Last month, researchers at John Hopkins released the results of a study using the active compound from psychedelic mushrooms. Psilocybin, the active compound in so called “magic mushrooms”, is a hallucinogenic. The study is the first one of its kind done in 40 years, due largely to the widespread abuse of hallucinogenic substances in the 1960’s and 1970’s. This abuse has caused psilocybin, the compound in psychedelic mushrooms, to be classified as a class 1 drug, closely controlled and monitored by government agencies.
The John Hopkins study was performed on 36 volunteers, ranging in age from 24 to 64, and comprised of both men and women. The volunteers for this rigorous, double-blind study were all chosen due to not having psychiatric problems themselves or in their immediate families, and that they all had active spiritual lives. The reason the spiritual component was deemed necessary is because psilocybin is thought to activate the region in the frontal lobe where religious experiences occur. People currently active in spiritual practices were considered to be less likely to be surprised or confused by any mystical experiences they encountered.
Hallucinogenic substances, like psilocybin found in magic mushrooms and LSD, were beginning to be studied by scientists in the 1950’s, but governmental regulations in response to abuse of drugs in the 1960’s had halted research in the area for 40 years. One of the last well-known tests of psilocybin or “magic mushrooms” was in 1962. Often called The Good Friday Experiment, a group of 20 seminary students were given either psilocybin or nicotinic acid (also known as niacin) during a church service. The 10 students who received psilocybin reportedly experienced intensely spiritual feelings. There appeared to be a lasting positive benefit, as a study 25 years later seemed to suggest the effects had continued.
The subjects in the recent John Hopkins study received either methylphenidate (Ritalin) or psilocybin. Of the patients receiving psilocybin, one third reported it as the most spiritually meaningful experience of their lives, citing feelings of intense joy, a distance from ordinary reality and feelings of peace and harmony after taking the compound. Two thirds of the group rated their experience with psilocybin as one of the top five experiences in their life, and compared it to such life-altering moments as the birth of their first child or a parent’s death.
Psychedelic mushrooms are also known “sacred mushrooms” because many societies and cultures have used them for years in religious rituals. It is said that Native American tribes in this country and the ancient Mayans used psilocybin or sacred mushrooms to receive visions and hallucinations from their spirit guides or gods. The so-called magic mushrooms are found growing wild in many parts of the world and are sometimes referred to as “God’s meat” or “meat of the gods.”
Authors of the John Hopkins study were surprised themselves at the results of this study, which required approval from the DEA, the FDA and a review board at Hopkins. One researcher stated that they had a healthy skepticism about the drug psilocybin producing mystical experiences since most knowledge of the compound comes from descriptive anthropology. But now it is clear that not only is it fairly reliable that a mystical experience will occur, but that it may lead to lasting positive change in a person. Long-term studies are planned, but the positive benefits that many reported lasted at least two months, according to one follow up study of the participants using psilocybin.
There is some concern that the seemingly positive findings of this study of psilocybin or psychedelic mushrooms will lead to indiscriminate or inappropriate use of the drugs. A third of the participants in the John Hopkins study did experience significant fear for a short while following their dose, and some felt momentary paranoia. In an uncontrolled or less-controlled setting, these feelings could spark panic, psychosis or other reactions that could be dangerous.
There is speculation that psilocybin affects the same brain machinery that is activated by meditation, fasting, near death experiences, and sleep deprivation, creating a profound religious experience. The researchers on the John Hopkins study do say that the study isn’t intended to prove whether or not God exists; that God is irrelevant or can be found in a pill; or that taking psilocybin or other hallucinogenic drugs is somehow a shortcut to spiritual journeys that traditionally take years. But rather, the study is simply to gauge the effects and perhaps benefit of taking psilocybin or the sacred mushroom in addition to other religious traditions. Most participants reported that their religious experiences were heightened, not devalued by using psilocybin.
Humans have always sought God. And many of them sought Him by using the magic mushroom. It is only recently that we have the scientific tools to quantify some of the effects of psilocybin or the magic mushroom.