A comparison of psychedelic drugs and NDEs in changing perspectives on death and dying.

Title: Comparison of psychedelic and near-death or other non-ordinary experiences in changing attitudes about death and dying.
Author(s): Mary M Sweeney et al.
Journal: PLOS ONE
Publication date: August 2022
Link to full paper.

Both the therapeutic use of psychedelic medicines and the event of a near-death experience (NDE) have been shown in previous studies to reduce death anxiety whilst increasing death-acceptance and death-transcendence in patients with life-threatening diseases.

This study looked at the comparisons between the actions of psychedelic drugs and NDEs on an individual’s beliefs and fears of death.

Research such as this is important in informing current clinical practice around end-of-life care and guiding future developments in therapeutic treatments.

The researchers recruited (via email and social media networks) a final sample of 2,259 participants who used psychedelic drugs (LSD, psilocybin, ayahuasca or DMT) and 933 who had reported a NDE.

Participants completed a survey using multiple choice and open-ended questions.

Results found very similar subjective experiences between the two groups. Both reported a reduced fear of death, psychological insight and a spiritual significance to the event. There were also some significant differences around the level of meaning and depth of significance within the experience.

Summary of similarities and differences between the two groups:

Authors conclusion:

This study presents a detailed description and direct comparison of psychedelic drug-occasioned and non-drug experiences that changed perspectives on death and dying. Overall, the psychedelic and non-drug experiences showed striking similarities both in the phenomenological features of the experience as well as on changes attributed to the experience which included decreases in fear of death, positive changes in attitudes about death, and increases in personal well-being and life purpose and meaning. Although both psychedelic and non-drug participants showed robust increases on standardized measures of mystical and near-death experiences, these measures were significantly greater in the psychedelic participants. However, the non-drug participants were significantly more likely to rate their experiences as the single most meaningful, spiritually significant, insightful, and challenging of their lives. Comparing across psychedelic substances, ayahuasca and DMT groups tended to report stronger and more positive enduring consequences of the experience than the psilocybin and LSD groups, which were largely indistinguishable. Overall, the present findings, which show that both psychedelic and non-drug-occasioned experiences can produce positive and enduring changes in attitudes about death, suggest the importance of future prospective experimental and clinical observational studies to better understand mechanisms of such changes as well as their potential clinical utility in ameliorating suffering related to fear to death.

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