Magic Mushrooms: New Research on Psilocybin and Its Benefits
Much like the carefully orchestrated de-legalization of cannabis during the 1930’s, there was a powerful decades-long misleading campaign against psilocybin mushrooms which caused a deep-rooted fear and a subsequent public rejection of this substance.
Just as cannabis is now finally seeing an increase in public trust, several studies have been published which show extremely promising results for the use of psilocybin mushrooms in patients who suffer from anxiety and depression, or are battling addiction, and for patients who are terminally ill, helping them to alleviate their fear of death.
Psilocybin can also be exceedingly helpful for individuals who don’t have full blown depression or anxiety. The pace and structure of modern life is creating symptoms of these disorders in practically everyone, and the number of people afflicted is constantly on the rise.
Psilocybin mushrooms are currently scheduled as a Class III narcotic in Canada. What’s important to consider when we look at “hard drugs” is the level of human tampering with the substances.
Cocaine is made from the coca plant (approximately 1% of street cocaine is pure plant material), and heroin is derived from the poppy plant, but both of these natural substances undergo a series of production techniques which include adding numerous harmful chemicals, thus producing a very harmful and highly addictive narcotic.
On the other hand, substances like cannabis and mushrooms require absolutely no human alterations to have effect and they are typically used in their natural plant form.
In the same way that the THC cannabinoid in cannabis is responsible for the psychoactive effects we experience with pot (as well as being responsible for a lot of its medicinal benefits), psilocybin mushrooms have their own compound, called psilocybin.
In the following section we will acquaint ourselves with psilocybin mushrooms a bit better, before moving on to the studies which demonstrate their extensive therapeutic potential.
What are psilocybin mushrooms?
Mushrooms are a part of the fungi kingdom, distinctly different from animals and plants. They are characterized by their flesh-like body which consists of the stem, the cap, and the gills that are located on the underside of the cap, where the mushroom creates microscopic spores that are its asexual reproductive units.
We don’t want to get too technical regarding mushrooms in general, so we’ll concentrate on the psilocybin variety from now on.
History of use
There are several prehistoric rock art drawings which show (quite probably) the importance of psychoactive psilocybin mushrooms to the artists that drew them.
Terence McKenna, who was a famed psychonaut, author, and an avid advocate for the responsible use of naturally occurring psychedelic substances, studied the artwork and culture of Tassili n’Ajjer.
The rock paintings from the Neolithic era depict domesticated cattle, and McKenna concluded that psilocybin mushrooms would have grown from the dung of the animals, which is a very common occurrence.
The psychoactivity of the mushrooms would have heavily influenced and further developed the spiritual and religious systems of the Tassili n’Ajjer people, and without the domestication of cattle that would not have happened.
The “Bee-Shaman” from Tassili n’Ajjer, with mushrooms in his hands
In South America, numerous indigenous cultures use psilocybin for spiritual, religious and divination practices. This was of course halted when once the Spanish conquistadors established their rule on the continent, but in remote areas these practices endured uninterrupted.
The Aztecs word for one of the Psilocybe species was teōnanācatl, which translates to divine mushroom. The Catholic missionaries believed that the mushrooms were a means to communicate with demons and devils and forced the change from teōnanācatl to the sacrament of Eucharist.
Other religious and divinatory tools like peyote and ayahuasca were also strictly forbidden, but fortunately because of the vast rainforest and the generally rough terrain, these practices persisted.
Psilocybin mushrooms in modern times
In 1953, a New York banker by the name of Gordon Wasson first sat in a “mushroom velada”, a carefully planned psychoactive ritual, in Oaxaca Mexico.
It was led by Maria Sabina, who was a Mazatec curandera (a natural healer).
He returned for the velada in 1954 and 1955, and two years later, his article on the experiences and the importance of psilocybin mushrooms was published in Life Magazine, which was the first ever large-scale media coverage of their existence and effects.
Source: Psychedelic Library
In 1958, psilocybin was isolated by none other than Albert Hofmann, who also unintentionally discovered the semi-synthetic lysergic acid diethylamide (or LSD) in 1938.
Two years later, Sandoz Pharmaceutical (now a subsidiary of Novartis), a Swiss Pharma giant where Hofmann worked, started to produce pure psilocybin.
As one of the biggest icons of the counterculture movement, Leary made an impressive impact during the 1960’s.
He was a clinical psychologist working at Harvard University, after he tried (on separate occasions) both psilocybin mushrooms and synthesized isolated psilocybin in 1960, he saw fantastic curative potential from the use of these psychedelics, under controlled and safe environments.
Leary and his Harvard colleague Richard Alpert began conducting experiments with graduate students from the prestigious university, administering psilocybin in the Harvard Psilocybin Project, and the Marsh Chapel Experiment at the University of Boston (also called The Good Friday Experiment).
He and his colleagues also oversaw one study with inmates, the Concord Prison Experiment, which lasted from 1961 to 1963.
All of this was possible because psilocybin mushrooms weren’t listed as a banned substance in the US at the time, or anywhere else in the world for that matter.
The questionable methods of experimentation and student involvement subsequently got both Leary and Alpert fired from their positions at Harvard, but the results of their research can speak for itself.
The cultural and political climate in the United States was also an important factor in why their work generated so much controversy and disapproval from both the general population and the government.
The Marsh Chapel experiment
Created in 1962 by Walter Pahnke who was a graduate theology student at Harvard Divinity School at the time and supervised by Leary and other member of the Harvard Psilocybin Project, this experiment was looking to find if psilocybin would induce profound religious or mystical experiences in subjects who were already religiously inclined.
From a group of 20 volunteers (who were all divinity graduates of Harvard), 10 were given 30mg of psilocybin, while the other 10 were given niacin, which acted as an active placebo, causing physiological changes like tingling, face flushing and an increase in body temperature.
After being given psilocybin (and some the niacin placebo), the volunteers were taken to a Good Friday sermon at the chapel of Boston University, under the guidance and supervision of Pahnke, Leary and the rest of the research team.
One participant asked to be physically kept inside the chapel, while another had to be tranquilized with thorazine, because he had a panic attack. These reactions could possibly have been caused by the emotional setting for the theology students, and could perhaps have been avoided, at least to some extent, if the experiment had been conducted in a more neutral place.
In a survey after the experience, out of 10 participants, 8 expressed in their own words that this was the single most important mystical event of their lives.
In a 25-year-later follow up survey conducted by Rick Doblin (with contributions from the assistants from the original experiment, Pahnke died in 1971), all of the 8 participants who reported a deep and meaningful experience, felt this way two and a half decades later. Doblin added:
“Everyone I talked to who had the psilocybin felt after 25 years of reflection that the experience was a genuine mystical experience. It was a clear viewing of some ultimate level of reality that had a long-term positive impact on their lives”.
This additional information confirmed that psilocybin can be used as an entheogen, and also that the experience has an incredibly long and meaningful impact on the consciousness and psyche.
The Concord Prison experiment
Conducted in the Concord maximum security penitentiary for young offenders in Massachusetts, Leary and his team were combining psilocybin mushrooms with group psychotherapy, and this experiment was looking to investigate if the experience would have a positive influence on the antisocial behaviour of inmates once they were released from prison.
The method of determining if psilocybin had a positive impact on the 32 inmates was accomplished by comparison of recidivism rates of the subjects who were using mushrooms, and the overall average for other Concord prisoners.
Recidivism is an act (or behaviour) that a person repeats after they have already been punished for that exact (or similar) act or behaviour. In this particular case recidivism is when a former inmate gets arrested for the same (or similar crime), and serves time again.
Recidivism rates for regular Concord inmates predicted that 64% out of 32 subjects would return to Concord after six months.
From the psilocybin group, only 25% of inmates returned to Concord half a year later, six of them for technical violations, and two for new offenses. (1)
Leary added that for the additional success of the psilocybin therapy for inmates, frequent post-release counselling should be implemented to maintain and balance the renewed psyche.
Leary did fascinating research and experiments on psilocybin and LSD during the 1960’s, but because this was a such a questionable topic at the time, his work was just too outrageous and was considered downright dangerous by the scientific community.
Luckily, others have continued the lineage of psilocybin research (especially in recent years), and the advancements in science are extremely beneficial for the deeper understanding of psilocybin and its effects.
Before we check out the most interesting contemporary research, let’s acquaint ourselves with how exactly psilocybin works, or more precisely, how science understands it so far.
Psilocybin (4-phosphoryloxy-N,N-dimethyltryptamine, or 4-PO-DMT), is an organic alkaloid molecule, in the tryptamine chemical class.
Tryptamines are monoamine alkaloids which exist in three biological kingdoms; animals, plants and fungi.
Structurally similar to the amino acid tryptophan, tryptamines derive their name from this amino acid.
Tryptamines are found in small amounts in the mammalian brain, and are hypothesized to act as both a neurotransmitter, and a neuromodulator.
So far a few neurotransmitters have been identified to derive from tryptamine, such as serotonin, and melatonin which is produced in the pineal gland.
Psilocybin is thought to be inactive before it dephosphorylates (loses a phosphate group) by hydrolysis (which is the cleaving of specific chemical bonds by water addition), and this dephosphorylation process turns it into psilocin (or 4-HO-DMT).
Psilocin is believed to produce its psychoactive effects by influencing the 5-HT2A receptor (one of several serotonin receptors), as a partial agonist (agonist is a chemical which binds to a receptor, causing it to perform a specific biological reaction or response).
Studies have shown that in high dosages psilocin also influences the noradrenergic system, but because of the decades-long worldwide illegality of psilocybin mushrooms the research and precise mechanisms of functioning of both psilocybin and psilocin are still in their starting phases and remain largely under-investigated and poorly understood.
Here is a diagram from a study titled “Homological scaffolds of brain functional networks” showing MRI scans of neural connections in the sober brain (left), and under the influence of psilocybin (right).
Width of the links is proportionate to their weight; and node size is proportionate to their strength. The different parts of the brain communicate much more with each other on psilocybin, which will be explained additionally later on. (6)
Contemporary scientific research
Roland R. Griffiths – Johns Hopkins University, Professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Neurosciences
In a wonderful Ted Talk (which you should definitely watch), doctor Griffiths explains his research on the use of psilocybin in controlled and safe conditions on healthy volunteers who haven’t used psychedelics before. (2)
The psilocybin created a mystical and spiritual experience for a large percentage of participants, and the effects of this experience were long lasting and meaningful, causing positive changes in behaviour, attitude and general outlook on life.
Griffiths and his team recently finished another study (3), but on patients who have life threatening cancer diagnosis, looking into how psilocybin can help them with their depression and anxiety.
Another pilot study (4) shows the incredible potential of using psilocybin for addiction disorders, with the researchers focusing on nicotine, which is one of the most addictive substances. Psilocybin appears to have great potential for addiction related issues.
Last but not the least, Griffiths and his colleagues are examining the effects of psilocybin for patients who suffer from severe treatment-resistant depression disorders (5).
In all these studies, doctor Griffiths points out that psilocybin treatment shows a staggering 70-80% efficacy, and that with additional funding and research the positive effect of psilocybin would prove themselves as a prime mechanism for numerous psychological disorders.
Some people did experience considerable levels of fear and anxiety during the controlled sessions, but because of the safe environment and trained professionals essentially no long term adverse effects were reported.
His team also conducted an online survey on approximately 2000 individuals who used psilocybin on their own, and the number of people who reported severe anxiety and fear was around 40%.
The results of this survey were paradoxical to an extent, because 40% of these respondents reported that the “mushroom trip” was among the top five most challenging experiences of their life, but also among the top five most meaningful ones.
This indicates that even if the experience is tough and frightening, the effects of psilocybin are still quite powerful, and the experience can be considered worthwhile. Because of the difference in results between the laboratory studies and the survey, Griffiths adds that careful preparation of patients and a safe environment with proper support are essential for a successful psilocybin experience, which perfectly coincides with South American shaman practices, where a conversant guide aids participant through an entire psychedelic event.
The prime goal of a psilocybin trip is to reacquaint an individual with a sense of interconnectedness of all people and things, which is a feeling that gets buried inside of us because of the way modern monetary society functions, where self-interest and constant competing for riches and prestige sadly still reign supreme.
Griffiths’ research shows that in an appropriate setting, psilocybin induces a sense of profound unity and alleviates issues like depression, anxiety and addiction in a sizable percentage of patients who were tested.
Michael is a professor of journalism at Berkeley, but also a famed author whose work mostly focused on healthy diet systems. Once he heard about the work of Roland Griffiths, he decided to go down that path, and a couple of his experiences resulted in a book called “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence”.
Pollan was fascinated with the discoveries of Griffiths, and as he illegally tried several psychedelic substances (including psilocybin), he was absolutely captivated with his findings.
“The biggest misconception people have about psychedelics is that these are drugs that make you crazy. We now have evidence that that does happen sometimes — but in many more cases, these are drugs that can make you sane.”
In his book h talks about how the exact mechanisms of psilocybin are still not understood, which we already touched upon, but I found an interesting thread in his TIME Magazine interview, where he describes how psilocybin (and other psychedelics) lessen the activity of a brain network which is called the default mode network.
He adds that this particular network is in charge of our perception of self, and how we react to everything at any time in relation to who we are.
Psilocybin temporarily halts the functioning of the default mode network, which results in a sense of ego disintegration, which I also experienced on my third trip, detailly described at the end of the article.
This ceasing is responsible for new neural connections being made, as the other centers of the brain can uninterruptedly communicate with each other.
This leads to the creation of new perspectives, ultimately leading to a new way of perceiving reality, long after the psilocybin experience is finished.
Most mental disorders such as depression and anxiety are neurologically represented by our thoughts constantly following the same pattern, which creates grooves in which they travel. The same pattern goes for fears, obsessions or lies we tell ourselves to make it through the day.
Psilocybin temporarily disables this way of thought movement, and once new neural connections are “forcefully” established, old thought patterns continue to be dissolved for extended periods of time.
If we consider our mind as a processing unit of a computer (which it pretty much is, just an organic and highly advanced one), the psilocybin experience is a complete reboot of this processor.
The guided and guarded psychedelic trip is very different from the recreational use of mushrooms, because the trained staff knows all the mechanisms and carefully guides you through the entire experience.
The point is to feel safe in an objectively secure environment, and slowly lower your defences, which opens you to a new way of looking at the world, offering new perspective and providing to the individual a way to reevaluate and ultimately break free from their habitualistic and thought-locking patterns of thinking.
Another important part of the process is the “integration period”, where with the help of the therapist a person closely examines and interprets what they saw and felt during the psilocybin experience, and together they figure out the best ways to incorporate these findings into everyday life.
The biggest long lasting effect of psilocybin is an increase of openness, which can be understood as an elevated level of curiosity, being more open to new ideas and the views of others, and also openness to new experiences.
Any change in personality is a very rare occurrence after a person reaches a certain age (approximately 20 years), and achieving this effect with regular medications is considered impossible.
Pollan also points out that a large percentage of Dr. Griffiths’ patients described the same sensation, which is the abolition of the sense of self as separate from everything else, and a feeling which connects the individual with the cosmos, nature, animals and other people.
This sensation also includes a realisation that what you’re experiencing at that time isn’t a delusion of any kind, but instinctively feels like a primal truth.
I’ll now go over some of my psilocybin trips, because I felt the majority of things explained by Leary, Griffith and Pollan, and I never read any of their research before I started working on this piece.
My personal experiences with psilocybin mushrooms
Over a period of approximately 12 years, I used mushrooms several times, of which I took full doses only three of those times.
I’ll only go through these three events, because the experience from the other trips is simply pale in comparison.
Some of them were very frightening, others insanely amusing, but the overall sensation of these experiences was indeed very deep.
The first trip — 2007
I was 19 at the time, and I already had some experience with cannabis. Some of my longtime friends started to grow psilocybin mushrooms on their own, primarily for profit related reasons, but also because all of us really wanted to try them and finding a proper channel for mushrooms was an incredibly difficult task at the time.
After a couple of months of trial and error, my friends finally created their first batch. Unfortunately for me I was out of town somewhere when they tried them for the first time, and when I returned all I heard about was how crazy and unimaginable the trip was.
They knew that some time has to pass in order to take them again successfully, because the body quickly builds up a tolerance, and therefore larger amounts have to be consumed.
Even though they had this information, we were completely unaware of the set and setting rule which is applicable for all psychedelics, and we ended up eating a dose right before sunset, and once the effects started to take hold, we were pretty much in complete darkness, and too lost in space to turn the light on.
Truth be told, at the time I was objectively in a pretty dark place with a lot of negative and confusing stuff happening in my life, and this unexpectedly dark room while the mushrooms were starting to take effect wasn’t any help whatsoever.
The first thing I noticed were the visual hallucinations. Everywhere I looked objects started to twist and distort themselves, but it didn’t seem scary at first, just very unusual and fascinating because I never saw something like that before.
Two of my friends and I engaged in a conversation of some sort (I’m completely clueless as to what we were talking about), but it was probably something in the likes of “Man what the f*** is going on…”, and that sort of stuff. Nothing too deep.
Once that first wave of enthusiasm and wonder passed, things started to get slightly worse.
I remember looking into the eyes of one of my friends, and I saw that his eyebrows and the skin under his eyes started to move away from the pupils, and in a that moment I was scared senseless.
Because the light in the room was practically non-existent, everything appeared very gray and sinister, and once that thing with his eyes happened, I immediately thought “Okay I had enough, I wanna be normal now”, but this of course didn’t happen.
At this time I was focusing really hard to calm myself down, and since I couldn’t really do anything about how I was feeling, I started to get kinda panicky, but I wasn’t harassing my friends or anything like that.
This was more of an internal struggle, and I’m sure everything appeared pretty normal on the outside, at least as normal as it can be on psilocybin.
After maybe half an hour (I’m not sure exactly how much time has passed, because time seems really warped on shrooms) of these unsuccessful calming techniques, I became certain that I completely lost it, and that I’ll be crazy forever.
In this phase I was convinced that I can hear their thoughts, everywhere I looked things were moving and spiraling around me, long story short I was having a pretty nasty trip.
Because time seemed so unattainable, I can’t really tell how long I was in this phase, but it lasted for two hours at least.
Once I subconsciously accepted my gruesome fate (or at least when I recollect this experience it seems like that’s how it happened), the sun was starting to rise and the room became a shade brighter. Once I saw this, I immediately felt a bit better.
Within the next half an hour I was straight, and the level of happiness that struck me once I realized I was back to normal was something unexplainable.
I imagine that’s how people feel when their first child is born or something like that, and this was most likely even better than that. It was pure bliss.
While walking home I was literally singing and dancing in the street, and when I woke up after eight hours of sleeping like a baby, I felt wonderful.
I made a promise to myself never to eat shrooms in such an awful environment, and also realised that I should probably lay off of them for some time, as my mind just didn’t seem ready for such experiences yet.
The second trip — 2011
Three years later, we decided to go on a mountain trip during the spring for a couple of days. We also decided that we should free up one day and do a little bit of psilocybin hiking around the countryside. The weather was amazing, and there was 8 of us guys and girls, so the conditions were a lot better than my previous trip.
After we ate our breakfast and waited a bit for it to digest, we were ready to start, as the mushrooms work much better on an empty stomach. All of us took them at the same time, and casually began to walk down some forest trail, waiting for those first effects to arrive.
About 45 minutes later, the passageway where we were, all of a sudden appeared ten times longer than just a second ago.
It’s very bizzare when that first hallucination hits you, because you’re still pretty much mentally there, but your eyes are telling your brain a completely different story.
This batch was unquestionably potent, because the visual hallucinations were really powerful, and as this was such a vivid surrounding, everything I saw seemed unreal.
I remember looking at a hill on the landscape, and it appeared to be evenly breathing, like some jolly green giant that fell asleep.
We were surrounded by nature and it was sunny with birds chirping joyously around us, so I knew that there’s no chance in hell I’ll fall into that weird negative state like I did the first time.
I did feel much closer to everything around me, like I was strolling through Wonderland, fascinated by everything I saw and touched.
I recall the group laughing so hard because I was unable to cross this almost tiny stream of water, because in my eyes it seemed enormous.
Once I focused as much as I could, for a brief moment I managed to see it for what it was, and just jumped and crossed it.
This entire experience was insanely fun and it made me witness the beauty of nature with a brand new set of eyes, but my third and final trip (so far) was definitely the most meaningful psilocybin adventure I had.
The third trip — 2017
Last summer, I was at a Mediterranean sea resort when a friend of mine announced that he’ll be joining us in a couple of days, and that he’s bringing a surprise.
Once he arrived, he showed us 8 portions of shrooms that another friend cooked up a few weeks back. As there was only six of us willing to go down that road, we had more than enough for a pretty serious experience.
During that night we made precise plans for the next day, and decided to hike for two hours until we reach a part of the beach that was completely desolate.
After walking for some time amongst nudists, we reached the section of the beach were there was nobody else, with big waves crashing against the coast. It seemed perfect.
We quickly set up shop and found a spot under some trees to put our backpacks with water, fruit and candy bars so we could replenish our energy afterwards.
Upon eating the mushrooms, we had at least half an hour before the trip begins, so we placed our sunshades and towels on the beach, and started to goof around while waiting for something to happen.
Soon after, things started to change and we began getting laughing fits, and as a couple of friends hadn’t tried shrooms before, they were completely baffled with that beginning feeling and those first waves of hallucinations.
After an hour of those transitional sensations, we organically spread across the beach and had a personal one-on-one moment with nature.
When you’re surrounded by people and someone’s always shouting and laughing, it’s hard to concentrate on the inner feeling you’re experiencing, and because of this we all got separated, so we could trip in peace.
The feeling was very similar to that second time with shrooms in the forest, but maybe because I was now older and more mature (and perhaps this beach was much more beautiful than any forest), I really felt in touch with the surroundings, and once more, I was fascinated with everything.
I remember getting in the water and a small wave submerged my head under water for a few seconds. It was slightly scary, but the feeling of nature wrapped all around me and moving me around, I literally never felt so connected with Earth before.
This wasn’t any difficult battle of ego dissolution, I just began to feel like I was a tiny piece of something completely natural, and completely beautiful.
It felt like I was home.
Once I got out of the water I fell on the warm sand, and began staring at the clouds which were one of those really thick cartoon-like ones. The looked majestic in the azure sky.
There’s a specific pattern in which shapes start to twist and distort on mushrooms, and staring at these clouds while they were doing their psilocybin dance, it was like a completely different planet.
I always have that feeling like a part of me is still normal, and it can’t believe what it’s witnessing, but while I was lying wet in the comfortable sand with my friends scattered across the beach each in his own world, I had no problems with anything.
I’m not a religious person at all, nor am I a nature enthusiast, but this experience made me appreciate the wonders of life and all living things in a way like never before.
It was like a lesson on how gorgeous the Earth is, and that I’m just one animal which was given a chance to appreciate these wonders consciously.
For a couple of hours there was no money, phones, jobs, concrete buildings, metal cars, cities or anything man-made or artificial in nature.
Even though it was short-lived, this trip left a really deep impression on me.
Since then I don’t see myself so separated from everything else, and I really think I appreciate life more. Also the pursuit of materialistic things like wealth and status lost the grip they had over me to a great extent.
I also realized that I should repeat this journey at least once a year in these perfect conditions, because it changed my viewpoint and psyche so much for the better.
The struggles of everyday life and this new dark age we’re all living in have such a detrimental effect on our collective wellbeing, but I honestly believe the mushrooms really have the power to balance this out and give new perspective to an otherwise hectic and chaotic existence.
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