Psychedelics and Positive Behavior Change: The Role of Mystical Experience

Matthew Johnson, Department of Psychiatry, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore


The Johns Hopkins Psychedelic Research Unit has published a body of empirical research suggesting that psilocybin results in positive long term outcomes in both healthy participants and in individuals with psychiatric disorders. This research has repeatedly found that under conditions of substantial preparation, interpersonal support, and instructions for introspection, psilocybin administration causes, with reasonable reliability, acute subjective effects that are well described by the psychological construct of mystical experience. Mystical experience is defined by strong endorsement of the following domains: sense of unity, noetic quality, sacredness, sense of transcending of time and space, and ineffability. Compared to psilocybin sessions in which full mystical experience criteria are not endorsed, psilocybin-occasioned mystical experiences are associated with positive long-term (6 months and more) outcomes including increased personality openness in healthy participants, decreased depression and anxiety in cancer patients, and increased biologically-confirmed quit rates in treatment-resistant tobacco cigarette smokers. These findings are consistent with the notion that psychedelic therapy is best thought of as medication-assisted psychotherapy, wherein the drug provides an opportunity for an experience, and that experience may hold therapeutic value. This research also suggests that psychedelics may constitute powerful experimental tools for determining the long-term effects of distinctive states of consciousness on behavior.