My colleagues at Johns Hopkins have a new paper out, reporting that psilocybin, the “magic mushroom” chemical, can bring about significant and lasting changes in a key aspect of personality. This is big news for academic psychology:
A large body of evidence, including longitudinal analyses of personality change, suggests that core personality traits are predominantly stable after age 30. To our knowledge, no study has demonstrated changes in personality in healthy adults after an experimentally manipulated discrete event. Intriguingly, double-blind controlled studies have shown that the classic hallucinogen psilocybin occasions personally and spiritually significant mystical experiences that predict long-term changes in behaviors, attitudes and values. In the present report we assessed the effect of psilocybin on changes in the five broad domains of personality – Neuroticism, Extroversion, Openness, Agreeableness, and Conscientiousness. Consistent with participant claims of hallucinogen-occasioned increases in aesthetic appreciation, imagination, and creativity, we found significant increases in Openness following a high-dose psilocybin session. In participants who had mystical experiences during their psilocybin session, Openness remained significantly higher than baseline more than 1 year after the session. [from the report’s abstract]
The five domains named above constitute the widely embraced Five Factor Model of personality. Openness, the factor showing increases in the Hopkins studies, is described as curiosity, creativity, openness to unusual ideas, openness to emotion, openness to adventure, appreciation for art, and variety of experience. Its poles are described as “inventive/curious vs. consistent/cautious.”
Surely there can be too much of a good thing: so “open” as to be awash in fantasy, for example, or continually overwhelmed by emotion. But for more than a few of us, doesn’t a judicious increase in Openness sound appealing?
The Hopkins research gives further plausibility to assertions that hallucinogens have catalyzed numerous advances in science, e.g., Crick’s discovery of the structure of DNA, and in technology, particularly in Silicon Valley. Steve Jobs called taking LSD “one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life.” Today, the Christian Science Monitor’s editorial board wrote, “Mr. Jobs’s legacy is that he accelerated the quality of life on earth. And it is not only because of his material inventions…. He was mostly a model in openness to ideas that no one had ever dreamed of. Undiscovered ideas were limitless to him, only to be plucked by expanding one’s vision and then working with others to make them real” (emphasis added).
The distinguished religion scholar Huston Smith has also valued his hallucinogen experiences as among the most illuminating of his life. Such anecdotal instances match the experimental evidence: most of the Hopkins research volunteers have ranked their psilocybin sessions among the top five, or as the single most, spiritually significant or personally meaningful of their lives.
Cautions do apply. The Hopkins team is right to warn about the risks of haphazard, unmonitored use of psilocybin, and it remains a Schedule I controlled substance. Yet, with the precautions taken in research settings, its safety track record is looking excellent.
PS: The new journal article mentions that Openness tends to decrease slightly as we age, decade over decade. I wonder if that helps explain why some youthful psychedelic explorers fantasize (itself a facet of Openness) about introducing their parents to the experience – wishing them more Openness, or at least not to close down with advancing years?