Study: Encounters with God, even under the influence, provide lasting mental benefits

BALTIMORE — People who claim they’ve seen God may not be so crazy after all. A study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine found that those who have had divine encounter experiences — the sensation of seeing a God-like figure or a profound, enhanced reality or truth — reap lasting mental benefits.

Many have reported experiencing these deeply religious visions spontaneously or while under the influence of psychedelic drugs like psilocybin “magic” mushrooms or the Amazonian drink ayahuasca. Some of these experiences were described as encounters with God or an “ultimate reality,” bringing sudden, striking clarity to their lives and existence in general. And interestingly, even if the encounter occurred on a psychedelic trip, researchers say the benefits are still the same.

“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,” says lead researcher Roland Griffiths, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, in a release. “And although 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 health.”

Dr. Griffiths and his team used data from 4,285 people around the world who completed one of two 50-minute online surveys about God encounter experiences. These surveys had participants recall their most memorable encounter experience with either the “God of their understanding,” a “higher power,” “ultimate reality” or “an aspect or representative of God, such as an angel.” The surveys also asked the respondents to describe how the experience changed their lives.

Of the nearly 3,500 participants who saw their vision while under the influence of a psychedelic, 1,184 took psilocybin mushrooms, 1,251 took LSD, 435 took ayahuasca, and 606 took DMT, another naturally occurring substance found in certain plants and animals. Participants were about 25 years old on average if the experience occurred while under the influence, compared to 35 years old if it was spontaneous.

Researchers found several interesting conclusions. Among them, 75% of people who had an encounter say it was among the most “meaningful and spiritually significant” moments in their lives — so much so that it brought about permanent positive changes in their life satisfaction, purpose and meaning. In fact, the experience was so powerful that about two-thirds of self-identified atheists shed that label after their encounter.

The experience also caused 70% of those who used psychedelics to report a decreased fear of death, compared to 57% of those in the spontaneous segment. The non-drug group was also more likely to say they saw “God” or “an emissary of God” (59 percent) in their encounter, whereas those in the psychedelics group were most likely (55 percent) to refer to it as an “ultimate reality.”

All that said, the authors emphasize they do not suggest people turn to psychedelic drug use in an attempt to have a divine experience. They also note their study is also not intended to answer the question of whether there is, in fact, a God.

“We want to be clear that our study looks at personal experiences and says nothing about the existence, or nonexistence of God,” says Griffiths. “We doubt that any science can definitively settle this point either way.”

The study was published in the journal PLOS One.

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