Do entheogen-induced mystical experiences boost the immune system?
Psychedelics, peak experiences, and wellness -by Thomas B. Roberts
Thomas B. Roberts PhD is a Professor of Educational Psychology at Northern Illinois
University, DeKaIb, IL (USA), where he has taught courses on transpersonal,
mind-body, psychedelic, and consciousness topics.
Advances in Mind-Body Medicine, 15 (1999) : 139-147
Copyright © 1999 John E. Fetzer Institute
Used by CSP with permission of the journal and of the author.
All rights reserved.
Abstract. Daily events that boost the immune system (as indicated by levels
of salivary immunoglobulin A), some instances of spontaneous remission, and
mystical experiences seem to share a similar cluster of thoughts, feelings,
moods, perceptions, and behaviors. Entheogens – psychedelic drugs used in a
religious context – can also produce mystical experiences (peak experiences,
states of unitive consciousness, intense primary religious experiences) with
the same cluster of effects. When this happens, is it also possible that such
entheogen-induced mystical experiences strengthen the immune system? Might spontaneous
remissions occur more frequently under such conditions? This article advances
the so called "Emxis hypothesis" – that entheogen-induced mystical
experiences influence the immune system.
Combined observations from biology, medicine, religion, psychology, and psychotherapy
point to the possibility of a fascinating relationship among entheogens (psychoactive
plants and chemicals used in a religious context), mystical experiences, and
the immune system – that entheogen-induced mystical experiences may strengthen
the immune system. I call this proposition the "Emxis hypothesis – emxis"
being a partial acronym of sorts for "Entheogen-induced Mystical eXperiences
Influence the immune System."
This article summarizes the observations that contribute to the Emxis hypothesis,
and it explores some possible connections among these observations and their
academic disciplines. In skeletal form, the Emxis hypothesis is based on the
following observations: the immune system is boosted by a number of emotionally
positive events in people's daily lives; these events are weaker forms of similar
experiences that occur during mystical states; and under the right psychological
state and physical location – known in the literature as "set and setting"
– entheogens induce mystical states. To be clear, it is not my contention that
the Emxis hypothesis is proved but rather that it offers leads worth investigating.
There are many unknowns here, as suggested by my own varied entheogenic experiences:
powerfully overwhelming states of unitive consciousness probably occurred about
one-sixth of the time, while brief, more diluted episodes of a feeling of sacredness
occurred over half the time.
These mixed results prompt the first of several caveats I want to note. First,
the Emxis hypothesis does not apply to all psychedelic usage or to all religious
uses but only to those occasions when entheogens bring about states characterized
by profound experiences of oneness. Some religions use marijuana sacramentally
(see, for example, Chevannes 1995), but this usage does not seem to produce
states of unitive consciousness, and thus falls short of the mystical state
that is an essential element of the Emxis hypothesis.
Again, the hypothesis does not apply to psycholytic psychotherapy (Grof 1975/1993,
1980/1994; Passie 1997), which uses small doses of LSD in multiple sessions
as a way to help bring otherwise blocked material to consciousness. Since the
small doses, used as an adjunct to usual psychotherapeutic practices, do not
produce a mystical experience, this is outside the Emxis hypothesis too.
On the other hand, psychedelic psychotherapy (Grof 1975/1993, 1980/1994; Passie
1997), in contrast to low-dose psycholytic psychotherapy, uses single, heavy-dose
sessions that have the intent of providing psychotherapeutic mystical experiences.
In the instances in which this goal is reached, the Emxis hypothesis would look
for boosts to the immune system. The fact that psychedelic therapy does not
always produce a state of unitive consciousness could be useful in studying
the hypothesis. Conceivably, if the predominant emotions raised by the therapy
were negative and if the patients' stress were unresolved, such "unsuccessful"
sessions would provide a control to mystical-experience sessions: both would
be high-dose but with opposite emotional tones. (Frequently, high-dose psychedelic
sessions are a mixture of extreme emotions, both positive and negative. How
these would effect immune indicators such as salivary immunoglobulin A or cortisol
is anybody's guess. My guess is that the final emotional state will be most
Finally, a caution: Even if entheogen-induced mystical experiences strengthen
immune functions, they might not be strengthened enough to influence health
or may be strengthened only marginally. As Stone et al. (1996) found in a study
of salivary immunoglobulin A (IgA), the role of positive emotions may be primarily
to counteract negative emotions; the positive emotions may not actually add
strength to the immune system beyond its normal capacity. When Valdimarsdottir
and Bovbjerg (1997) looked at natural killer cell activity, they found that
it seemed related to positive moods when overcoming negative moods, raising
the possibility again "that positive mood may moderate, or buffer, the
effects of negative mood on immune function." That is, positive mood may
or may not strengthen natural killer cell activity beyond its normal range.
On the other hand, working with an apparently healthy and non-stressed group
of school-age children, Lambert and Lambert (1995) discovered that concentrations
of salivary IgA "were increased after a humorous presentation," raising
the possibility that the presentation strengthened this immune component beyond
its normal range. The whole issue of the possible immune effects of exceedingly
positive experiences is not clear because all scientific research done to date
has been within the range of normal daily events. The immune effects of exceedingly
strong positive affect have yet to be studied.
Such cautions and caveats notwithstanding, this article argues three main points:
that entheogens sometimes produce mystical experiences, that mystical experiences
contain exceedingly powerful positive affects and cognitions, and that in daily
life-events, lesser instances of these feelings and thoughts strengthen the
immune system somewhat. It then pursues two related questions: Do the powerful
positive affects and cognitions during mystical experiences strengthen the immune
system a great deal? Is it possible to find anecdotal and clinical reports of
unusual cures that are associated with mystical experiences and/or the typical
thoughts and feelings that accompany them? We begin our investigation by taking
a closer look at entheogens and mystical experiences.
Entheogens and mystical experiences
What are entheogens? Because psychedelics select certain emotional and cognitive
processes, focus one's attention on them, and magnify subjective awareness,
they produce a great variety of effects – sometimes conflicting effects. In
this article, we are interested in the occasions that psychedelics produce states
of unitive consciousness, or mystical experiences. When causing this kind of
experience, they are called "entheogens."
The literature on psychedelics and mystical experiences occurs predominantly
in two disciplines, religion and psychotherapy. The word "entheogen"
comes from the religious literature. The term, which literally means "realizing
the divine within" or "generating the experience of god within,"
was coined in 1979 (Ruck et al.) specifically to denote the religious experiences
of psychedelic use. The Native American Church's use of peyote as a sacrament
is probably the most widely recognized example.
The classification of a psychedelic as an "entheogen" comes from
its use, not its chemical structure or any other drug taxonomy. The process
of labeling a psychedelic as an entheogen is similar to classifying the wine
in a religious ceremony as a sacrament, in other words by its use, rather than
by its chemical structure or its possible use as a food, medicine, or recreational
The scholarly writings on entheogens occur in religion, theology, psychology,
archeology, anthropology, sociology, history, law, literature, and a scattering
of related fields. With a co-author, I have compiled an online reference of
more than 400 books, dissertations, theses, and topical issues of journals that
have something significant to say about entheogens (Roberts & Hruby, 1997).
Most entries contain from 1 to 4 pages of excerpts. Taken as a whole, but still
with widespread disagreement, there is general consensus that, under the right
conditions, entheogens may induce experiences that are identical with, or closely
resemble, mystical experiences that can be attributed to religious practices
such as fasting, prayer, meditation, an ascetic life, or "the grace of
Religious writings on entheogens contain a large number of complex arguments
about whether entheogen-induced mystical experiences are genuine religious experiences
and a large number of considerations about how one goes about interpreting these
experiences as religious phenomena. As important as these religious issues and
distinctions are, in this article we are going to side-step them, and focus
rather on the existence of entheogen-induced mystical experiences and the effects
of mystical experiences on the immune system.
That entheogens do produce mystical experiences that are akin to religious
experiences is indicated by two respected but by no means universally accepted
scholarly investigations. One is Forte's anthology Entheogens and the Future
of Religion (1997), and the other, an earlier work, is the chapter "Psychedelic
Drugs and the Human Mind" in Grinspoon and Bakalar's Psychedelic Drugs
Reconsidered (1979/1997). As for the Forte anthology, the well-known philosopher
of religion, Huston Smith, evaluates it as "the best single inquiry into
the religious significance of chemically occasioned mystical experiences that
has yet appeared." With various flavors to their answers, the contributors
maintain that entheogens sometimes produce religious experiences.
This outlook echoes Grinspoon and Bakalar's analysis two decades earlier in
their comprehensive review of psychedelic research. The evidence, they argue,
demonstrates "that psychedelic drugs produce experiences that those who
undergo them regard as religious in the fullest sense." In addition, "drug-induced
religious and mystical experience is often reported to be unusually intense."
In support of this assertion, they cite some research by the theologian Walter
Walter Clark conducted an experiment in which he gave LSD to eight subjects;
nine to eleven months later he asked them to rate the intensity of the experiences
on a scale of one to five in various categories. The most common single rating
was five – "beyond anything ever experienced or even imagined" – on
measures like timelessness, spacelessness, paradoxicality, presence of God,
ultimate reality, blessedness and peace, mystery, and rebirth. Additional support
for the proposition that psychedelics can induce mystical experiences comes
from a more recent review, Hood's The Facilitation of Religious Experience (1995).
Hood judges "that somewhere between 35 and 50 percent of psychedelic participants
report religious experiences of a mystical or numinous nature, even without
religious contexts." This number rises to about 90% if one includes reports
with any religious imagery or religious vocabulary.
Thus, the literature abounds with instances of entheogen-occasioned mystical
experience. The next question is: do these events share characteristics with
experiences that are known to strengthen the immune system?
Characteristics of mystical experiences
It is important to distinguish between the different ways that the term "mystical
experience" is used in common language and in philosophy and religion.
In the former, it is associated with parapsychology, the occult, cultic practices
and with television shows about "the unexplained In philosophy, religious
studies, and the psychology of religion, "mystical experience" denotes
a specific experience or a group of similar experiences. (There is considerable
discussion on this point.) Typically, mystical experiences are characterized
by subjective qualities. Pahnke and Richards (1966) list nine: (1) a feeling
of oneness that is, ego transcendence; (2) objectivity and reality – noetic
quality or sense of truth; (3) a transcendence of time and space; (4) a feeling
of sacredness; (5) deeply felt positive mood; (6) an awareness of paradoxicality
– an awareness that is anomalous in the Western scientific paradigm (7) a feeling
that the experience is ineffable; (8) transiency; and (9) positive changes in
attitude and/or behavior. As will be discussed below, these subjective characteristics
resemble those that are associated with a strengthened salivary IgA levels and,
indeed, with spontaneous remissions.
A number of overlapping terms are used to describe mystical experiences, and
there is on-going discussion about appropriate typologies and the necessary
criteria for a phenomenological event to be considered "mystical."
Here again, we will bypass such important discussions and use a number of terms
interchangeably. While it is possible that measuring immune responses and other
physiological parameters of these events may ultimately help discriminate among
"degrees and types of mystical experiences, in this article mystical experiences
will be denoted by any of the following experiences: transcendence, self-transcendence,
temporary ego-loss, ego-transcendence, unitive consciousness, oneness with the
universe, cosmic consciousness, no-self, transpersonal states, divine grace,
divine rapture, religious conversion experience, peak experience, mystical unity
and others that are generally included with Pahnke and Richards' nine categories.
Thanks to Hood's construction of a Mysticism Scale in 1975 and its subsequent
modifications and also to the concurrent growth of transpersonal psychology
Journal of Transpersonal Psychology (1969+), there is a substantial amount of
empirical research on mystical experiences. Three summaries of the literature
(Council on Spiritual Practices 1997, Hruby 1996, Lukoff & Lu 1988) contain
many findings relevant to our discussion here. To begin, these summaries show
that mystical experiences tend to be associated with indicators of positive
mental health. Further, as compared with people who have not had mystical experiences,
those who have experienced them report lives that are more meaningful and hopeful
and more often report that they feel a purpose or direction in their lives.
They have higher levels of education and income and rate themselves higher in
levels of personal talent and capabilities, self-sufficiency, intelligence,
and ego strength. They picture themselves as more psychologically mature, less
motivated by personal fame and a desire for high income, and as more altruistic.
They say their mystical experiences were more conductive to mental health than
to mental illness.
Now, because most of these findings come from correlational studies, it is
not clear whether mystical experiences help produce these characteristics, intensify
already existing traits, or occur because of a third factor such as personality
traits. Future experimental studies with entheogens might help clear up this
theoretical ambiguity. In any event, for us the critical question is whether
the characteristics of mystical experiences correlate with improved functioning
of the immune system.
The immune system and salivary immunoglobulin A
Here we will focus specifically on increased levels of salivary IgA – sIgA
– as a presumed indicator of overall immune strengthening. Salivary IgA is,
of course, only one measure of immune function. I select it for the many advantages
listed below. Other immune indicators presumably could show similar effects
and deserve attention too.
IgA "is the major immunoglobulin in the fluids that bathe the mucosal
surfaces of the body and the surfaces that are the paths of entry to invading
bacteria and viruses into the body (e.g. tears, saliva, gastrointestinal, vaginal,
nasal, and bronchial secretions)" (Valdimarsdottir & Stone 1997). Because
one of its locations is saliva, IgA is especially easy to sample. Since one
hope behind this article is to encourage research into positive emotional experiences
induced by entheogens, salivary IgA has the advantage of being readily obtainable
while causing a minimum of interruption to an on-going entheogenic session.
Its use is additionally appropriate during a situation when suggestibility is
heightened and subjects may be easily frightened or stressed by blood-taking
procedures, which, further, would be beyond the professional qualifications
and personal preferences of many potential researchers into this area, including
theologians and sociologists.
A prime reason for using salivary measures, and specifically IgA, as indicators
of the immune system's health is the large number of studies that form a theoretical
and empirical base. In their 1992 review Saliva as a Diagnostic Fluid, Glock,
Heller, and Malamud list 2298 citations from over 7500 that were initially retrieved.
Of these, 174 consider immunoglobulins. From 1993 through September 1998, Medline
lists 6486 IgA citations, some salivary, some not. Thus, in all, salivary IgA
studies are embedded in a widely recognized research base with established methods
and professional practices.
From the perspective of the Emxis hypothesis, a problem with these sIgA studies
is that many of them do not use human subjects, and of these only a small fraction
address wellness, positive health, or positive experiences. However, if we assume
that positive emotions have the reverse effect of negative emotions, the Emxis
hypothesis is supported by a large database of illness-related studies, showing
that stressors reduce salivary IgA and other immune functions.
A final reason to focus on salivary IgA is that there are intriguing research
leads that link stressful daily events in one's life with lower salivary IgA
levels and positive events with higher levels. For example, in a series of studies
by Stone et al (1987, 1994, 1966), desirable and undesirable daily events are
found to influence IgA up or down respectively, and as the Emxis hypothesis
assumes, mood mediates the effects. We shall return to these studies.
Psychospiritual and psychosocial boosts for the immune system
Might mystical experiences (peak experiences) be an intervening variable between
entheogens and increased immune system functioning? If mystical experiences
share characteristics with events that enhance salivary IgA, it is entirely
reasonable to hypothesize that they could serve such mediating roles.
In exploring the data, we need to keep in mind that most of the treatments
tried so far as interventions to enhance sIgA are presumed to reduce stress
– that is, reduce negative emotions rather than increase positive emotions and
boost the immune system (a general strategy that, of course, is in keeping with
contemporary medicine's orientation to illness rather than wellness). Coping
with negative mood may not be the same as increasing positive mood, especially
increasing positive mood to the great extremes occurring during some kinds of
mystical experiences. Nevertheless, the reduction of unpleasant emotions, depression,
and other stressful daily events that weaken the immune system as measured by
sIgA is, in essence, an increase in positive mood.
In "Psychosocial Factors and Secretory Immunoglobulin A," Valdimarsdottir
and Stone (1997) select and summarize about two dozen research studies on the
relationships between sIgA and both stressful events and stress-reduction interventions.
Although the authors caution that "methodological refinements are needed
before more definitive conclusions can be made," they maintain that the
studies indicate that various stress-reduction interventions are associated
with increases in salivary IgA levels. The question that concerns us is whether
the interventions that increase salivary IgA exhibit in some form the characteristics
of mystical experiences?
Among the stress-reduction techniques that have been tried, we find relaxation
response, progressive relaxation, guided visualization, imaging powerful immune
functions, back massage, music combined with self-induced state of appreciation
(McCraty et al 1996), self-hypnosis, suggestions, and humorous movies (McClelland
& Cheriff 1997). These interventions are consistent with the decreased need
for ego defensiveness that accompanies ego-transcendent states and with feelings
of belonging and unity, deeply felt positive mood – all characteristics of mystical
experiences. Further, on the basis of the assumption that human abilities vary
in strength from one mind-body state to another (Roberts 1989), it is likely
that the abilities of visualization suggestion, hypnosis, and imaging are more
powerful in some altered states of consciousness, an important possibility considering
that entheogens alter consciousness.
In short, although these interventions do not investigate the hypothetical
relationship between mystical states and improved immune function, as a whole
they are in the expected direction. Perhaps these stress-reduction interventions
can best be considered as mild examples of more powerful entheogenic interventions.
The most common feature of both types of interventions is positive emotions.
Studies of social support offer another possible link to the characteristics
of mystical experiences For example, Jemmott and Magloire (1988) found that
high levels of sIgA are associated with social support. One can argue that,
for people who have had mystical experiences, the feelings of unity, belonging
in the universe, and "coming to one 5 ultimate home" provide feelings
of extreme support, even cosmic support. For people who have experienced these
states, cosmic belonging may substitute – more than substitute – for ordinary,
interpersonal social support.
Studies of social support, positive psychological mood, and desirable daily
events show all three are correlated with increased sIgA. These studies also
provide some general support for the Emxis hypothesis, especially the link between
positive experience and increased sIgA, or they are at least consistent with
Mystical state and spontaneous remission
Let us ratchet up the importance of the possible significance of the Emxis
hypothesis. If positive day-to-day experiences strengthen the immune system
somewhat, might powerfully positive experiences – mystical states, states of
unitive consciousness, or ego-transcendent states – strengthen the immune system
to the point of being associated with unusual cures? We can raise this question
because some suggestive data prompt it.
In Spontaneous Remission: An Annotated Bibliography, O'Regan and Hirshberg
(1993) present a table of "Psychospiritual Correlates of Remission."
Resembling both the characteristics of mystical experiences and the daily events,
moods, and attitudes that are associated with increased levels of sIgA, many
of their list of 27 correlates seem like old friends: group support, hypnosis/suggestion,
meditation, relaxation techniques, mental imagery, psychotherapy/ psychoanalysis,
behavioral therapy, group therapy, miraculous spiritual phenomena, prayer/ spiritual
belief, religious/spiritual conversion, autonomous behavior/increased autonomy,
faith/positive outcome expectancy, fighting spirit, denial, lifestyle/attitude/behavioral
(changes), social relationships/interpersonal relationship/family support, positive
emotions/acceptance of negative emotions, environmental/social awareness/altruistic,
expression of needs/demands/self-nurturing, sense of control/internal locus
of control, desire/will to live, increased or altered sensory perception, taking
responsibility for the illness, sense of purpose, placebo effect, diet/exercise.
Many of these 27 psychospiritual correlates are characteristics of both mystical
experiences and events that boost salivary IgA. Others, such as sense of belonging,
discarding ego-centeredness, reorienting one's life, and altered states of consciousness
are typical of mystical experiences but do not appear in sIgA research. The
correlates that emphasize insights into one's personal life and social relationships
parallel the results of decreased ego-attachment that often follow ego transcendence,
both psychedelic and non-psychedelic. One cluster of correlates is composed
of experiences of altered-states phenomena – the very nature of mystical experience.
Taking such parallels into consideration, might it be reasonable to say that
there is a persistent cluster of feelings, thoughts, moods, and behaviors that
recur in mystical experiences, daily events associated with increased sIgA levels,
and spontaneous remission?
At this point, an inclination toward a positive answer can be only a surmise.
O'Regan and Hirshberg report disappointingly few findings that show a relationship
between mystical states and unaccountable cures. (Given that both spontaneous
remissions and mystical experiences occur at certain low rates in a population,
this may not be so surprising.) Still, they provide some suggestive clinical
They note that at the first conference on spontaneous regression held at Johns
Hopkins in 1974 (see Medical World News 1974), "Dr. Renee Mastrovito of
the neuropsychiatric service at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center alluded
to historical references to cures following religious conversion or prayer."
They also point to a study of five selected cases "who made a narrow escape
from cancer," by Ikemi at al (1975). According to O'Regan and Hirshberg,
the authors claim that the patients' spontaneous cures were "supported
and encouraged by their religious faith or favorable change of human environment
[social relationship]" and suggest "that the background of Oriental
thought also might help them reach such a blessed state of mind." In three
of the five cases, "the unchanged or rather elevated immunological capacity
which was usually lowered in cancer patients has been confirmed."
A comment on another survey of 18 cases of cancer regression (Weinstock 1983)
can also be aligned with the typical feelings of hope, purpose, and meaning
that follow mystical experiences. "All 18 definitely did not have anything
for which to live before the favorable psychosocial change, and all found life
very much worth living afterwards."
O'Regan and Hirshberg also cite clinical reports by Meares of 12 cases of spontaneous
regression of cancers associated with intensive meditation. In the discussion
of one case, Meares (1979) writes, "It may well be that the extreme reduction
of anxiety in these patients triggers off the mechanism which becomes active
in the rare spontaneous remissions. This would be consistent with the observation
that spontaneous remissions are often associated with some kind of religious
experience or profound psychological reaction."
We can suppose that the religious conversion experiences, blessed states of
mind, and marked favorable psychosocial change reported in the studies above
probably indicate strongly felt positive moods and possibly peak or ego-transcendent
mystical experiences. From a transpersonal perspective, a consistent source
of psychological anxiety and its resulting physical stress is over-identification
with the ego. As the saying goes: The ego has problems, and the ego is a problem.
Might it be that ego transcendence or dis-identification during meditation helps
account for instances of spontaneous remission?
Ego transcendence is also a common experience during intense psychedelic sessions.
While using psychedelics with cancer patients not to cure cancer but as an adjunct
to psychotherapy, Richards et al (1977) reported that the most significant variable
in psychedelic psychotherapy is "the peak experience variable."
Taking up unfinished work
In their summary of psychosocial factors effecting sIgA, Valdimarsdottir and
Stone (1997) conclude that both negative and positive affect mediate between
daily events and sIgA levels. This "indicates that researchers should not
only focus on the role of negative affect but should also consider the contribution
of positive affect." The Emxis hypothesis might add, "Especially extremely
powerful positive affect!"
Twenty years ago in Psychedelic Drugs Reconsidered, the book-length review
of the scientific and scholarly literature (over 1000 studies), Grinspoon and
Bakalar (1979) summarized their position:
After more than ten years of almost total neglect, it is time to take up the
work that was laid down unfinished in the sixties. We need to arrange a way
for people to take psychedelic drugs responsibly under appropriate guidance
within the law, and a way for those who want to administer them to volunteers
for therapeutic and general research to do so. They wrote this after examining
and compiling nearly the whole corpus of psychedelic research in psychotherapy,
religion, creativity, psychology, and related fields.
Now, two decades later, little progress has been made, but the Emxis hypothesis
gives a new rationale to restart this research: Entheogen-induced mystical experiences
may boost the immune system.
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