A commentary on the article “Psychedelics alter metaphysical beliefs,” by Christopher Timmermann et al., published in Scientific Reports.
This past October, the actor William Shatner went to outer space. Aboard a Blue Origin rocket, Shatner was outside of Earth’s atmosphere and looking back on the planet for just four minutes, but that was all it took to make a deep impression on him. From his vantage point, Shatner saw the totality of the Earth. In its unity he saw the interconnectedness of life. And he saw the fragility of the planet, the vast blue sky suddenly diminished to just a delicate membrane insulating our home against outer space’s cold black endlessness. Back on Earth, after the rocket’s return, Shatner tearfully told the Blue Origin team, “What you have given me is the most profound experience I can imagine.” He continued, “Everybody in the world needs to see it.”
Of course, commercial space flight is not realistically available to more than a small group of the ultra-wealthy, let alone everybody in the world. But maybe there’s another way to engender the same beneficial feelings of awe and transcendence without leaving our terrestrial domain: Taking a dose of psychedelic drug.
What William Shatner experienced in the Blue Origin rocket is known as the overview effect (Yaden et al., 2016). Throughout the history of human spaceflight, astronauts have reported intense emotions and feelings of awe, often completely unexpected, upon seeing the Earth from a distant vantage point in space. In numerous reports, these feelings are accompanied by profound feelings of identification with all of humanity and terrestrial life, and personal responsibility for global welfare (see Yaden et al., 2016 for testimonies from astronauts exemplifying these profound changes in worldview).
The overview effect is thought to be triggered by seeing a familiar place from a new, distant perspective. The familiar place is normally experienced and thought of as huge and encompassing, so the association of the place with its vast size conflicts with its newly small extent in the visual field. Although taking psychedelic drugs doesn’t literally vault one to a distant location, it might afford a similar kind of change in perspective, and thereby trigger a change in worldview that is analogous to seeing the Earth from outer space.
“Psychedelics have been shown to elicit profound emotional experiences that could be labeled as transformative, transcendental, mystical, or spiritually significant”
Psychedelics have been shown to elicit profound emotional experiences that could be labeled as transformative, transcendental, mystical, or spiritually significant (Griffiths, Richards, McCann, & Jesse, 2006). The qualities of these mystical experiences can include feelings of oceanic boundlessness, profound meaning, ego dissolution, and identification with all of humanity. And the mystical experiences have been shown to provide beneficial, lasting psychological effects: measures of positive mood, prosocial attitudes, and overall wellbeing persisted over time. Consequently, two-thirds of the volunteers in the study conducted by Griffiths and colleagues rated the psychedelic experience as either the single most meaningful experience or among the top five most meaningful experiences of their lives. All these reported aftereffects of psychedelic administration echo features of the overview effect, right down to William Shatner proclaiming that seeing the Earth from space “is the most profound experience I can imagine.”
A new study by Christopher Timmermann and colleagues (Timmermann et al., 2021) sheds light on how the psychedelic experience might provide people with a sort of earthbound overview effect: not by giving them a new view of Earth, but instead by giving them a glimpse of a fundamentally different world, down to the fabric of reality itself.
In the study, the authors reported the results of a survey in which participants responded to questions about their metaphysical beliefs, both before and after participating in a ceremony in which psychedelics were administered. One’s metaphysical beliefs include their convictions, sometimes implicitly held, about the fundamental nature of reality, the mind, and free will. For example, two opposing metaphysical views on the Universe are physicalism and idealism. Someone with a physicalist worldview would say that reality is fundamentally physical, and that the mind and all mental qualities have a fundamentally physical implementation. Someone with an idealist worldview would argue the opposite – reality is mental at its most fundamental level, and all physical properties derive therefrom.
“Timmermann and colleagues observed that people’s metaphysical beliefs shifted after participating in the psychedelic ceremonies”
Timmermann and colleagues observed that people’s metaphysical beliefs shifted after participating in the psychedelic ceremonies. The researchers compared survey scores on questions pertaining to the strength of one’s physicalist beliefs both four weeks and six months following a psychedelic ceremony with scores recorded before the ceremony, and found a significant shift away from physicalist beliefs that was sustained over time. Intriguingly, the researchers observed a distinct increase in panpsychist beliefs following psychedelic use. Panpsychism is the metaphysical position that the fundamental nature of reality is mental, and that consciousness is intrinsic to all physical properties.
The fact that people’s core beliefs about the nature of reality tended to change after a psychedelic ceremony, together with previous characterizations of transformative experiences fostered by psychedelics (Griffiths et al., 2006), is a testament to the worldview-altering quality of the psychedelic experience. The fragile beauty of Earth seen from a cockpit window may not be superficially comparable to a psychedelic dissolution of the boundaries of the self and the ego, but on a deeper level, the change springs from the same source: both experiences can show people their familiar environments from radically new perspectives.
Written by Sean Noah.
Edited by Arielle Hogan and Abinaya Muthusamy.
Griffiths, R. R., Richards, W. A., McCann, U., & Jesse, R. (2006). Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance. Psychopharmacology (Berl), 187(3), 268-283; discussion 284-292.
Timmermann, C., Kettner, H., Letheby, C., Roseman, L., Rosas, F. E., & Carhart-Harris, R. L. (2021). Psychedelics alter metaphysical beliefs. Scientific Reports, 11(1), 22166.
Yaden, D., Iwry, J., Slack, K., Eichstaedt, J., Zhao, Y., Vaillant, G., et al. (2016). The Overview Effect: Awe and Self-Transcendent Experience in Space Flight. Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, 3, 1-11.