Can Psychedelics Improve Personality?

6:15 am hallucinogen, human, in vivo

Katherine MacClean, Matthew Johnson, and Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins have published their study of changes in personality after psilocybin-occasioned mystical experience. (Full disclosure: they’re friends.) From the abstract:

In participants who had mystical experiences during their psilocybin session, Openness remained significantly higher than baseline more than 1 year after the session. The findings suggest a specific role for psilocybin and mystical-type experiences in adult personality change.

Openness is considered one of the five main aspects of personality. It relates to interest in and appreciation of culture, ideas, imagination, and different experiences. This new finding therefore extends an old study by McGlothlin and colleagues (link) that reported greater interest in and participation in aesthetic activities (going to museums, buying music) after LSD.

Openness is also closely linked to creativity, which many believe to be improved by psychedelics (although the literature is not convincing). If one wants to look for benefits of psychedelics, Openness is probably a much better construct than creativity because there is solid current research on it and established ways to measure it.

One big question is how much this finding generalizes to other people. The participants were carefully prepared and monitored; all were psychedelic-naive but had some involvement in spiritual practice. As they say on the internets, your mileage may vary. A second minor question is whether the mystical experience is really the cause of the change or if some other aspect of the experience, indirectly measured by measures of mystical experience, is really responsible. The authors consider this possibility and argue against it (as visualized in their figure below), but I don’t think the data they have allows definite conclusions.

Figure shows changes in Openness after psilocybin in participants who did and did not have mystical experiences.

MacLean, K., Johnson, M., & Griffiths, R. (2011). Mystical Experiences Occasioned by the Hallucinogen Psilocybin Lead to Increases in the Personality Domain of Openness Journal of Psychopharmacology DOI: 10.1177/0269881111420188

5 Responses
  1. Maju :

    Date: September 29, 2011 @ 7:00 am

    What if you have diverse “mystical” and non-mystical experiences? What if you have “negative” (hard to process) “mystical” experiences? The so called “bad trips”. Even people who have enjoyed many good trips, eventually have one or several bad ones (maybe because they lack the wisdom or the guidance or just because it is part of the process of discovery).

    Each mind is quite unique and I find hard to believe that any such process can be quantified statistically. I find this exercise to be rather self-complacent because even 1% of anomalies is important for that 1% of people and is important to understand how the drugs affect the different categories of people.

    Glad that you’re back after such a long hiatus in any case.

  2. admin :

    Date: September 30, 2011 @ 4:40 am

    I don’t quite follow your criticism that the research is self-complacent. I do agree that it is hard to summarize these complex fluctuating experiences and that difficult experiences (like dark nights of the soul) deserve focus. However, they are building on a well-established scholarship and measures. For one’s first one or two studies of mystical experience, it makes sense to use an uncontroversial definition of “mystical experience” (and ignore difficult and blended experiences) — you have to pick your fights. What would you suggest? (And thanks for the welcome back)

  3. exohuman | From Neurons to Nirvana :

    Date: October 7, 2011 @ 2:33 am

    [...] | | Magic Mushrooms make you a better [...]

  4. VisionStream :

    Date: October 19, 2011 @ 1:31 pm

    Hello there! Amazing blog! Absolutely love it!
    I have an intriguing idea for your next post! It regards the human connection to spirit, teamed along with science for one extraordinary human experience that can change individuals and the world alike.
    It comes in the form of a new documentary called DMT: The Spirit Molecule

    The Spirit Molecule investigates dimethyltryptamine (DMT), an endogenous psychoactive compound, which exists in humans as well as in numerous species of plants and animals. The feature-length documentary traces Dr. Rick Strassman’s government sanctioned human DMT research and its many trials, tribulations, achievements, and inconceivable realizations. This includes looking deeper into the intense psychedelic experience that DMT causes when consumed, and examining DMT’s scientific, spiritual, and cultural relevance. Ultimately, The Spirit Molecule explores the connections between cutting-edge neuroscience, quantum physics, and human spirituality.

    If this intrigues you please take a moment to check us out, and watch the movie. If you feel so compelled, we would love for you to make a post on your site about this documentary and the change it can evoke in human consciousness.

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  5. Steve White :

    Date: March 3, 2012 @ 11:02 pm

    From my own persnal experience back in the late 60s- early 70s. The pure LSD like Orange Sun Shine was a mind expanding Drug if used in a controlled invierment. I found that both (psilocybin mushroom and LSD )are very comparable. But I wouldn’t trust what you get, there are too many types. And you don’t the bad ones and could die.

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