A new study is gathering hard data on some of humanity’s most slippery questions.
Published in Scientific Reports, the study claims that psychedelics alter a person’s metaphysical beliefs. In other words: how they perceive the nature of reality. Metaphysics deal with questions such as the meaning of life, our place in the cosmos, what is consciousness, do we have free will, and does god exist?
“It’s central to the way in which we structure society,” says neuroscientist, psychologist, and lead researcher, Dr. Christopher Timmermann. “[Metaphysical beliefs are] the building blocks for the way we understand and engage with the world.”
The word “metaphysics” comes from the root words “meta” meaning beyond and “physics” meaning the physical world. The subjective nature of reality has produced various metaphysical theories, three of which the study examines: Materialism (thoughts, ideas, and other non-physical things are merely movements of physical matter or chemical reactions. There is no reality beyond the physical, ie: your mind emerges from your brain); idealism (assert that “reality” is indistinguishable and inseparable from human perception and understanding; that reality is a mental construct closely connected to ideas); and dualism (a philosophy that there are two kinds of reality: material and immaterial).
In the first part of the study, nearly 900 volunteers were questioned on their metaphysical beliefs before attending a psilocybin ceremony. Four weeks and six months following the ceremony, the volunteers completed the survey again.
“We actually thought people would move towards idealism — this idea that we are all connected,” says Timmermann. “Our main finding was that people were rejecting the notion of materialism (that the fundamental player of reality is matter).”
What’s valuable here, he says, is that rather than people endorsing an idiosyncratic worldview, they shifted away from a hardened belief in materialism, which speaks to the possibility of becoming more flexible in your way of thinking after a psychedelic experience. Overall, participants reported an improvement in mental health. And the swing from one way of seeing the world to another was most noticeable for those who had taken psilocybin for the first time.
The second part of the study involved a clinical trial with 60 participants (half given an antidepressant and the other half psilocybin). The results were much the same, in that psilocybin participants shifted away from materialism into a more transcendental way of thinking about the world.
Although researchers know beliefs can change, they don’t necessarily know in which ways the concept of reality changes with it. “For instance, can psychedelics be used to treat things like existential anxiety in terminally ill cancer patients by altering their belief about what happens after death?” asks Timmermann.
Relaxed Beliefs Under Psychedelics (REBUS)
“The way science currently understands the way the brain operates is that it builds predictions or stories of the world,” he says. “Rather than digesting external information from the environment, our stories are driving our perceptions. It’s almost like we live in a controlled hallucination. The idea is that psychedelics reduce the influence of these stories. They deconstruct or tear down the hierarchy in which the stories are dominating the idea of how we engage with the world and leave us open to new information. They relax our beliefs.”
Set + Setting = Story
Our lives are comprised of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Whether you endorse fate, free will, or life after death, affects your reality. What happens when your story changes?
“One of the interesting things we found is that the amount of change and rejection of materialism was dependent on the context in which they did the psychedelic,” says Timmermann. “What we think is happening is that psychedelics aren’t necessarily shifting your beliefs in a specific direction, rather, they relax your beliefs, and the context pushes in the new beliefs that are developed.”
Those shifts in belief could be influenced by the environment, interactions, the guide, and so on.
“If someone takes ayahuasca with an indigenous shaman who has a strong worldview, the substance helps relax stories that people have prior to that experience, and the new stories coming in are being knitted by the songs, stories, the actions of the shaman. The different behaviours of that skilled facilitators have an impact.”
The notion of set, setting, and context is highlighted as one of the most important fundamental things that we have learned about psychedelics in contemporary science.
God-shaped hole in our hearts?
“I think there is an element of a search and the idea that we are deprived of a larger meaning because our systems of religion have collapsed. We are lacking internalized institutions of meaning,” he says. “Right now, psychedelics have a bit of that flavor of the mystical experience where, somehow, you have direct communications with a spiritual source or god to transcend who you are. That’s why we have to be careful of the narratives we employ when we speak about psychedelics.”
Next steps of the study
The researchers plan to develop “finer grain” questions around how perspectives shift reality by leaning more into nuance.
“The other thing, which I think is the most fascinating, is trying to understand the consequences of shifting beliefs. How does that change behavior, your relationships, what are the gains that can be had, and if so, is that a sustainable element or do we need to have psychedelic therapy that is grounded all the way down from the more abstract to the more relational, personal work?
Finally, he asks, given the influence of context, what are the beliefs that we’re currently proposing to people?