David Yaden and his team will explore the effects of psychedelic substances on human health, behavior and worldview.
David Yaden’sjourney to becoming the first recipient of the $24 million Roland R. Griffiths, Ph.D. Professorship Fund in Psychedelic Research on Secular Spirituality and Well-Being began as an undergraduate at Rutgers University. Yaden developed an academic interest in transformative experiences after a sudden and spontaneous (nonpsychedelic) life-changing moment.
“Little is known about the mechanisms of how brief inner experiences can sometimes lastingly shift peoples’ sense of identity, their mood, their attitude, and beliefs about themselves, the future and the world,” Yaden says.
His quest to find the biological and psychological basis for these events culminated in his 2022 Oxford University Press book The Varieties of Spiritual Experience: 21st Century Research and Perspectives, which looked at a range of profoundly meaningful incidents through the lenses of psychology and neuroscience. The book was built on his doctorate work in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied brief occurrences with lasting effects.
This work led Yaden to the late Roland Griffiths, an internationally revered researcher of psychedelic and mood-altering drugs whose work helped kickstart a new era of psychedelic study and led to the creation in 2019 of the nation’s first psychedelic research center, at Johns Hopkins.
Groundbreaking studies published by Griffiths and his colleagues found that psilocybin — the active ingredient in so-called magic mushrooms — produces experiences that result in substantial and sustained personal meaning. Further research showed that psilocybin can help treat depression, and it has therapeutic effects for people who suffer from addiction (smoking, alcohol and abuse of other drugs) and existential distress caused by life-threatening disease.
Yaden joined Griffiths at the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research in March 2020.
During a June ceremony, Yaden was installed into the Griffiths professorship, which aims to advance research on psychedelic substances and their effects on human health, behavior and worldview. It is the largest in the history of the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
In his acceptance speech, Yaden described the multifaceted nature of spirituality, touching on its varied interpretations — from traditional religious doctrines to atheistic forms of interconnectedness. He underscored the imperative of conducting unbiased research on how these beliefs intersect with psychedelic experiences. With a balanced approach, highlighting both benefits and risks, Yaden envisions these studies to serve as credible public resources on subjects that tend to attract a lot of misinformation.
A life-altering event for Griffiths gave rise to the professorship. In November 2021, after a routine colonoscopy, the late professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences was diagnosed with late-stage colon cancer. With help from his 30 years of meditation and his work exploring the depths of human experience, Griffiths said the diagnosis inspired “gratitude for the precious gift of life itself” as well as the determination to create the endowment.
Before his recent death, he and Yaden analyzed data on previous studies, launched a clinical trial on the effects of psilocybin in patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder and published two articles in JAMA Psychiatry about the need for good science communication and high scientific standards in light of increasingly popular interest in psychedelics and psychedelic research.
Griffiths said he recruited Yaden because his rigorous approach to research converges with the center’s psychedelic studies.
“I have the utmost confidence that he has the motivation and talent to be a preeminent world leader in the next generation of psychedelic research on spirituality and well-being,” he said.