Psychedelic Mushrooms Won’t Make You Believe In God, But They Might Make You Think Robots Are Conscious, Study Finds | Turn 420
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Psychedelic Mushrooms Won’t Make You Believe In God, But They Might Make You Think Robots Are Conscious, Study Finds



A new study by Johns Hopkins University researchers on the effects of psychedelics suggests that—contrary to some earlier evidence—a single psilocybin experience isn’t likely to make an atheist believe in God or dispel someone’s sense of free will. It may, however, inspire the belief that animals, plants or even objects like rocks and robots have some sort of consciousness.

The study, published this month in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, surveyed hundreds of people who planned to use psilocybin in a non-laboratory setting, asking them about their beliefs both before and at two separate times after their experiences.

While participants reported small differences in certain perceptions of consciousness after the psychedelic experiences—being more likely to attribute consciousness to primates or insects, for example—their religious and metaphysical beliefs didn’t significantly change.

“These findings suggest that concerns that psychedelics could change metaphysical beliefs or result in ‘conversions’ across religious affiliations may be overestimated,” the study concludes, adding that “concerns related to changes in non-naturalistic beliefs or religious affiliation may be exaggerated.”

Authors wrote that the findings are relevant in addressing certain ethical concerns around the clinical applications of psychedelics, noting that changes in beliefs “in the context of psychedelic clinical trials raise bioethical questions for many reasons.”

“We observed increases in mind perception across a variety of living and non-living targets (e.g. plants, rocks). However, we found little to no change in metaphysical beliefs (e.g. dualism) or Atheist-Believer status.”

“For some patients, such changes could be construed as a kind of personal harm,” they explained. “Moreover, these transformations have the capacity to significantly influence an individual’s social ties and relationships. Finally, such changes may be of societal concern, for example with the possibility of fostering beliefs that are nonscientific beliefs.”

“The magnitude and persistence of these belief changes matter,” the paper emphasizes, underscoring the weighty issues that some have worried could be influenced by broader use.

“As psychedelic therapies move closer to possible approval for widespread use, the ramifications of mental health interventions with the potential to substantially change a person’s belief system raises serious considerations about how and by whom they can be used appropriately,” it says. “For instance, the possibility that psychedelic therapies could be used by individuals or organizations seeking to convert or otherwise coerce people into adopting particular worldviews (e.g., political or religious ideologies) clearly highlights the need for extraordinary caution in their implementation.”

To study the effects of psychedelics on beliefs in the new study, researchers asked 657 participants questions from three main categories: atheist–believer status, metaphysical beliefs and mind perception. Respondents were surveyed when they consented to the study, two weeks before their planned psilocybin use, two to four weeks after the experience and again two to four three months after using the substance.

Atheist–believer status was the most straightforward, consisting of a single item: “How would you characterize your overall religious or spiritual belief system?” People could identify as “Non-believer (e.g., atheist); Agnostic; and Believer (e.g., in Ultimate Reality, Higher Power, and/or God, etc.),” with only one selection allowed.

Overall, “Atheist-Believer status showed no change,” authors wrote, with only “negligible changes” observed.

Metaphysical beliefs, meanwhile, centered on ideas including materialism, dualism, idealism and determinism—fundamental philosophical topics involving things like free will and the nature of consciousness itself. Participants were asked, for example, to rate how much they agreed or disagreed with the statement “Everything that has ever happened had to happen precisely as it did, given what happened before.”

In that category, “we observed little to no changes,” authors wrote, adding that the findings “provide evidence that concerns around changes to such beliefs may have been inflated given the general lack of changes observed in the present study.”

Some differences, however, were seen in responses around mind perception, which attempted to measure users’ beliefs about “the ability of various targets to have conscious experience,” the study says. Those targets included “four species of mammals, five non-mammal objects/entities, and one item about the universe as a whole.” Examples included questions like “I (the person taking the survey right now) am capable of having conscious experience,” “Plants (e.g., trees, flowers) are capable of having conscious experience” and “The universe is conscious.”

In those areas, researchers “observed increases of moderate effect size in the attribution of consciousness to a range of targets”:

“The following targets showed significant increases of small effect size…at both follow-up time points: non-human primates, quadrupeds, insects, fungi, plants, and inanimate man-made objects,” the study says. “Of these, the largest increases were apparent for attribution of consciousness to insects.”

It continues that a few items, “including mind perception of inanimate natural objects (e.g., a rock), inanimate manmade (e.g., a robot), and the universe as a whole showed small, statistically significant effects at one time point but not the other.”

Authors acknowledge in the new report that the findings don’t necessarily mean psilocybin doesn’t ever influence users’ metaphysicial or religious beliefs, only that such changes aren’t typical after a single experience.

“Psychedelics may cause such belief changes, but the present data suggest they do not occur on average in naturalistic use,” they wrote of metaphysical belief changes. “To the extent that such belief changes do occur, they may 1) be more likely in a particular subset of individuals, 2) rely on particular contextual, and/or 3) require multiple psychedelic experiences over time.”

While the findings challenge some earlier research about religious changes around psychedelics use, the mind perception findings echo those from earlier research, such as a 2022 report suggesting that people who use psychedelics like psilocybin are generally more connected to nature and knowledgable about climate change—traits that tend to translate into pro-environmental behavior.

A 2020 study, meanwhile, reported what authors described as “a strong relationship between the amount of lifetime use of psychedelics” and participants’ reported connection with nature.

Image courtesy of Kristie Gianopulos.

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