5 Questions for Joost Breeksema
When people take psychedelics, they often report experiences akin to fanciful dreams: going back into their mother’s womb, where they fight the devil; encountering a “NASA space guy” who scrubs their brain clean; imagining the self as a rotting, decaying skeleton. But these visions are also often revelatory to the person experiencing them — for instance, the woman who saw herself as a skeleton was in treatment for an eating disorder, and her ayahuasca-spurred vision encouraged her to try to start gaining weight again. As scientists further explore the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs, they keep running into such tales — and they disagree about where they fit into psychedelic science.
In May, University of Amsterdam researchers Josjan Zijlmans and James Sanders published a paper in the American Chemical Society’s journal Pharmacology & Translational Science called “Moving Past Mysticism in Psychedelic Science.” In it, the authors ask, “Are we, as scientific researchers, doing enough to avoid a conflation between science and the supernatural in our theories and the translation of our findings?” They raise concerns that including mysticism in research or clinical practice “risks creating unrealistic and potentially problematic expectations and associations when presented to laypeople.”
But of course not all scientists think mysticism is unscientific. Joost Breeksema, a researcher at University Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands, and Michiel van Elk, an associate professor of cognitive science at Leiden University, both study altered states of consciousness. The two wrote a rebuke arguing that psychedelic science should embrace mysticism, not discard it. “In psychedelic science we should learn to work with weirdness,” they write. The Microdose talked with Breeksema about the historic role of mysticism in psychedelic science, and why its continued study still matters.
What is a mystical experience?
William James, one of my favorite philosophers and a hugely prominent figure in psychedelic science, studied historical accounts of mystical or religious experiences, and he came to a number of core elements. One of them is the ineffability of the experience: the fact that the experience cannot be adequately put into words. It's such a profoundly impressive experience that it's hard to do it justice using everyday language. People also describe an experience of unity with a greater whole — some people might describe that as God or the universe. Mystical experiences are also usually accompanied by a very positive mood, feelings of peace, of love, of acceptance.
What do we know about the relationship between mystical experiences and psychedelics’ potential therapeutic effects?
Mystical experiences were one of the first things that the researchers found in the first wave of psychedelic research in the 1960s, especially in the first studies of the treatment of people with terminal illnesses and with alcoholism. Researchers noticed that patients had very deep, meaningful spiritual and existential experiences. When they started studying these, they saw that for a great proportion of patients, mystical experiences were strongly correlated to the treatment outcomes. People who said they had a mystical experience also showed the greatest increase in losing their fear of dying and accepting the fact that they were going to die. Others stopped drinking alcohol. It doesn't explain the whole therapeutic effect of psychedelics, but there is a wealth of information showing that psychedelics induce experiences that are very similar to those described by mystics.
There has never been a more exciting – or bewildering – time in the world of psychedelics. Don’t miss a beat.
Why do you think there’s some reluctance to study mystical experiences?
If you take the Venn diagram of religion and science, the overlap between the two circles is where some of the psychedelic research takes place. There are elements of religious experience, which are juxtaposed quite strongly with science. That's where it gets tricky for people, especially for people who are very atheist or secular, who don't want to mix religion and science. I don't think you should mix the two, but there are elements of religiosity that psychedelics can induce.
It seems like a real challenge to try to quantify life-altering experiences in a scientific way. What kind of tools are researchers using to study mystical experiences?
There are a number of what we call psychometric scales, which are basically questionnaires that assess different elements of mystical experiences. The scales are based on research into what people have described of mystical experiences, like William James’s.
The elements that people describe are transformed into questions or statements, so when people have experiences, they can rate whether they agree with those statements on a scale of 1 to 7, from “not at all” to “very much.” If you score a seven on all of the questions, you’ve probably had a full mystical experience.
But there are limitations, too. For instance, if there are questions that don't really capture what people have described, you miss people's experiences. I actually don’t use questionnaires in my research; I am primarily interested in the stories patients tell and the meaning they themselves attribute to their experience. All of this is a limited way of penetrating this black box of consciousness. Individuals’ experiences are a black box and it is never entirely possible to penetrate someone else's conscious experience.
Some critics are concerned that including mysticism in psychedelic science might be “unscientific,” or, as we’ve discussed, difficult to study empirically. Why try?
Over the past two or three years, the interest in psychedelics has grown so much — and it now includes people who come from a more mainstream clinical or scientific background. But some of the concepts related to psychedelics don't always make sense from a mainstream psychological perspective. They are quite extraordinary; they're weird, but they do exist. It's a risk to try and exclude those weird experiences and focus only on understandable psychological mechanisms.
This is especially true for psychedelic therapy: people have experiences that they cannot explain, that completely change their whole metaphysics or their understanding of what the world looks like, what the universe looks like. To remain open to those, and to accept that those experiences exist is very important in order to validate people's experiences.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.