Psilocybin. It’s the psychoactive substance in those “sacred mushrooms” that causes hallucinations and other novel mental experiences. The effects of those mushrooms have been explored and appreciated by members of the ancient Capsian culture in North Africa, Aztec shamans, and modern college students. But they’re now the subject of serious study by scientists. A team from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine recently published results from a roughly year-long experiment. The researchers worked with 18 volunteers who were given pure psilocybin to measure how it affected people and how different dosages changed the experience. The subjects were screened for psychological health and given the drug in a pleasant environment, after preparatory guidance. They even had a soundtrack consisting of “classical and world music chosen to complement the arc of the psilocybin action, from onset, through the peak of the effects, and subsiding back to baseline.” The results? At high dosages people occasionally experienced fear, anxiety, or delusions. But the negative effects of those “bad trips” were easily mitigated by the reassuring researchers and didn’t outlast the session. At more moderate doses, the results were almost unambiguously positive. Moreover, people didn’t just appreciate the experience as fun; they found it spiritually meaningful, with lasting benefits. As a piece on Newswise explains:
Looking back over a year later, most of the experiment’s 18 volunteers (94 percent) rated a psilocybin session as among the top five most or as the topmost spiritually significant experience of his or her life. […] Most volunteers (89 percent) also reported positive changes in their behaviors, and those reports were corroborated by family members or others, the researchers say. The behavior changes most frequently cited were improved relationships with family and others, increased physical and psychological self-care, and increased devotion to spiritual practice.
Reading the volunteers’ first-hand reports of how the experiences affected them is a testament to their value. “More and more, sensuality and compassion and gratitude continue to unfold around me.” “I try to judge less and forgive more.” “I feel that I relate better in my marriage. There is more empathy.” “I need less food to make me full. My alcohol use has diminished dramatically.” I’m not saying we should all start doing mushrooms. These were carefully measured doses, taken in a setting designed to be comfortable and supportive. There are certainly situations in which it would be dangerous or irresponsible to take psilocybin. But these results illustrate the artificial dichotomy between medicine and recreational drugs in America. Stateside, Prozac is regarded as medicine, but psilocybin is a schedule 1 controlled substance like heroin. Americans assume that if some substance is made by nature instead of Eli Lilly, it can’t be medicine. But if psilocybin has true psychiatric and emotional benefits, what’s the difference? Sure, you can have a bad experience with psilocibin, but antidepressents like Prozac have been linked to suicidal thoughts, and it’s hard to imagine a worse side effect than that. We also think that if a drug is used for fun, there must be something bad about it. But Vicodin and OxyContin are all still on the market. There are plenty of FDA-approved drugs that get used (and abused) recreationally. We should aim to evaluate any drug objectively, whether it’s made by an enormous pharmaceutical company or grows in the forest. If an engineered antidepressant generated reports like those from the volunteers in this study, it would be regarded as a breakthrough in psychiatric medicine.