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At the end of his life, Aldous Huxley, the writer of such novels as Brave New World and Doors of Perception, asserted that,
“The last rights should make one more conscious rather than less conscious, more human rather than less human.”
The latest data, however, suggest that Huxley’s ideal may elude many. In a review of more than 4000 interviews with patients in end-of-life settings across seven countries, some type of mood disorder was found among 30–40% of them. Other research in the United States suggests that many patients die with unmet spiritual needs that are either ignored or go unnoticed by the medical system.
In the past decade, there has been rising interest in hallucinogenic drugs, like LSD and psilocybin (the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms), as “existential medicine” for spiritual concerns and death anxiety at the end of life.
Though research on the use of hallucinogens with dying patients began in the late 1950’s, only recently have double-blind, controlled trials been conducted demonstrating their efficacy.
In two studies published in 2016, a single dose of psilocybin (administered by trained staff who guided the experience) was given to cancer patients with a life-threatening diagnosis. Psilocybin was found to substantially reduce depression and anxiety and improve quality of life for roughly 80% of patients, and these changes persisted for months afterward.
Further analyses revealed that the mystical experiences people had while taking psilocybin were largely responsible for its therapeutic effects. In one of these studies, in-depth interviews about these mystical experiences and their long-term effects were later performed with a subset of the research participants, and their descriptions reveal the rich epiphanies about the meaning of life (and death) that were elicited by the drug.
A team of researchers led by Dr. Stephen Ross, psychiatrist and researcher at New York University, recently summarized the central themes that emerged from these interviews in two articles published in July and September of this year.
Some of the most prominent experiences reported in the interviews included:
1. Revision of Life Priorities
After the treatment, all of those interviewed said that it gave them a new perspective on what’s important in life, often resulting in greater appreciation for the present moment. As one participant in their study described it, “I really want to enjoy every minute, I want to enjoy being alive, and I knew that before the study but after I became able to do it much more often.”
2. Enhanced Sense of Interconnectedness
Many also reported a heightened sense of being connected with others at both a social and cosmic level. For example, one participant indicated that the being in the study taught her that “everything is connected…it’s animals, it’s trees—everything is interwoven, and that’s a big relief.”
3. Reconciliations with Death
Almost all of the participants in the study reported having an altered understanding of death afterward. One woman in the study described an epiphany she had in the midst of a vision of being buried. She explained, “I’m in the forest…and I’m down below the ground…and I thought: That’s what happens when you die. I am going to be reconnected with this beautiful world.”
4. Reconnection to Life
During the psilocybin experience, all of the participants reported enhanced feelings of belonging and aliveness, which had been eroded in the face of cancer. One participant in the study phrased it as being “more in touch with…joyous, happy, positive aspects of being alive—just being alive!”
These interviews demonstrate the potential power of altered states of consciousness to facilitate new ways of looking at familiar issues and problems, including seemingly insurmountable ones like death. But you don’t have to take hallucinogens or wait for a terminal diagnosis to have such an experience.
According to Stanford University psychiatrist, Dr. David Spiegel, “Altered mental states, whether via drugs or hypnosis and mindfulness, convey an enriched experience of being by their very contrast with everydayness. One answer to death anxiety is enriching life, savoring it.”
If you want to learn to savor life more, read related articles on mindfulness or click here for more tips on savoring the good things in life.
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Balboni, T. A., Vanderwerker, L. C., Block, S. D., Paulk, M. E., Lathan, C. S., Peteet, J. R., & Prigerson, H. G. (2007). Religiousness and spiritual support among advanced cancer patients and associations with end-of-life treatment preferences and quality of life. Journal of Clinical Oncology, 25, 555-560.
Belser, A. B., Agin-Liebes, G., Swift, T. C., Terrana, S., Devenot, N., Friedman, H. L., … & Ross, S. (2017). Patient experiences of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy: An interpretative phenomenological analysis. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 57, 354–388.
Griffiths, R. R., Johnson, M. W., Carducci, M. A., Umbricht, A., Richards, W. A., Richards, B. D., … & Klinedinst, M. A. (2016). Psilocybin produces substantial and sustained decreases in depression and anxiety in patients with life-threatening cancer: A randomized double-blind trial. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 30, 1181-1197.
Mitchell, A. J., Chan, M., Bhatti, H., Halton, M., Grassi, L., Johansen, C., & Meader, N. (2011). Prevalence of depression, anxiety, and adjustment disorder in oncological, haematological, and palliative-care settings: A meta-analysis of 94 interview-based studies. The Lancet Oncology, 12, 160-174.
Ross, S., Bossis, A., Guss, J., Agin-Liebes, G., Malone, T., Cohen, B., … & Su, Z. (2016). Rapid and sustained symptom reduction following psilocybin treatment for anxiety and depression in patients with life-threatening cancer: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 30, 1165-1180.
Swift, T. C., Belser, A. B., Agin-Liebes, G., Devenot, N., Terrana, S., Friedman, H. L., … & Ross, S. (2017). Cancer at the dinner table: Experiences of psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy for the treatment of cancer-related distress. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 57, 488-519.