Sunday, July 16, 2006

Better praying through chemistry?

I couldn't help smiling when I heard about about some research out of Johns Hopkins University that's been in the news this past week, namely that psilocybin, the active ingredient in hallucinogen mushrooms, can induce spiritual experiences. Wait a minute, guys, didn't anybody check the file on the Sixties? I mean, Timothy Leary may be dead and all, but didn't we already know that?

To be serious, this study was supposed to be significant for two reasons, the first being that research in this area had pretty much shut down since the Sixties, thanks largely to the bad rep it got from association with old Tim, and the second being that these current researchers are the first to apply rigorous scientific standards to this work. The results, says Roland Griffiths, the study's lead researcher, show that "under very defined conditions, with careful preparation, you can safely and fairly reliably occasion what's called a primary mystical experience that may lead to positive changes in a person" lasting long after the mushroom trip is over.

According to the Hopkins press release describing the study:

More than 60 percent of subjects described the effects of psilocybin in ways that met criteria for a “full mystical experience” as measured by established psychological scales. One third said the experience was the single most spiritually significant of their lifetimes; and more than two-thirds rated it among their five most meaningful and spiritually significant. Griffiths says subjects liken it to the importance of the birth of their first child or the death of a parent.

Two months later, 79 percent of subjects reported moderately or greatly increased well-being or life satisfaction compared with those given a placebo at the same test session. A majority said their mood, attitudes and behaviors had changed for the better. Structured interviews with family members, friends and co-workers generally confirmed the subjects' remarks. Results of a year-long followup are being readied for publication.

Interesting stuff, this, though I must admit that I do find it somewhat troubling. Maybe I'm just jealous; I have a little experience in this area myself (I'm a child of that era, remember) and while we certainly had fun, I can't say I remember anything profoundly mystical coming out of those adventures. Beyond that, I don't like wondering if subsequent experiences when I felt especially close to God were really just a matter of brain chemistry. Again according to the Hopkins press release, "The agent, a plant alkaloid called psilocybin, mimics the effect of serotonin on brain receptors--as do some other hallucinogens--but precisely where in the brain and in what manner are unknown."

Interestingly, those chosen to take part in the study were already spiritually active. "We felt that volunteers who had some engagement with prayer, meditation, churchgoing, or similar activities would be better equipped to understand and consolidate any mystical-type experiences they might have in the study," Griffiths says. In what I've read he doesn't indicate whether he believes in the "Beyond" his subjects experienced, but he does seem to say that just because the research subjects' experience of a "Beyond" was chemically induced, that doesn't have to mean that what they experienced isn't real.

In other news about new academic studies proving what we already knew, researchers at Princeton University have found that the link between wealth and happiness is illusory and mostly exaggerated. Didn't Jesus say something along those lines about two thousand years ago?

Final item, I went to Mass one day last week and noticed eleven women and four men in attendance, a slightly higher representation of men than we sometimes see. I checked out a Christian meditation group at the same church Monday evening, and there were approximately seven women and two men. Will someone please remind me why the men get to run this organization? Can anyone explain why the women let them?


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