Mystical Experiences in Retrospective Reports of First Times Using a Psychedelic in Finland, Samuli Kangaslampi et al., 2020

Mystical Experiences in Retrospective Reports of First Times Using a Psychedelic in Finland

Samuli Kangaslampi, PhD , Aino Hausen, BA, and Tarina Rauteenmaa, BA


Doi : 10.1080/02791072.2020.1767321



Despite their acutely inebriating and sometimes unpleasant effects, some people report positive changes in life satisfaction, well-being, or mental health after taking psychedelic drugs. One explanation may be the ability of psychedelics to trigger mystical-type experiences. We examined the validity, reliability, and factor structure of a novel Finnish translation of the Revised Mystical Experiences Questionnaire (MEQ30) among 288 people retrospectively reporting on their first time using a psychedelic. We found evidence for internal consistency reliability and preliminary evidence for criterion and discriminant validity of the Finnish MEQ30. A four-factor structure with factors for mystical qualities, positive mood, transcendence, and ineffability had the best, fair to reasonable fit to the data. MEQ30 scores and having a full mystical experience were highly associated with describing the experience as mystical, spiritual, or religious, and as personally significant, and somewhat associated with the experience being sad or difficult. Mystical experiences were especially associated with positive changes in relationships with nature and oneself and in creativity. Mystical experiences were more common with larger doses. Increasing research suggests mystical-type experiences to relate to positive changes after taking psychedelics. The Finnish MEQ30 is able to tap into relevant information about this aspect of people’s psychedelic experiences.

KEYWORDS : Psychedelics; psilocybin; LSD; mystical experience; well-being



During their acute effects, classic psychedelic drugs cause marked changes in perception, cognition, mood, and experience of self. They hamper cognitive functioning in areas such as attention (Hasler et al. 2004), decisionmaking (Kometer et al. 2012), as well as time perception and working memory (Wittmann et al. 2007). Their effects are often described as positive and uplifting, but can also be experienced as difficult, frightening, and uncomfortable (Carbonaro et al. 2016; Griffiths et al. 2006; Hasler et al. 2004; Strassman 1984). Despite the acute inebriating effects of psychedelics, evidence from both naturalistic studies and controlled experiments suggests possible positive long-term effects on well being (Bouso et al. 2012; Schmid and Liechti 2018), mood, attitude, and behavior (Griffiths et al. 2018, 2011, 2008), mental health (Davis et al. 2019; Hendricks et al. 2015; Johansen and Krebs 2015; Krebs and Johansen 2013; Uthaug et al. 2019), as well as esthetic experience and relationship with the environment (Studerus et al. 2011).

Pilot studies indicate psychedelics may also hold promise in the treatment of clinical-level depression, anxiety, or addictions (Bogenschutz et al. 2015; Carhart-Harris et al. 2018; Gasser, Kirchner, and Passie 2014; Griffiths et al. 2016; Grob et al. 2011; Palhano-Fontes et al. 2019; Ross et al. 2016).

These puzzling and seemingly contradictory effects of psychedelics (Carhart-Harris et al. 2016) have prompted several explanations for what may lie behind their potential for long-term positive change in some users. One prominent explanation is the ability of psychedelic drugs to occasion in a significant share of users a mystical experience similar to those described to occur spontaneously among religious mystics or meditators (Griffiths et al. 2011, 2006; Pahnke 1963). Such mystical experiences have been found to associate with and explain some of the improvements resulting from psychologically supported sessions with psychedelics in anxiety and depressive symptoms (Griffiths et al. 2016; Roseman, Nutt, and Carhart-Harris 2018; Ross et al. 2016), success in smoking cessation (Garcia- Romeu, Griffiths, and Johnson 2014), reduction in alcohol use (Bogenschutz et al. 2015), increases in openness (MacLean, Johnson, and Griffiths 2011), and positive changes in attitudes, mood, and behavior (Griffiths et al. 2011).

Though mystical experiences are difficult to describe in words, and thus to categorize, measure or quantify, some instruments have been developed and used to study them. Pahnke (1969) introduced the 43-item Mystical Experiences Questionnaire (MEQ) covering the dimensions of internal and external unity, transcendence, noetic and sacred qualities, positive mood, and ineffability or paradoxicality. The MEQ has subsequently been used in a number of studies with psychedelics, often combined with distractor items to form the 100-item States of Consciousness Questionnaire (Griffiths et al. 2008, 2006). Based on analyses of retrospective online surveys of mystical experiences occasioned by the use of psilocybin-containing mushrooms, MacLean et al. (2012) developed and psychometrically validated a revised 30-item version of the MEQ, the MEQ30. Factor analyses suggested a four-factor structure with factors corresponding to mystical nature of the experience, positive mood, transcendence of time and space, and ineffability.

Studying mystical experiences in controlled psilocybin studies in the laboratory, Barrett, Johnson, and Griffiths (2015) found evidence for the internal and external validity of the MEQ30 and support for the four-factor structure identified by MacLean et al. (2012). They also adapted criteria for the MEQ30 to qualify an experience as a full mystical experience. As research with psychedelics continues to expand and globalize, validated translations of relevant measures are essential. At the same time, possible cultural and other local differences in the experience of altered states of consciousness and mysticism may become apparent. The meaning and consequences of mystical experiences may differ in different contexts and environments.

Here, we study and validate a novel Finnish translation of the MEQ30 among people retrospectively reporting on their first time using a psychedelic. We examine whether the Finnish MEQ30 demonstrates adequate reliability and criterion and discriminant validity. We also assess the extent to which its factor structure corresponds to that reported for the English version. Further, we explore possible links between mystical experiences during first psychedelic experiences and self-reported changes in different facets of well-being experienced afterward.