As Brian Doherty noted last night, a study reported in the latest issue of the journal Psychopharmacology replicates the main findings of a 1962 experiment in which divinity students who were given psilocybin before attending a Good Friday service at Boston University's Marsh Chapel were much more likely to report profound spiritual experiences than a control group given nicotine nicotinic acid. A follow-up study by Rick Doblin of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies found that the effects of those experiences seemed to persist some 25 years later. In the new study, conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins, 30 "hallucinogen-naive adults reporting regular participation in religious or spiritual activities" were randomly assigned to a group given psilocybin or a group given Ritalin. The subjects "were encouraged to close their eyes and direct their attention inward." Two months later, the two groups were switched; another control group of six subjects received Ritalin in both sessions. In questionnaires two months after the psilocybin sessions, "the volunteers rated the psilocybin experience as having substantial personal meaning and spiritual significance and attributed to the experience sustained positive changes in attitudes and behavior consistent with changes rated by community observers."
To which non-hallucinogen-naive adults may respond, "Duh." But this sort of research does tell us a few things that might otherwise be controversial. It reinforces Norman Zinberg's point that drug users' experiences depend on an interaction among drug, set, and setting. A controlled, double-blind experiment shows pretty conclusively that the substance itself matters, that some drugs are more likely to facilitate what the Johns Hopkins researchers call "mystical-type experiences." At the same time, both studies deliberately started with subjects who had a "set" that predisposed them to such experiences, and both used settings intended to encourage introspection and reflection. Atheists taking psilocybin purely for kicks at a party are unlikely to report spiritual epiphanies.
As I argue in my book Saying Yes: In Defense of Drug Use, people who see value in religion should not be quick to dismiss the potential benefits of psychedelics, which are a tool for achieving what might come to others through meditation, fasting, or long walks in the woods. Even those who think religion is a load of crap should be able to accept the possibility that such drugs can facilitate self-insight, communication, and problem solving. As Zinberg's tripod implies, such benefits are by no means automatic. For every person who uses psychedelics for self-improvement or spiritual awareness, there may be 10 who use them just for fun (not that there's anything wrong with that). And in both the Good Friday Experiment and the new study, a few of the subjects who took psilocybin had profoundly negative experiences. That fact may be all that can be salvaged from this study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which helped fund the research but now implies it had no idea what its grantees were up to.