What do taking a psychedelic and meditation have in common? (No, that’s not a setup for a bad joke.) High doses of psychedelics have been shown to alter your sense of self and connection to the surrounding world. So, too, have meditation practices.
According to recent research, the mystical experiences psychedelics produce and the spiritual benefits of meditation play important roles in promoting a healthy mood. 1 What’s more, meditation might help prolong the benefits of psilocybin in depressed people. 2
As it turns out, psychedelics and meditation complement each other in more ways than one. Here’s what we know (so far) about the relationship between them.
What is Meditation?
Meditation refers to techniques and practices that a person uses to regulate their attention and awareness. 3
Numerous religious traditions practice forms of meditation. There are many different types, including focused attention (focusing on your breath or repeating a mantra), mindfulness meditation (paying attention to the multi-sensory experience of eating, walking, etc.), and non-dual awareness (focusing on the oneness of all things). Mindfulness meditation is among the most studied in neuroscience research. 4,3
Anecdotally, meditation can help manage stress, increase self-awareness, lower resting heart rate and blood pressure, and reduce negative emotions. But scientists are just beginning to understand how meditation works in the brain and body.
According to a review published in 2015, emerging evidence suggests that mindfulness meditation contributes to neuroplasticity—specifically, changes in the structure and function of brain regions involved in attention, emotion, and self-awareness. 3
Spoiler: Recent research shows a link between psychedelics and neuroplasticity, too.
Key Similarities Between Psychedelics and Meditation
Meditation and psychedelics are both new fields of research, which means there are many hypotheses, but no definitive conclusions (yet).
But based on what we know so far, there’s an interesting overlap between the way meditative practices and psychedelic substances impact the brain.
Separately, extensive meditation practices and high doses of psilocybin have been shown to promote a positive mood.
In a review published in 2020, the authors proposed that meditation and psilocybin take different routes to produce the same effect: meditation helps people learn how to cope with negative thoughts, and psilocybin supports a healthy mood by “destabilizing established belief systems.” 2
Dissolving sense of self
Meditation and high doses of psychedelics can disrupt the way you think about yourself and your identity, a phenomenon known as ego dissolution (aka ego death).
Dissolving the ego promotes a sense of transcendence, or a sense of unity with one’s environment and world. In psychology, self-transcendence promotes a shift in people’s awareness away from themselves and toward others or something greater than themselves. 5,4
That mental shift is one of the reasons ego dissolution promotes a positive mood. Feeling like yourself is hard when you’re ruminating on negative thoughts and destructive feedback loops. Experiences promoting ego dissolution help you get outside your head and healthily refocus your attention.
Deactivation of the DMN
The DMN (default mode network) is a system of brain areas that relate to introspection and the ability to think about the thoughts and feelings of others. The DMN is most active when your mind is at rest (aka mind-wandering, like when you’re zoning out in line). It’s less active when you’re focused on a task. 6,7
Researchers speculate that overactive DMN activity contributes to negative thinking, and people with depression may have trouble coping with negative thoughts. 8
Meditation and certain psychedelics (Ayahuasca, psilocybin, and LSD) have both been shown to decrease DMN activity. That’s a big deal: Decreased DMN activity may help people regain control of their attention and get out of negative thought spirals. 4
The Benefits of Detachment
Although psychedelics and meditation work differently, they offer similar benefits: They help people detach from their sense of selves, refocus their attention, and promote healthy thought patterns.
So, should you start meditating on LSD? Some researchers are exploring the combination of psychedelics and meditation, while others suggest that they’re complementary therapies—you wouldn’t want to trip every day, but you could use meditation to maintain the benefits of psychedelic therapy long-term.
In a forthcoming paper, Dr. Chris Letheby—a philosopher of mind and cognitive science at the University of Western Australia—discusses the self-binding theory of psychedelic ego dissolution: by disrupting self-beliefs, “both psychedelics and meditation can expose and weaken our foundational beliefs about our own identity, allowing us to disidentify with these beliefs and see them as ‘just thoughts.’”
Said another way: When you become aware of your negative thoughts, it’s easier to acknowledge them and move on.
Frequently Asked Questions
How does meditation affect consciousness?
Deep meditation can promote a state of consciousness that alters a person’s perception of themselves and their world (aka ego dissolution). This shift refocuses a person’s attention away from themselves, which helps them cope with negative thoughts.
Does meditation make you feel high?
Meditation doesn’t necessarily make a person feel intoxicated. However, some people feel a sense of euphoria and relaxation after a deep meditative session. Some meditative practices, such as holotropic breathing, can cause sensations similar to a psychedelic trip.
What is pure consciousness?
Pure consciousness (PC) is described as an “objectless” or “emptied out” state of being. In scientific literature, there’s debate as to whether PC is different from non-dual awareness—a state of consciousness that is empty of all ordinary mental content.
Psychedelics and meditation share quite a few similarities—both have been shown to improve mood, alter a person’s sense of self, and change regions of the brain associated with introspection.
Before you start meditating on shrooms, keep in mind that this area of research is new, and it’s unclear how psychedelics and meditation interact. Early evidence suggests they’re complementary ways to refocus your awareness and cope with negative thoughts.
1. Griffiths RR, Johnson MW, Richards WA, et al. Psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experience in combination with meditation and other spiritual practices produces enduring positive changes in psychological functioning and in trait measures of prosocial attitudes and behaviors. J Psychopharmacol (Oxford). 2018;32(1):49-69. doi:10.1177/0269881117731279
2. Heuschkel K, Kuypers KPC. Depression, mindfulness, and psilocybin: possible complementary effects of mindfulness meditation and psilocybin in the treatment of depression. A review. Front Psychiatry. 2020;11:224. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2020.00224
5. Vago DR, Silbersweig DA. Self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-transcendence (S-ART): a framework for understanding the neurobiological mechanisms of mindfulness. Front Hum Neurosci. 2012;6:296. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2012.00296
6. Pollan M. How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. Softcover large print edition. Penguin Press; 2018:480.
8. Hamilton JP, Furman DJ, Chang C, Thomason ME, Dennis E, Gotlib IH. Default-mode and task-positive network activity in major depressive disorder: implications for adaptive and maladaptive rumination. Biol Psychiatry. 2011;70(4):327-333. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2011.02.003