How religious experiences may benefit mental health

By Ana Sandoiu 

Fact checked by Carolyn Robertson

A survey of thousands of
people suggests that mystical experiences positively affect a person’s mental
health, regardless of whether they are naturally occurring or a result of
psychedelic drugs.

Religion may have a wide range
of health benefits, research suggests.
For instance, a study that
appeared last year found that religious believers tend to live 4 years longer,
on average, while another study found that attending religious ceremonies
slashes the risk of premature death among seniors.
Emerging research is also
looking into the mental health benefits of various psychedelic substances.
For example, several studies
have shown that psilocybin — the psychoactive compound in so-called magic
mushrooms — has the potential to treat severe depression without the side
effects of conventional antidepressants.
Now, a new study is bringing
these research topics together, as a team of psychologists sets out to examine
the effects of naturally occurring and drug-induced mystical experiences on
mental health.
Roland Griffiths, Ph.D., a
professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University
School of Medicine in Baltimore, MD, led the team to look at the effects of
spontaneous and chemically induced religious experiences among thousands of
Prof. Griffiths and colleagues
published their findings in the journal PLOS One.

Studying religious and mystical

The researchers asked 4,285
study participants to answer a survey in which they had to describe their
“God encounter experiences and mystical experiences.”
The surveys asked the
participants about their experiences with the “God of [their]
understanding,” a “Higher Power, Ultimate Reality, or an Aspect or
Emissary of God (e.g., an angel).” The survey also inquired about how the
participants felt after the experience and how it changed their lives, if at
Approximately 69% of the participants
were male, aged 38 years on average, and the vast majority of the respondents
were white. The study looked at mystical experiences that occurred both
naturally and as a result of taking psychedelics, using two different surveys.
A total of 3,476 participants
answered the psychedelics survey, and 809 answered the non-drug survey.
Specifically, in the former group,
1,184 participants took “magic mushrooms,” 1,251 took lysergic acid
(LSD), 435 took ayahuasca, and 606 reported taking N,N-dimethyltryptamine
“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,” report the

‘God encounters’ may improve
mental health

Overall, the study found that
most participants who had “God encounter experiences” reported
positive effects on their mental health.
Namely, the mystical
experiences improved their life satisfaction, purpose, and meaning, and these
positive changes lasted for decades after the experience.
In fact, about 75% of all
respondents (in both the drugs and no-drugs groups) said the experience was
“among the most personally meaningful and spiritually significant lifetime
experiences, with moderate to strong persisting positive changes” to their
mental health.
Furthermore, 70% of
participants in the drugs group said they had a decreased fear of death as a
result of the experiences, whereas 57% of the non-drug participants reported
the same feeling.
Approximately 15% of the
participants in both groups said the experience was “the single most
psychologically challenging experience of their lifetime.”
In the non-drug group, 59% of
the respondents described their experience as meeting “God” or
“an emissary of God,” whereas 55% of the psychedelics users chose to
describe it as an “ultimate reality.”
The lead researcher comments
on the findings, saying, “Experiences that people describe as encounters
with God or a representative of God have been reported for thousands of years,
and they likely form the basis of many of the world’s religions.”
“[A]lthough 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

Prof. Roland Griffiths, Ph.D.

The researcher stresses the
fact that their research says nothing about the existence of a higher being.
“We want to be clear that our study looks at personal experiences and says
nothing about the existence or nonexistence of God.”
Furthermore, the scientists
caution that people should not use psychedelic drugs without professional
guidance, as there are various psychological dangers to misusing these
substances, in addition to legal risks.

Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.