Psychedelic Drugs Like LSD and Magic Mushrooms Linked to Transformative Experiences, Feeling Connected With Others

Psychedelics like LSD and magic mushrooms can boost a person's mood, make them feel more connected to others, and prompt transformative experiences, scientists who spoke to over 1,000 festival-goers have discovered.

The team spent four years collecting data from 1,242 people who attended six different multi-day arts and music festivals in the U.S. and U.K. to learn the effects of the drugs, study co-author Molly Crockett, assistant professor of psychology at Yale University, told Newsweek.

Researchers set up a booth at the festival labelled "Play Games for Science," to attract passersby. Those who agreed to take part were asked about their drinking and drug-taking habits, including whether they had used psychoactive drugs including LSD and psilocybin—commonly known as magic mushrooms—in the past 24 hours, or at some point in the past week.

Volunteers were assured they wouldn't be reported to police for being honest about their drug use.

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Participants were asked questions including whether they had had had a transformative experience after taking psychedelics. This involved being changed "so profoundly" that they emerged "radically different" in themselves. The subjects also had tests to measure how connected they felt with others, and whether the drugs had a positive effect on their moods. Findings have now been published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Taking psychedelic substances was linked to people experiencing positive moods, associated with transformative experiences and sensing they had connected with others. "These effects were particularly pronounced for those who had taken psychedelic substances within the last 24 hours (compared to the last week)," the authors wrote.

In previous studies, researchers have watched how people respond to psychedelics in controlled lab settings and made similar findings, Crockett said. But lab studies are limited because they involve smaller numbers of people, and participants are aware they are taking part in a study, which could influence their experience and how they report it, she explained.

"By surveying a very large number of people about their recent psychedelic use in a naturalistic setting, we were able to corroborate previous findings from lab studies, which suggests these findings are consistent across different settings," she said.

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Crockett added the study was limited because the researchers relied on participants accurately reporting which substances they had taken recently, and so couldn't verify exactly what they took, unlike laboratory studies, which have tight control over substance administration. But because their results were consistent with those of previous studies of psychedelics, the team believes the participants' responses were valid.

The study was not designed to measure negative effects that have been associated with using recreational drugs, said Crocket. "Further research is necessary to understand how to minimize risks associated with psychedelic substances," she said.

Crockett recalled the most challenging part of the research was setting up temporary labs at field sites, many of which were in remote locations.

"At one festival, we discovered an error in our printed survey packets the night before data collection. We didn't have time to re-print them, so we corrected the error by hand on hundreds of packets, by lantern light, with deep house thumping in the background," she said.

Crockett stressed the study "does not suggest any recommendations for individuals. We are certainly not endorsing recreational drug use."

She continued: "Our study adds to a growing evidence base that taking psychedelics can lead to transformative experiences, in part by changing the way people experience themselves in relation to other people.

"More research is needed to better understand the nature of transformative experiences on psychedelics, how they change concepts of self and others, and how to optimize their impact on wellbeing while minimizing risk."

The study comes amid what is known as the psychedelic renaissance, as researchers around the world investigate the potential benefits of using psychedelic drugs in controlled medical settings to treat mental disorders like depression, anxiety and PTSD. Drugs under the spotlight include LSD and magic mushrooms, as well as MDMA, ayahuasca and peyote ibogaine.

Scientists are also investigating the use of ketamine, which is an anesthetic rather than a hallucinogenic. Experts stress the drugs should not be used outside of clinical settings, without the supervision of a medical professional.

Robin Carhart-Harris, head of the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London, U.K., who did not work on the study told Newsweek he was not surprised by the results as they mirror the findings of existing studies. But he said he was impressed by how much data the researchers collected.

"They have implications for efforts to open up the therapeutic application of psychedelics for benefiting mental health," he said. "Given that the large sample studied here was not restricted to the mentally unwell, the results have implications for extending psychedelic therapy to healthy people also, e.g. to improve psychological wellness."

Carhart-Harris said researchers should see the study as further evidence to revise any preconceptions about psychedelics that they are particularly dangerous or harmful drugs: "However, and this is an important caveat, beyond the simple fact that the psychedelics were likely taken in a festival setting, the present study hasn't isolated the role of specific contextual factors, such as inter-personal trust at the time of use, expectations or intentions for use, which we know to be very important for predicting how people respond to psychedelics."

Carhart-Harris emphasized: "It would be wrong to assume from these findings that if you take psychedelics at a festival you're going to have a great time and improve your mental well-being in the process."

More work is needed to predict how people might respond to psychedelics in different context to mitigate the risks, and make the potential benefits more reliable.

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A stock image shows a crowd at a festival. Getty
Psychedelic Drugs Like LSD and Magic Mushrooms Linked to Transformative Experiences, Feeling Connected With Others | Health