Finding God in the Brain: 14 Month Followup to the Hopkins Psilocybin Study

Jul 01 2008 Published by under Drug Abuse Science

A paper by Griffiths and colleagues has just appeared in the OnlineFirst archive of the Journal of Psychopharmacology. It describes a 14 month followup to their original paper on the spiritual and other effects of psilocybin consumption in humans.
The summary is short and sweet.

The current cite for the in-press article is:

Mystical-type experiences occasioned by psilocybin mediate the attribution of personal meaning and spiritual significance 14 months later R R Griffiths*, W A Richards, M W Johnson, U D McCann, and R Jesse, Journal of Psychopharmacology 2008, doi:10.1177/0269881108094300

For background, I detailed the first paper here in a prior post entitled Finding God in the Brain: That Psilocybin Study, after reading this post on several God-in-the-brain topics over at Terra Sigillata. I summarized the findings of the original Hopkins study:

It all boils down, however, to people having experiences quite consistent with other classical hallucinogens, that were rated as being "personally meaningful" two months later and that caused positive attitude, social and/or mood effects (by self report and with external verification).

and then mused:

Does this get us closer to a science of religion? Of understanding individual differences in religiosity? Perhaps. I certainly find it fascinating. It might give us a toehold on individual differences in, say 5-HT2A/C receptor expression or function, that pre-dispose one to religion. To plasticity in such systems that might result from religious experience. To understanding the mechanism that are involved in the more flamboyant behavioral expressions of religious ferver.

The conclusions of the most recent paper are simple- the effects on positive attitude, mood and social behavior are still there 14 months later and a majority of the people still consider this one of their top 5 personal and spiritual experiences.
A more extensive summary is up at the Psychedelic Research blog.

8 responses so far

  • anonymous says:

    interesting! I personally know few people who said to have spiritual connection to God, and I always considered them as fake or people who want some kind of social gain, but maybe there is something more to it...

  • Matt says:

    As you probably know, people have been arguing for a while that differences in the serotonergic system are correlated with aspects of personality partly captured by constructs like 'Absorption' (Tellegen) or 'self-transcendence' (Cloninger).
    A paper from 2001 (Borg et al.) using (11C)-WAY100635 PET reported that 5-HT(1A) receptor binding potential inversely correlated with scores for self-transcendence from Cloninger's TCI personality questionnaire. And a 2005 paper by Ott et al. found that people with the T/T version of the 5-HT2A T102C polymorphism had higher scores on Tellegen's absorption scale. Then, last year, Nilsson et al. looked for relationships between self-transcendence and polymorphisms of the serotonin transporter promoter as well as something called AP-2beta that is supposed to regulate monoamines somehow. They found an effect in boys but not girls with the short 5-HTTLPR genotype lowering self-transcendence and the short AP-2beta increasing it. I think there's a few more papers along these lines if one digs around. I haven't worked with these sorts of datasets and am agnostic (if not skeptical) about these sorts of sweeping theories, but they are certainly stimulating to think about.
    Getting adequate samples might be a challenge, but a fascinating question would be whether any of these polymorphisms predict response to, say, psilocybin.
    Thanks for linking to my blog -- I think you doubled my traffic!

  • anonymous says:

    Inneresting post!
    Given the authors on these psilocybin papers (which are funded by NIDA), presumably the anti-Ricaurte camp won't believe the results?
    Just asking.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    presumably the anti-Ricaurte camp won't believe the results?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    ok, in all seriousness though, this
    (which are funded by NIDA)
    should be understood in context. Namely the context of what NIDA director Nora Volkow had to say after the first paper came out:

    A recent study entitled "Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance" evaluated the subjective effects of psilocybin after acute administration and the recall of these subjective effects 2 months after its administration. While the investigators receiving the grant supporting this research did not initially propose to evaluate the effects of psilocybin, grantees maintain the scientific independence necessary to follow up on new areas of research.[emphasis added -DM]

    Shorter Volkow: "If they had actually proposed this in a grant application we wouldn't have funded it!"
    Note that this sentiment comes, in large part, from language in the Congressional Appropriations bill that funds the NIH:

    (7) Limitation on Use of Funds for Promotion of Legalization of Controlled Substances (Section 510)

    "(a) None of the funds made available in this Act may be used for any activity that promotes the legalization of any drug or other substance included in schedule I of the schedules of controlled substances established by section 202 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C.812) except for normal and recognized executive-congressional communications. (b)The limitation in subsection (a) shall not apply when there is significant medical evidence of a therapeutic advantage to the use of such drug or other substance or that federally sponsored clinical trials are being conducted to determine therapeutic advantage." anyone with half a brain might argue therapeutic advantage in an application if they were so inclined..
    and I have a little something coming up on exactly this approach in some new studies from this group although I don't think they have a grant yet.

  • Arlenna says:

    Well, if people can have temporal lobe seizures that give them religious experiences and feelings of intense meaning (that can convert them for life not just at the time), it makes sense that other stimulations that might push the same brain buttons would do the same kind of thing.
    I read something in college about a scientist who made a device to stimulate a TL seizure in himself and subsequently turned to the lord. I can't remember anything else about it though.

  • omar ali says:

    This paper and the commentators all seem to assume that religious means "spiritual" in some vaguely new-agish sense. But my personal experience is that this is NOT a useful category in societies where judeo-christian-islamic religion retains its traditional other words, this may be relevant in post-religious societies like Western Europe, but doesnt apply elsewhere. Most "religious" people in Pakistan or the American South are interested in power and other "mundane" things, not new-age spirituality...their genetic linkages are likely to be very different.

  • NQ 04 says:

    There is a new psilocybin study underway at Johns Hopkins University that is recruiting volunteers with a past or present diagnosis of cancer.
    It looks like the study will only accept a limited number of volunteers so contact the researchers at (410) 550 5990 or visit:

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