Standardizing the subjectivity of psychedelic experiences

Psychedelic effects and their impact on mental health symptoms have been well documented in medical literature. However, a more tangible understanding of the different subtypes of the psychedelic experience and their direct relationship to specific therapeutic outcomes remains missing. Seeking to define different psychedelic experiences and their relation to mental health outcomes, researchers identified three subtypes of the psychedelic experience and their association with symptoms of well-being.

Highlights of the study include:

  • Subtypes of the psychedelic experience are predictive of mental health outcomes in anxiety and depression
  • Subtypes of the psychedelic experience are reproducible when examined in a variety of different users with different baseline demographic and mental health characteristics.


Psychedelic potential for treating common mood disorders such as depression and anxiety has sparked research interest from professionals in the mental health sphere. Swaths of findings have been published in the last several years, with clinical trials of psychedelics such as psilocybin demonstrating long-lasting reductions in depression and anxiety symptoms. Studies of online surveys including self-reported effects of psychedelics by users in unmonitored, i.e., ‘naturalistic’ settings, have provided important insights that are difficult to obtain within monitored experimental settings, e.g., improvements of symptoms related to racial trauma

Promising reports of psychedelic use in clinical care have been met with critique concerning their true applicability. As the current state of healthcare advances from a generalized perspective to an individualized outlook for patient treatment, so too are drug outcomes expected to be predicted for patients at the individual level. Though the outcome of psychedelic effects on mental health symptoms is frequently reported, the likelihood of an individual user experiencing certain positive or negative effects, and the degree to which they may be experienced, has yet to be quantified in a manner that may reliably suggest specific types of mental health outcomes for specific groups of individuals who are prone to having certain psychedelic experiences.

Studies to-date have attempted to associate certain mental health outcomes with the different types of psychedelic experiences that may precede them, offering very little understanding of these experiences and how they may influence certain outcomes.

This Study: Overview

Using an artificial-intelligence driven approach, researchers analyzed previously published data from an internet survey of individuals reporting moderate to strong psychedelic experiences within the past year following the use of substances such as psilocybin, LSD, Ayahuasca, DMT, and mescaline.

Researchers sought to differentiate specific subtypes of the psychedelic experience to predict how these subtypes may uniquely relate to certain mental health outcomes at the individual level.

Three common subtypes of the psychedelic experience were identified based on the scales of their subjective effects in triggering 1)  psychological insight, 2) challenging experiences, and 3) ‘mystical’ experiences.

The mainstay of modern psychiatric ‘talk therapy’ for conditions such as depression, anxiety, and addiction is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT),  a method emphasizing the cultivation of self-awareness in patients that may be used to overcome circumstances triggering symptomatic episodes. Personally meaningful insight (or ‘psychological insight’) gained from therapeutic settings is closely linked to patient outcome and is a primary goal of psychotherapy.  Insight derived from psychedelic use may relate to an individual’s memories, relationships, emotions, behaviors, and beliefs and can be used to understand how certain thoughts contribute to painful feelings.

Psychological insight may empower an individual to solve problems related to events causing painful feelings. Psychological insight may also be derived from ‘mystical experiences,’ those which create feelings of peace, bliss, and fulfillment from a greater sense of connection to the world.  Mystical experiences may be invoked following practices such as meditation, dance, prayer, and fasting as well as with psychedelic use. The likelihood of a mystical experience following psychedelic use is largely dependent on one’s ‘openness’ to new experiences, as psychedelic drugs themselves do not produce mystical experiences but instead create altered states of consciousness, similar to those experienced in deep meditation, that may lead an individual to having a mystical experience. Research dating back to the 1950s has indicated a low response to psychedelic treatment in patients with rigid personality traits. Challenging experiences following psychedelic use are those which cause difficult, frightening, or destabilizing experiences. 

The Outcome

Researchers found that survey respondents reporting strong mystical experiences tended to also report high psychological insight following psychedelic use.  Highly challenging experiences were also associated with greater levels of psychological insight and strong mystical experiences. Strong mystical and psychological-insight driven psychedelic experiences were more likely to be associated with improvements in depression and anxiety symptoms.  Lower psychedelic doses were generally associated with less intense subtype experiences.

Participants were more likely to report a high degree of symptom improvement following LSD use in comparison to those who had taken psilocybin.

In LSD users, those who had taken higher doses were shown to have significantly better overall mental health outcomes in comparison to those who had taken lower doses (regardless of the degree of challenging experiences reported following use). 

Psychological subtypes were associated with specific demographic characteristics and other baseline factors including psychological flexibility and the severity of existing anxiety or depressive symptoms.

Of the different psychological substances analyzed, psilocybin and LSD were associated with the most beneficial subtypes of the psychedelic experience. 

Overall, the research demonstrated that psychedelic experiences may be characterized, in reproducible fashion, by expected psychedelic effects, particularly for experiences that are associated with long-lasting mental health improvements. The intensity of psychedelic effects for each subtype experience differed greatly with drug type, drug dose, user demographic characteristics, and existing mental health conditions. The degree of improvement in depression and anxiety also differed for each psychedelic subtype, suggesting that the characteristics of each experience may have predictive value in gauging long term mental health outcomes.

As the study is a breakthrough in examining the reproducible nature of psychedelic experiences and their impacts on mental health symptoms, more research is encouraged to support the reported findings.