (a) trait and epistemological factors predict mystical experience, (b) a state of crisis followed by surrender at the time of ingestion of psilocybin would predict mystical experience irrespective of trait and epistemological factors, and (c) mystical experience would mediate the relationship between the predictors and transformative outcomes. The final cleaned dataset included 143 individuals who had experienced psilocybin within the past year and who participated for small compensation through Amazon Mechanical Turk. The survey gathered trait and demographic characteristics, and then primed individuals through writing prompts to recall four facets of their experience: (a) their experience in the days and weeks prior to the experience, completed before measuring “Crisis,” (b) their situation and mental state at the onset of the experience, completed before measuring “Surrender” and various setting factors, (c) their psilocybin experience, completed before measuring “Mystical Experience” and “Dread,” and (d) their current situation. All of the measures were established validated scales except for “Epistemology,” “Surrender,” and “Crisis,” the first two of which were developed and statistically reduced for this study based on descriptions by James and Maslow. The final regression model strongly supported the predictive framework, explaining more than 63% of the variance in “Mystical Experience” and half of the experience in “Dread” occurring under psilocybin, with “Surrender” and its inverse state “Preoccupied” adding the greatest predictive value. Although these results require replication and have a range of limitations, they suggest that the therapeutic benefits of psilocybin could be maximized and adverse reactions reduced if individuals’ epistemological frameworks and states of surrender were examined before administering psilocybin therapeutically.
Suzanne L. Russ, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Psychology employed at Dickinson State University in ND, USA since 2008. She completed her Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota in 2009, adding to Master and Bachelor’s degrees from University of Wisconsin institutions. She recently completed a sabbatical studying psychophysiology at the University of Arizona, and also served as a Visiting Professor of Psychology at Duksung Women’s University in Seoul, Korea. Her interest in mystical experience is a recent area of study, spawned after a 10-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat in January 2015. She is currently deeply interested in generating testable models from theoretical frameworks described in classic texts, and testing them with crowdsourced data from individuals who have had recent experiences with ASCs or intend to have such experiences.