Taking Psychedelics Helps People Face Mortality Like a Near-Death Experience, Study Finds

Scientists found that psychedelics and near-death experiences both overwhelmingly reduced anxiety about death.
Taking Psychedelics Helps People Face Mortality Like a Near-Death Experience, Study Finds
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Death is coming for us all. This reality, which binds all life on Earth, is understandably difficult for many people to confront. But research has shown that our anxiety and distress about mortality can be dramatically reduced by two very different but similarly intense events in life: near-death experiences or time spent under the influence of psychedelic substances.

Now, scientists have directly compared these two categories of life-changing events with the help of more than 3,000 participants to an online survey. The results revealed that the “groups were remarkably similar in the reported changes in death attitudes attributed to the experience, including a reduced fear of death,” a finding that “may inform clinical practice in reducing end-of-life anxiety and distress,” according to a study published on Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.


“I was expecting [the groups] to have some overlap, but to be much more different than they ended up being in this survey,” said Roland Griffiths, a professor of psychiatry and neurosciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and the senior author of the study, in a call. 

“There was a huge overlap with respect to the phenomenology—that is, the qualities of the experience—as well as the enduring attributions made to that experience, in both the near-death or out-of-body or non-drug experiences, versus the psychedelic experiences,” he added.

Griffiths, a leading expert on the therapeutic effects of psilocybin (the psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms), began developing this comparative experiment after reading about the transformative effects of near-death experiences. People who have lived through these experiences often report positive changes in their attitudes about death, as well as increased sense of purpose or meaning in life. 

“Very often people come away with a changed sense that there's something that continues after death of the body,” Griffiths said. “People feel that there's some benevolent quality that emerges, and that they no longer believe that death is an endgame.”

“We had done work with psilocybin in cancer patients who were depressed or anxious because of their life-threatening cancer diagnosis, and we found much the same thing,” he continued. “People had these experiences and they had a marked decrease in depression and anxiety, but also in a fear of death.”


To get a broader sense of the shared aspects of these experiences, the researchers recruited nearly 16,000 respondents to complete an online survey focused on changed beliefs about death that were attributed experiences induced by psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca, or DMT, or by the second “non-drug” group who reported near-death experiences, as well as other non-ordinary experiences that did not involve psychedelics. 

After subtracting those that quit the survey before finishing or did not meet the eligibility criteria, the team was left with 3,192 responses that broke down into 2,259 psychedelic group experiences and 933 non-drug experiences. Within the psychedelic group, 40 percent said their experience was occasioned by LSD (904 participants), 34 percent used psilocybin or psilocybin mushrooms (766 participants), 12 percent indicated ayahuasca (282 participants), and 14 percent said they smoked/ vaporized DMT other than ayahuasca (307 participants). Within the non-drug group, roughly half of respondents reported a near-death experience, while the other half reported a transformative event, such as an out-of-body experience, during which their life was not in danger.

The reports overwhelmingly showed that both groups felt less anxious about death as a result of their experiences, though there were interesting differences both between, and within, the two categories. For instance, people in the non-drug group were more likely than those in the drug group to “rate their experiences as the single most meaningful of their lives,” according to the study. There were also nuances within the drug group, which often stemmed from the different contexts in which each substance is used.

“Although we statistically control for demographic differences, ayahuasca tends to be used in ceremonies, in groups, and so there may be more of a bias toward an expectation of some kind of metaphysical insight,” Griffiths explained. “There really may be differences, but I think we're a ways from teasing those apart.”

It’s worth reading the study itself to get into all of the subtle characteristics of the experiences, such as encounters with an entity that could be described as “God,” as well the profound ways in which these events changed the respondents’ outlook on life, and most importantly for this research, death.

To that end, Griffiths and his colleagues hope that the results will help advance efforts to provide comfort to people who experience anxiety and distress over death with the help of psychedelic compounds such as psilocybin.  

“Therapeutically, I would hope that eventually the use of these compounds to treat end-of-life anxiety will be medically approved,” Griffiths concluded. “That's huge, because, of course, we're all terminal. There will be many within our culture who are going to face that existential crisis and be very distressed by it, so it’s a hugely applicable therapeutic indication.”