Both psychedelic drug experiences and near-death experiences can alter perspectives on death and dying, but there have been few direct comparisons of these phenomena, the investigators note.
In the current study, they directly compared psychedelic-occasioned and nondrug experiences, which altered individuals’ beliefs about death.
In a retrospective study results published online in PLOS ONE, more than 3000 participants, near-death experiences occurring naturally or via a psychedelic drug had a “remarkably” similar effect on attitudes about death and dying, with most participants reporting less fear and anxiety around death.
“Individuals with existential anxiety and depression at end of life account for substantial suffering and significantly increased health care expenses from desperate and often futile seeking of intensive and expensive medical treatments,” co-investigator Roland Griffiths, Ph.D., Center for Psychedelics and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins Medicine, Baltimore, Maryland. “The present findings, which show that both psychedelic and non-drug-occasioned experiences can produce positive and enduring changes in attitudes about death, suggest the importance of future prospective experimental and clinical observational studies to better understand mechanisms of such changes as well as their potential clinical utility in ameliorating suffering related to fear to death,” Griffiths said.
The researchers surveyed 3192 mostly White adults from the United States, including 933 who had a natural, nondrug near-death experience and 2259 who had psychedelic near-death experiences induced with lysergic acid diethylamide, psilocybin, ayahuasca, or N,N-dimethyltryptamine.
The psychedelic group had more men than women and tended to be younger at the time of the experience than was the nondrug group. Nearly 90% of individuals in both groups said that they were less afraid of death than they were before their experiences. About half of both groups said they’d encountered “God” during the experience. Three quarters of the psychedelic group and 85% of the nondrug group rated their experiences as among the top five most personally meaningful and spiritually significant events of their life.
Individuals in both groups also reported moderate- to strong-lasting positive changes in personal well-being and life purpose and meaning after their experiences. However, there were some differences between the groups.
Compared with the psychedelic group, the nondrug group was more likely to report being unconscious, clinically dead, or that their life was in imminent danger. The nonpsychedelic group was also more likely to report that their experience was very brief, lasting 5 minutes or less. Both the psychedelic and nondrug participants showed robust increases on standardized measures of mystical and near-death experiences, but these measures were significantly greater in the psychedelic group.
The survey findings are in line with several recent clinical trials showing that a single treatment with the psychedelic psilocybin produced sustained decreases in anxiety and depression among patients with a life-threatening cancer diagnosis.
This includes a 2016 study by Griffiths and colleagues, which included 51 patients with late-stage cancer. As reported at the time by Medscape Medical News, results showed a single, high dose of psilocybin had rapid, clinically significant, and lasting effects on mood and anxiety.
Limitations of the current survey cited by the researchers include the use of retrospective self-report to describe changes in death attitudes and the subjective features of the experiences. Also, respondents were a self-selected study population that may not be representative of all psychedelic or near-death experiences. In addition, the study did not attempt to document worldview and other belief changes, such as increased belief in an afterlife, that might help explain why death attitudes changed.
Looking ahead, the researchers note that future studies are needed to better understand the potential clinical use of psychedelics in ameliorating suffering related to fear of death.