Mystical or paranormal phenomena are a feature of many experiences with psychedelics. The feelings of oneness, connections with divinity, and even paranormal experiences like precognition and telepathy have been referenced in psychedelic use by indigenous cultures dating back thousands of years.
While we still have a great deal to learn about these occurrences, we’re starting to get a grasp on how psychedelics can help us meet ‘God.’ The use of the word ‘God’ in this case is not tied to any particular religion, but rather refers to the Universe, the collective energy, the intuitive knowing of what’s on the other side of the veil of perception.
Psychedelics and Paranormal Experiences
Paranormal experiences include what is known as extrasensory perception (ESP), a general term that covers things like clairvoyance, telepathy, and precognition. Out-of-body experiences and near-death experiences are other types of paranormal experiences commonly reported with psychedelic use. Though precognition and telepathy are the most common, paranormal experiences are reported in up to 83% of psychedelic users.
The prevailing question remains: how do psychedelic substances cause paranormal experiences? First, perception of time, space, and self is typically altered with psychedelics, which is understood to provide ideal conditions for parapsychological occurrences.
Relatedly, psychedelics tend to broaden or downright challenge ideas about reality, which can open one up to new possibilities, especially those that include transpersonal experiences. Lastly, and perhaps most obviously, there is a range of neurochemicals and brain responses that are involved in paranormal experiences.
Research has come to two main conclusions regarding psychedelics and the paranormal:
- The “profound existential or spiritually significant” components of psychedelic experiences are similar to those brought about by contemplative practices like meditation, fasting, and chanting.
- Psychedelic use in historical shamanic cultures was associated with animism, the spiritual essence of nature, which formed the core of all religious beliefs.
We get it, mystical experiences and an encounter with the divine don’t happen everyday. Understandably, it can be a lot to process. If you’re hoping to integrate new spiritual insights or to find a container in which to share your experiences, we can help.
We’ve taken the lessons from our psychedelic experiences and created a one-on-one coaching program to aid you on your own psychedelic journey. Simply schedule a free discovery call with one of our coaches to find out more.
What Causes a Paranormal Experience?
So then, what causes these paranormal experiences? A significant amount of research has been devoted to exploring brain chemistry and how changes brought on by psychedelics are the cause behind paranormal experiences.
The ‘Reducing Valve’
In the mid-1950’s, Aldous Huxley drew upon Henri Bergson’s theory that considered the brain as a filter of sensory experience and memory. Human brains are exposed to a tremendous amount of information and stimuli every day. To avoid overwhelm, the brain acts as what Huxley referred to as a “reducing valve,” or a filter mechanism that allows the brain to focus on stimuli and information that best increases a human’s chance for survival.
This theory revolves around neural feedback loops, which become disrupted when flooded with serotonin once psychedelics are taken. This disruption opens up more neural pathways, allowing the brain to process more information and sensory stimuli.
Reduced Blood Flow Around the Brain
Recent research surprisingly found that brain activity doesn’t increase during a psychedelic experience, contrary to beliefs that brain activity rates would be higher than average. Supporting Huxley’s theory about a “reducing valve,” a reduction in overall brain activity is generally observed. This potentially means that as brain activity lowers, the ability to filter information and stimuli is also lowered. Some of the areas with much less activity include the prefrontal cortex and the default mode networks.
The Disabling of the Prefrontal Cortex and Default Mode Networks
One common theory about how visionary experiences are produced is also witnessed with meditation and hypnosis. When the prefrontal cortex and Default Mode Network (DMN) are compromised, the area of the brain usually responsible for introspection and constructs around the ‘self’ and the ‘ego’ is reduced. This may contribute to increased feelings of connection, dissolution of self, ‘ego deaths,’ and realizations about ‘God.’
When this happens, innate brain functions (lower brain systems) are activated. The Mirror Neuron System (MNS) is hypothesized to produce visionary experiences. The MNS played a key role in the evolution of human cognition and is involved in how we process symbols. This system paved the way for human evolution as it allowed for the use of tools, harnessing fire, and emulating skills of others that contributed to the survival of the entire tribe.
As the name suggests, the MNS is responsible for how we “mirror” the behavior and actions of others. It also plays a role in empathy and how one might feel connectedness during a psychedelic experience. In a spiritual sense, this may deepen one’s understanding of themselves and allow for a deeper exploration of consciousness.
The Influence on Neurotransmitters
Psychedelics affect several different neurotransmitters, including acetylcholine, norepinephrine (adrenalin), dopamine, and serotonin. Serotonin is most active in the pineal gland (sometimes referred to as the ‘third eye’) and is most affected by psychedelics. Serotonin controls the body’s arousal and awareness and is the main neurotransmitter responsible for Huxley’s ‘reducing valve’ theory. While dopamine and acetylcholine systems have been shown to produce hallucinations and dreaming, it is in fact serotonin that’s been associated most with spirituality.
Though neurochemistry contributes to our understanding of the science behind a psychedelic-induced mystical state, an anthropological look helps us understand the encounters with the divine that date back to the dawn of humanity.
Entheogenic Substances and Divinity
The word entheogen itself comes from an ancient Greek phrase meaning “becoming god within.” It is used to describe a group of substances used with a specific purpose to elicit these divine or mystical experiences. The view of psychedelics as entheogens, or sacred plants containing spirit, was central to the use of psychedelics in shamanic rituals across many ancient cultures.
It was believed that the spirits embedded within these substances were capable of changing those who consumed them, imparting knowledge and personal powers upon the user. In many occurrences, the special powers inherent to the plants came in the form of particular animals or the experience of one transforming into an animal, which is where the term ‘spirit animal’ originated. As exemplified in these ancient rituals and much like in certain psychedelic rituals today, one’s soul can move outside of one’s body and travel to the supernatural realm.
Throughout history, shamanic rituals became a key aspect in the social life of human societies and many times were stimulated by psychedelics. Divination is a central feature of these rituals and was produced by not only psychedelics, but also dancing, chanting, drumming, and fasting.
Much like psychedelics, these other activities alter ordinary brain activity and open up new connections and neural pathways. This new and random brain activity alters the states between the conscious and unconscious, and the resulting visionary experiences are one reason why psychedelics have been used for thousands of years.
How are Mystical Experiences and ‘Encounters With God’ Measured?
How does one measure an encounter with a higher power? Though sounding impossible, scientists have developed a range of tools allowing them to better understand altered states of consciousness.
While some scientists explore the brain’s chemistry before and after psychedelics, others have developed certain scales and research criteria that can say a great deal about study participants and the experiences they have—even when those experiences are somewhat difficult to express and quantify. Two of the most prominent measurement methods are:
- The Hood Mysticism Scale: the most widely used measure of mysticism and includes factors like ego loss, ineffability, unity, timelessness/spacelessness, and sacredness.
- The Mystical Experience Questionnaire (MEQ): a self-report measure covering the four aspects of a mystical experience: 1) unity, sacredness, noetic quality; 2) positive mood; 3) transcendence of space and time; and 4) ineffability.
These are just a few of the tools that help us combine science and spirituality to measure mystical experiences with psychedelics. For instance, using the MEQ, we now know that in studies with people who have never used psychedelics before, more than 60% experience a “complete mystical experience”.
We also know that when compared to non-drug users or those who use substances like cocaine and heroin, psychedelic users value spirituality more—be it viewed as ‘God’ or an experience of higher transcendence.
What came first, spirituality or psychedelics? While it’s more difficult to determine whether someone uses psychedelics as a tool for their spiritual quest or they find spirituality from their use with psychedelics, a lot of research points to the latter.
In one study, more than two-thirds of participants who formerly considered themselves atheists no longer identified as such afterward. Many users of psychedelics experience converted beliefs after encountering an awesome “greater-than-human” presence that radiates immense meaning and significance over one’s life.
Historically, much of the spiritual use of psychedelics took place with other people in the presence of an experienced shaman. Understanding and integrating experiences with divinity or mysticism are supplemented by connection with people who’ve experienced the same.
If you’re looking to make sense of an encounter with ‘God’ or a paranormal encounter during a psychedelic experience, we can help you find a coach or mentor with whom to connect. It’s important that each of us receives the support we need on our journey using psychedelics for wellness.
Spiritual Encounters and Role in Mental Health
Researchers have become particularly interested in the mystical experiences associated with psychedelics due to their possible benefits towards mental health. In one study, wellbeing and increased life satisfaction were reported as a result of a mystical experience with psilocybin—and this was more than a year after the experience!
Mystical experiences have also been correlated with increased longevity and reduced depression and risk of suicide. Providing meaning for the user, such an experience could be a matter of literal life and death for someone suffering from mental health issues.
For something with as long and as rich a history as psychedelics, there are still a lot of unknowns when it comes to these substances. Their impact on mysticism, religion, and spirituality is well-documented but still leaves gaps in our understanding.
While a lot of exploration into paranormal phenomena dropped off as the world turned against psychedelics a few decades ago, we’re once again exploring these substances and their impact on spirituality and mental health. If we think, like Huxley, that we can re-open some of the closed doors in our mind, opening them to a paranormal reality might provide the key to spiritual growth and mental health benefits.
The link between psychedelics and paranormal phenomena is a fascinating and complex topic. Despite the mystic aura surrounding these experiences, we ultimately know that these experiences have been reported to occur and that they can lead to profound and meaningful life-altering changes in both behavior and perception.
However, we understand that questioning the foundations of your life can be bewildering and challenging without support. If you are interested in being supported by a trusted and knowledgeable coach throughout your journey with psychedelics, click here to book a free discovery call.