Meditation and other spiritual practices enhance the enduring personal changes associated with Psilocybin

For as long as illicit substances have been around, psychedelic drug users have reported transcendental, mystical-type experiences. According to researcher Roland Griffiths, these deeply meaningful events can result in profound personal transformations. Quantum change experiences, as Griffiths calls them, result in fundamental changes to a person’s prosocial attitudes and psychological well-being. Different from behavioural changes, which take time and effort to implement, Quantum change experiences occur rapidly and are long-lasting. But few research studies with psychedelics have recorded long-lasting personal transformations.

         In his 2018 psychedelic study, Griffiths set out to uncover whether psilocybin, a psychoactive drug, could produce long-lasting changes in personal disposition in healthy individuals. All participants were given two doses of psilocybin, with a one-month interval between doses. One group of individuals was given a low dose, which essentially functioned as a placebo, while the other group received a high dose of psilocybin. Unlike previous studies, Griffiths introduced a new element: spiritual practices. The healthy volunteers were given a book on meditation, an outline of possible spiritual practices like cultivating self-awareness and sitting meditation, and a blank journal for self-reflection. However, maintaining these spiritual practices can be a challenging pursuit. So, Griffiths split the high dose cohort in two. Half of the group was encouraged to engage in spiritual practices: meditation, journaling, and spiritual awareness. The other half was highly encouraged to keep up with their spiritual practices. The high-spiritual-support group met with spiritual guides 5 times more often than other participants (35 hours vs. 7 hours) and attended regular group meetings to discuss the successes and challenges of maintaining their spiritual practices, before and after the psilocybin administration. Each volunteer filled out measures to assess their feelings, attitudes, and behaviours during and immediately after the psilocybin session, as well as 6 months later.

         Healthy volunteers who received a high dose of psilocybin were more likely to have a mystical-type experience, compared to the low-dose condition. They described emotions such as happiness, harmony, a positive mood, and a sensation of transcending time and space. The reported emotions did not differ based on the degree of spiritual support. At the six month follow up, participants who ingested a high dose of psilocybin reported a higher instance of positive changes to their attitudes, mood, and behavior. According to Griffith’s analysis of the data, the effect of positive personal change was largely driven by a mystical-type experience; those who reported a transcendental experience while under the effect of psilocybin tended to also report positive changes to their disposition 6 months later. Indeed, the mystical experience explained far more of the variance than spiritual support. However, the degree of spiritual support influenced the magnitude of the positive change; individuals who were highly supported in their spiritual practices reported significantly larger changes in psychological well-being and prosocial attitudes, such as helping and sharing. Those who received strong spiritual support throughout the study were also twice as likely to engage in spiritual practices after six months, compared to their less-supported counterparts. These positive changes in participants’ attitudes and behaviours were not just reported by the participants themselves, but also by community members who knew the participants. 

         Will a dose or two of psilocybin make us all better people? As the reader, we must approach these findings with a healthy degree of caution before we jump to generalizations. Firstly, the psilocybin was administered under highly controlled conditions to a group of healthy individuals. Secondly, participants were coached through the experience by trained experts. Beyond generalizability, we don’t entirely understand why these spiritual practices led to larger personal changes in disposition. The researchers suggest that spiritual practices like meditation allow for integration of the mystical-type experience. Intuitively, that makes a ton of sense. The practices of meditation and self-reflection allow a person to apply the lessons of the mystical-type experience to their own life, resulting in profound personal changes. While the link between spiritual practices and positive personal change has not yet been scientifically tested, Griffiths’ research has prompted a whole new set of questions on the potential benefits of meditation and other spiritual practices.

Read the book on meditation provided in the study design: Meditation: A Simple 8-Point Program for Translating Spiritual Ideals into Daily Life” (Easwaran, 1991/1978)


Griffiths, R. R., Johnson, M. W., Richards, W. A., Richards, B. D., Jesse, R., MacLean, K. A., Barrett, F. S., Cosimano, M. P., & Klinedinst, M. A. (2018). Psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experience in combination with meditation and other spiritual practices produces enduring positive changes in psychological functioning and in trait measures of prosocial attitudes and behaviors. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 32(1), 49–69.

This article was written by Jillian Caplan, a medical student at McGill University and member of the Mindful Medical Learner Team.

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