Can Psychedelics Offer Transformation During All Stages of Life?

“I’ve begun to wonder if perhaps these remarkable molecules might be wasted on the young, that they may have more to offer us later in life, after the cement of our mental habits and everyday behaviors has set.”

Michael Pollan says these words in his recent NYT best-selling book “How To Change Your Mind.” Here at Synthesis, we feel this sentiment to be particularly profound.

Although people of all ages are beginning to venture into the world of psychedelic retreats, they are most greatly associated with younger generations, who embark on these experiences intending to find new solutions to their feelings of despair at having inherited a diseased and dying Earth. In the Western cultural sphere, psychedelic retreats are sometimes seen as a rite of passage for young people who lack meaning in their lives, or who suffer from mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, which are becoming more prevalent in teenagers.

Pollan’s quote reminds us that people in later life represent some of those who are most in need of a renewed sense of meaning, or personal transformation. It is this segment of our society who are perhaps more set in their beliefs and mental patterns.

Can psychedelics offer a solution for older people who are suffering a midlife crisis, who are in desperate need of transformation, or who lack meaning in their lives?

Could psychedelic ceremony be especially effective for people who are middle aged or in late adulthood, helping reintroduce a feeling of contentment and purpose in life?

We believe that there are many indicators that the numinous experience offered at the Synthesis retreat could be particularly useful for the happiness and health of older generations.

Psychedelics and the numinous experience

For centuries, humans have been aware of the powerful and unique experiences that psychedelics can induce. Although psychedelic trips can be interpreted in different ways, the character of these mental states has always been difficult to put into words. Some people call the psychedelic experience “mystical,” “transcendental,” or “spiritual.”

The term “numinous” is used to encompass experiences that can be described as having a religious, spiritual, or mystical quality… This covers, essentially, any experience that is difficult to comprehend from a rational, materialist, or grounded point of view. Psychedelic experiences are often placed into this category, where they seem to fit fairly neatly: in one study where participants were given a single dose of a powerful psychedelic, over half of them reported is as “among the top five most spiritually significant experiences” of their lives.

Indigenous or traditional use of psychedelic substances is closely related to this numinous experience, perhaps because these cultures often have a more spiritual worldview than in Western society. In these frameworks, psychedelic plants are often treated with respect, considered to offer a connection to the spirit world, and are used in rites of passage, divination, and healing.

Now, the Western world is realizing that there is much to be learned from indigenous practices and the understanding of the natural world on which they draw, despite the fact that, in contemporary society, we are lacking a widespread cultural engagement with mysticism.

Our societal re-engagement with mystical mind-states is, in large part, due to the fact that the profile of psychedelic substances, which can produce them, has been raised by recent research into their therapeutic potential. Scientific research is revealing to us how the powerful transformative experience catalyzed by psychedelics, and its numinous effects, can facilitate positive meaning-making and psychological healing.

How does experiencing the numinous relate to the potential therapeutic benefits of taking psychedelics?

Among all the research into the clinical benefits of psychedelics, and particularly psilocybin, for example, as potential treatments for depression and addiction, it is apparent that the most significant healing effects are seen in people who have the most numinous experiences.

In studies that administered psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms and truffles, provided at the Synthesis retreat) for the treatment of depression and tobacco addiction, the participants who reported the most profound mystical experiences showed the greatest reductions in symptoms.

Research has also shown that the psychedelic experience can change core personality traits – something that is relatively rare in adults. In one study, measuring the connection between mystical experiences occasioned by psilocybin and the personality trait of openness (i.e. characteristics like sensitivity, tolerance and acceptance), a single high-dose session produced a lasting and dramatic increase in openness. This change remained significant one year after the dose.

Additionally, a recent survey-based study showed that people who had had intensely meaningful psychedelic experiences were more likely to appreciate nature to a greater extent than the general population.

The potential benefits of the numinous experience, for people in the later stages of life

The five so-called “core” personality traits, i.e. extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness and neuroticism, are generally set by adulthood. David Buss, professor of psychology at the University of Texas, states that “...global personality traits tend to remain very stable over time, and certainly from age 30.”

Therefore, it is likely that the transformative effects of the psychedelic experience can be of particular use to middle-aged or older people, who may find themselves struggling to feel open to the new experience of ageing, or the changing world around them.

Increases in the personality trait of openness are associated with increased imagination and creativity, increased motivation for new experiences, and increased intelligence and cognitive ability; (see this paper for more). We suggest that these changes could be particularly helpful for people in middle or late adulthood, who are encountering difficulties in adapting to their changing lives.

Psychedelics may also be especially useful for people who are middle-aged or older. It is common to suffer a dip in life-satisfaction during middle age; (see the graph below, which shows reported well-being in relation to age). Psychedelics could offer a means to straighten out this dip, and accelerate the journey towards life satisfaction, by providing a route towards meaning and well-being.

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Graph from Stone et al. (2010)

Although our personalities are unlikely to change much as we enter middle age, it is not uncommon to experience related changes in mental health, such as developing anxiety and depression. These types of changes to one’s mental health are often seen in the so-called “midlife crisis.”

What is a midlife crisis?

Transitioning into midlife can bring with it a large number of shifts in consciousness. Becoming more aware of your own mortality, and your accomplishments in life so far, prompts deep reflection. You may start feeling as if you haven’t achieved the things you wanted to, or that your life is lacking in fulfillment and purpose. You may be terrified of death, and/or begin feeling more aware of the ageing process.

For some people, these kinds of self-reflection can result in a midlife crisis. Feelings of despair, depression, anxiety, and frustration may surface, and manifest in unhealthy ways. People may find themselves struggling to maintain relationships, and/or may lose motivation for the parts of life that used to bring them happiness.

Midlife crisis may also be linked to a broader existential crisis; anxiety related to a basic despair about the nature of individual existence. These existential fears can sometimes be provoked by perceiving a lack of meaning in one’s life, or by developing a fear of death.

Can psychedelics give meaning to life?

Being able to find joy, fulfillment, and purpose as oneges is an important part of life. However, maintaining a sense of one’s life’s purpose and meaning, and approaching one’s existence with contentment, can sometimes be difficult. In Western society, in particular, a diminished sense of personal fulfillment can often result from that fact that material wealth and prosperity is often conflated with overall wellbeing. People may therefore mistakenly strive for happiness in the form of material goods, career success, or status – and find themselves lacking a deeper feeling of satisfaction or meaning.

How can having a psychedelic experience bring a person beyond this bleak outlook?

It is the unusual experience that psychedelic substances produce, rather than their material value, that could help bring fulfillment into people’s lives. By showing people a glimpse of the numinous, unlike anything they’ve seen before, psychedelic journeys can offer people the opportunity for people to see their lives and their place in the universe from a completely new perspective.

Countless people all over the world have reported that a single psychedelic experience has given them renewed purpose and drive in life. This could be especially useful for people suffering from a crisis in confidence, or existential worries, that can be associated with ageing.

How can psychedelics change your behavioral patterns?

The finding that a psychedelic experience can change core personality traits, and alter the way in which people relate to nature, suggests that psychedelics can significantly affect behavioral patterns. If you are stuck in habits that you feel helpless to change, psychedelic journeying could be one approach to breaking these patterns.

If you’ve reached middle-age or later, and have not learned how to be flexible and accept change, then you might also be experiencing some behaviors that are associated with resisting your shifting circumstances. These include restlessness, mistrust, controlling or critical behavior, and lack of motivation. Caregivers suggest that learning to accept change, and becoming less unhappy about the ageing process, can help address these behavioral issues and make you more content with life.

Psychedelics offer an opportunity to break people out of defensive patterns of behavior that may have been acquired due to the years of loss, change, and listlessness that are associated with ageing. The numinous experience catalyzed by psychedelics can introduce you to a paradigm shift; you could begin to countenance the unavoidable nature of change in life, and evolve into a more satisfied, purpose-driven being.

What is a paradigm shift?

A “paradigm” is a model that we use to understand something. For example, one paradigm is that DNA encodes the instructions for the development of an organism, and is the cause of our physical appearance. Another paradigm is that the world was created by a deity six thousand years ago, and that deity is constantly judging our thoughts and actions. Both these paradigms can be justified in various ways, contain various assumptions, and are believed by millions of people.

A paradigm shift is a change in the lens through which you view the world. It can take the form of a drastic change in your core beliefs or values – or it could be something like a change in the way you visualize your past mistakes.

Paradigm shifts may occur as you discover that your underlying assumptions about the world are flawed. For example, you might go through life as a staunch atheist, only to then have a spiritual encounter that makes you question your assumptions about the existence of divine beings.

Paradigm shifts are a natural part of life, because we live in a dynamic, fluctuating world that we will probably never fully understand. In fact, according to physicist Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (1962), they are crucial for scientific advancement. Without paradigm shifts, we would quite possibly still think the Earth was flat, or be ignorant about the quantum nature of reality.

Just as they are in scientific revolutions, paradigm shifts are also important for personal development and in our search for contentment. Being able to have your core beliefs questioned and altered can help you find new and fulfilling avenues in life, and can prevent you from stagnating in familiar patterns and habits.

Paradigm shifts may be especially useful in middle aged and the elderly people, to grant us fresh perspectives on life during a time where we may feel trapped and hopeless. For instance, two recent research studies – one in New York with 29 subjects, and a larger one in Baltimore with 51 subjects – found that a single high dose of psilocybin significantly reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety in terminal cancer patients, and that these changes lasted many months. Unsurprisingly, the patients who had the most profoundly numinous experiences during the study also had the most significant reductions in depression and anxiety.

Psychedelics can certainly be a means to achieving paradigm shifts. By encountering mystical or other-worldly concepts, outside our normal frame of reference, we are likely to undergo a paradigm shift in at least some elements of our lives, improving our overall living experience.

A catalyst, not a cure

If you are middle-aged or elderly, and looking for answers to profound questions: remember that psychedelic experiences can only be catalysts for deeper, more productive thinking, not cure-all solutions to problems. They can be useful for giving you a taste of what personal change and transformation could look like for you, but it’s up to you to deduce what they teach you and devise ways to apply it to your life. Psychedelic journeys are not a “one-and-done” cure for depression, anxiety, purposelessness, or any other mental ailment or condition.

Synthesis retreat prides itself in offering a comfortable, well-curated environment in which to amplify the potential benefits of psychedelic journeying, and we believe that this is an activity which can be especially transformative in those who are middle-aged and older. But Synthesis is not a replacement for therapy, medication, exercise, diet, or self-reflection.

If you join us at one of our retreats, we hope to introduce you to psilocybin as an agent of possible change; helping you orchestrate your own personal, autonomous transformation into a fulfilled, healthy life.

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