36 Adults took psilocybin in study; many called experience spiritual
Psilocybin, the active ingredient of 'magic mushrooms,' expands the mind. After a thousand years of use, that's now scientifically official.
The chemical promoted a mystical experience in two-thirds of people who took it for the first time, according to a new study. One-third rated a session with psilocybin as the 'single most spiritually significant' experience of their lives. Another third put it in the top five.
The study, published online today in the journal Psychopharmacology, is the first randomized, controlled trial of a substance used for centuries in Mexico and Central America to produce mystical insights. Almost no research on a psychedelic drug in human subjects has been done in this country since the 1960s. It confirms what both shamans and hippies have long said -- taking psilocybin is a scary, reality-bending and occasionally life-changing experience.
The researchers say they hope the experiment opens a door to the study of a class of compounds that alter human perception and erode the boundaries of self -- at least in some users. They hope it will provide new insight into how the brain works and what neurochemical events underlie moments of mystical rapture.
'These are some of the most potent compounds we know of that can change consciousness,' said David E. Nichols, a professor of medicinal chemistry at Purdue University who has studied the effects of psychedelics on rats and cultured cells. 'It's kind of peculiar they have just been kind of sitting on the shelf for 40 years. There is no other class of biologically active substances I am aware of that have been ignored like that.'
Of the 36 people, 22 had a 'complete' mystical experience as judged by several question-based scales used for rating such experiences. Two-thirds judged it to be among their top five life experiences, equal to the birth of a first child or death of a parent. Two months after a session, the people who had taken psilocybin reported small but significant positive changes in behavior and attitudes.
One-third of the subjects, however, said they experienced 'strong or extreme' fear at some point in the hours after they took the hallucinogen. Four people said the entire session was dominated by anxiety or psychological struggle.
Nichols thinks that last finding should give people pause.
Alan Leshner, who headed the National Institute on Drug Abuse for seven years and now leads the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was both wary and excited about psilocybin's reported effects.
'If it is ultimately shown to be benign but enriches people's lives, who could object to that? But I don't have that level of confidence at this point, given the paucity of research on it,' he said.