Study suggests belief-changing psychedelic experiences tend to increase the attribution of consciousness to other beings

The attribution of consciousness to various entities often increases in the wake of belief-changing psychedelic experiences, according to new research published in Frontiers in Psychology.

“I was interested in this as part of a wider interest in belief changes following psychedelic use — something that is taken for granted anecdotally but understudied,” explained study author Sandeep Nayak, a postdoctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research.

“Specifically, I was interested in why psychedelic-associated belief changes seem to move in a similar direction toward beliefs that are the norm outside of our historically unusual moment in Western industrialized societies. Animistic-type beliefs for example — that trees have souls or volcanoes can be angry are common the world over and seem to increase after psychedelic use and are related to the questions we asked about consciousness attribution.”

For their study, the researchers used internet postings on social media, drug-oriented websites, and email invitations to recruit a sample of 1,606 English-speaking adults who had changes in their beliefs that they attributed to a psychedelic experience. Participants were 35 years of age on average and were predominately white (89%), male (67%) and from the United States (69%).

The participants completed a survey regarding the psychedelic experience that they felt had led to the greatest belief change. The survey included questions focused on belief changes attributed to the psychedelic experience, as well as questions about demographics, psychedelic use, personality, and other factors.

The researchers found that approximately 70% of participants rated the experience as being among the five most personally meaningful and psychologically insightful experiences of their lives. There were also large increases in the attribution of consciousness to a range of animate and inanimate things. For example, from before to after the experience, attribution of consciousness to insects grew from 33% to 57%, to fungi from 21% to 56%, to plants from 26% to 61%, to inanimate natural objects from 8% to 26% and to inanimate manmade objects from 3% to 15%. In addition, agreement with the statement “The universe is conscious” increased from 34% to 80%.

The researchers also found that participants who reported having more mystical-type experiences during the psychedelic experience tended to report greater increases in the attribution of consciousness. “This is consistent with the fact that several hallmark features of the mystical experience include a sense of external unity,” the researchers wrote in their study. “Thus, a predictable outcome of an experience having an authoritative sense that all things are alive would be increased attribution of consciousness, as shown in the present study.”

But the psychedelic experience was unrelated to changes in belief in various superstitions, such as the belief that the number 13 is unlucky, and was also unrelated to changes in the belief in free will.

“I think what we can take away from this kind of study is that when beliefs change after psychedelics, attribution of consciousness to various entities tends to increase. We cannot know how likely such changes are to happen, nor can we really make big claims about how strong these effects are in general, but for some people they seem to be large and enduring after a single experience,” Nayak told PsyPost.

“This sort of study really needs to be followed up in a prospective sample of people taking psychedelics in different settings with different expectations to really understand the ways in which psychedelics modify beliefs and why. There’s a lot more to understand about such belief changes when it comes to clinical use too. For example, to what extent are such changes desirable/undesirable? To what extent could such belief changes be construed as harm? To what extent can they be prevented? Do psychedelics just make beliefs more changeable such that they’re modified by surrounding culture and expectations? Or is there an intrinsic direction to these belief changes?”

“The results suggesting that a single psychedelic experience can produce a broad increase in attribution of consciousness to other things, raises intriguing questions about possible innate or experiential mechanisms underlying such belief changes,” added co-author Roland Griffiths, the founding director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research, in a news release “The topic of consciousness is a notoriously difficult scientific problem that has led many to conclude it is not solvable.”

The study, “A Single Belief-Changing Psychedelic Experience Is Associated With Increased Attribution of Consciousness to Living and Non-living Entities“, was published March 28, 2022.