Mushroom Myth-conceptions

Last month’s report on a Johns Hopkins study of psilocybin and spirituality, of which I’m a co-author, has drawn numerous comments on blogs and on-line news articles.  A fraction of those comments have raised questions or criticisms which I’d like to try to address.  (On the RBC, see Mark’s posts and Andy’s critique.)

For those who think that substances such as psilocybin have something valuable to offer spiritual seekers, myself included, it may be helpful to reflect upon the concerns of people less invested in the subject (“disinterested,” even).  At the same time, the exercise could help clear up misunderstandings of the research or its implications.

Here’s a condensation of the issues I’ve heard raised.  I will be taking them up one at a time in forthcoming posts.  If you’re aware of other issues, feel free to add them as comments to this post.

1.  “I took mushrooms, and my experience was neither ‘spiritual’ nor life-changing.  So what’s the big deal?” (response)

2.  The studies used volunteers with a spiritual orientation, so of course they reported spiritual experiences, and so the studies prove nothing.

3.  Hallucinogens cause hallucinations; hallucinations cannot be a source of learning, healing, or betterment.

4.  Psilocybin may cause people to adopt untrue beliefs (e.g., about the nature of ultimate reality).

5.  The substance may harm some people or cause them to harm themselves or others.

6.  An enlightening experience doesn’t necessarily lead to an enlightened life.

For a refresher on the research findings, continue reading beneath the fold.

(And many thanks to Mark and to Keith for welcoming me to the RBC.)

– – – – –

In the Johns Hopkins psilocybin experiments, most of the volunteers – two-thirds in the first study and upwards of 90% in the second – rated a psilocybin experience as among the top five most spiritually significant events of their lives.

A month afterwards, most volunteers attributed to the experience positive changes in attitudes and behaviors.  Friends and family members who were interviewed tended to corroborate the volunteers’ self-assessments.  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.

The most positive outcomes followed sessions that measured high on “mystical-type” experience (also called, among many names, peak experience, non-dual consciousness, cosmic consciousness, and primary religious experience).  The the recalled significance of such sessions and the positive changes associated them were found to be long-lasting, remaining about the same in assessments at one month and at 14 months.

The second study looked at the effects of the psilocybin session as a function of dosage.  The highest dose given yielded the highest likelihood of mystical-type experience (56%) and also the highest likelihood of transient fear, anxiety, or delusions during some portion of the session (33%).  The second-highest dose given may represent an optimal tradeoff.  It yielded mystical-type experiences only slightly less often (44% of the volunteers) and strong negative effects much less often (6% of the volunteers).  The  study also found better outcomes using an ascending dose sequence across multiple sessions than with a descending sequence.

When they occurred, negative effects such as fear, anxiety, and delusions were managed with simple reassurance and the passage of time, and did not outlast the sessions.

These findings do not necessarily generalize to populations or conditions other than those used in the studies, as described in the published papers.

14 thoughts on “Mushroom Myth-conceptions”

  1. I am pleased to see that you are going to be posting regularly to this site. I hope that you will be able to comment, not only on issues related to psilocybin, but on what you do at the Council on Spiritual Practices. What kinds of similarities and differences do you see between this organization and, say, the Templeton Foundation? It would appear that both organizations place positive valuations on experiences of the unseen world, for example, but there must be many contrasts.

    Thanks to Mark and Keith for bringing you on board.

  2. It’s nice that these studies were performed and their results registered in a recognized body of knowledge but what would the next step be? Rescheduling of (just) psilocybin? Descheduling? What would the approved indications be?

  3. These results are hardly surprising to millions of people who have first hand knowledge of the subject. I know hundreds of people who have eaten mushrooms. I know none who regret it.

    While it seems crazy to me that the official imprimatur of “science” is necessary to validate what is an extremely common experience, I suppose it is even crazier that the substance has been demonized and criminalized for decades based almost purely on the prejudices of those with no experience using it, relying on no science at all to support their beliefs.

    Ahhh, America. Where everything is faith.

  4. For the little they are worth, here are my answers to the criticism

    1. “I took mushrooms, and my experience was neither ‘spiritual’ nor life-changing. So what’s the big deal?”

    – Of course, results may vary. If you’re with friends at a party, eating mushrooms and playing beer pong, the spiritual benefits of mushrooms may be overshadowed by other concerns. Like laughing for forty minutes. Still, outside of being a shrooming minister, tripping through the woods, or at a concert, or under the stars at night, or even under the original scenario with the right conditions, can be at least a partly spiritual experience.

    2. The studies used volunteers with a spiritual orientation, so of course they reported spiritual experiences, and so the studies prove nothing.

    -We all have a bit of the spiritual in us. The difference is some are more willing to explore that aspect than others. Never mind the fact we all have a different perspective as to what spiritual means.

    3. Hallucinogens cause hallucinations; hallucinations cannot be a source of learning, healing, or betterment.

    -Maybe not from fever dreams. My experience causes me to dismiss this critique.

    4. Psilocybin may cause people to adopt untrue beliefs (e.g., about the nature of ultimate reality).

    -I am not sure I understand this critique.

    5. The substance may harm some people or cause them to harm themselves or others.

    -True enough. I know people who had a terrible time doing mushrooms and would never eat them again. And you definitely shouldn’t drive, or walk between the headlights of an oncoming car (remember “Cars are real”), while tripping. However, there are ways to mitigate the risks. Number one: always have a trip buddy. And the study verifies this: “When they occurred, negative effects such as fear, anxiety, and delusions were managed with simple reassurance and the passage of time, and did not outlast the sessions.”

    6. An enlightening experience doesn’t necessarily lead to an enlightened life.

    -Absolutely. And the study shows this (“[increased physical and psychological self-care, and increased devotion to spiritual practice] and the recalled significance of a psilocybin session were found to be long-lasting, remaining about the same in assessments at one month and 14 months.”). Then again, every incremental positive change is a positive change (You know, “the Grand Canyon was started by a single drop of water”).

  5. Perspecitus, my guess is that #4 refers to the fact that spiritual experiences can seem so profound to some people that they cannot accept that they result from a temporary change in brain chemistry brought on by a hallucinogen or meditation or whatever, and instead attribute them to an outside force, which they tend to call “God.”

  6. This is no longer a reality based community. I fail to see the distinction in fact between imagination and spirituality other than the spelling. show me.

  7. RHH, I’m no authority on this, but studies show changes in brain chemistry that occur during spiritual experiences that do not occur during the ordinary exercise of imagination. Here is an article I found with a quick google: This is not to suggest that spiritual experiences amount to anything more than changes in brain chemistry, but they reflect different changes from those of ordinary imagination.

  8. Welcome, Jesse!
    On the perils of mysticismm: have you looked at the mediaeval weirdos chrimicled in Norman Cohn’s magisterial The Pursuit of the Millennium? What differentiates these from the orthodox mustics like Thomas a Kempis?

  9. A.H. Almaas wrote of the “Diamond Approach to Inner Realization,” and speaks of the life of “essence,” which is distinct from the visionary experience. The latter is formed and colored by the person’s history and present mentality. Visions and the attendant positive emotions are activities of the personality; emotions are physiological processes with ideational content. As such, emotions and visions lack an ontological presence. Essence, in contrast, is not a physiological process of the nervous system. Almaas discusses essence as being in relation to emotion as the water is in relation to the movement of water; it is there whether it is moving or not.

    This Diamond Approach explicitly acknowledges a debt to Hermeticism and to alchemy, regarding alchemical language not just as symbolic but as referential, where the referents are actual substances on a subtle dimension, such that “sun” is not mainly a symbol of certain mental processes, but refers to a distinct essential reality which is at the same time the nearby star which supports life on this planet, and has an inner counterpart which is no less real than the celestial sun. What is above is like what is below; the human organism is seen as a miniature universe. A Hermetic frame of reference is not something out of Carl Jung, where the psyche contains images and symbols, rather than actual presences. Jung’s approach was psychological, and he was a clinician whose attention was directed to the mental lives of people who showed up in his waiting room. Hermeticism, as discussed by Almaas, is not primarily a clinical method, dealing with psychic images, but is an orientation to incorporeal and subtle substances.

    Paradoxically, this Hermetic attitude would affirm some of the “skeptical” posts on these psilocybin threads, especially the part about visionary experiences as attributable to physiological processes in the brain. It does not attribute these transient alterations of brain chemistry to an outside force called “God,” recognizing that their ideational content is conditioned by the more or less mechanical habits of the personality. This is why Christians have Christian visions, Buddhists have Buddhist visions, Sufis have Sufi visions, and so forth. Visions and insights are activities of the ego identity. However, this kind of Hermeticism attributes an ontological presence to diamonds, pearls, suns, moons, and so forth; they may be seen in visions, but it is the pearls and the suns which are valuable, not the (frequently entertaining and therefore seductive) visions of them. Mystical incidents may become objects of attachment; anyone who has once had a highly valued experience of non-dual consciousness may thereafter expend considerable effort trying to “get it back” after it has faded into a memory. These attachments to the experiences are recognized by the Hermetic schools as products of the ego personality; they recognize this fact even more clearly than do the secular skeptics. The difference is the attitude toward the microcosm which reflects the macrocosm. Points #1 through #6 above are readily agreed to, but are seen as starting places for the retrieval of essence.

  10. I take issue with #3; hallucinations certainly CAN be a source of learning, healing or “betterment.” Google the results of Leary’s experiments with LSD and prison inmates. It has shown remarkable success in helping addicts kick heroin and prisoners to avoid recidivism. Elias Howe had a vision in a dream that allowed him to make the breakthrough to invent the sewing machine. Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA while tripping balls on LSD.
    As for #4, true, but hardly a critique of the value of ‘shrooms. Religion CERTAINLY causes people to adopt untrue beliefs, and in much greater numbers, with more damaging results. The beliefs adopted from hallucinations usually go away when someone comes down. Not so for the religulous.

  11. I’m not going to try to systematically address all of the listed concerns, because I’m currently engaged in systematically addressing the listed concerns (and more) in a different context. Subscribe to my blog if you want to watch it emerge.

    I will, however, address a single point: 3, the nature of hallucinations.

    For somebody who comes from the perspective of assuming hallucinations can have no benefit, I would ask, why would they think this is so? What do they think hallucinations consist of, and why do they think they will necessarily be devoid of content? From where does their apparent content arise? The mushroom certainly contains no hallucinations… yet they arise from somewhere. Where, if not the mind? And if the mind is your object of study, how could the particular ways in which it represents and manifests itself when given free reign to do so fail to provide interesting material for analysis?

    If you have hallucinations in which something (whether an image or a thematic element or a body part or whatever) dominates the experience, surely the content will have something to do with the way that your unconscious understands that something. Sure, it may consist of projections, and include a lot of absurd content… but that ought to be expected, insofar as you lack a perfect understanding of everything. Through the hallucination, your thoughts on whatever the relevant topic may be — however malformed, ignorant or insightful those thoughts may be — will became freely available to you, where normally they’re there in the background informing your opinions, but not directly accessible. Once it’s available, you can proceed to work on it — confirming the parts of it that check out, and correcting any mistakes that become obvious through the process.

    The hallucinations, therefore, are an incredibly valuable tool for producing data with which to play analytically. Proceeding to actually perform an analysis, as well as being capable of performing a GOOD analysis in the first place, will of course be a primary component of your capacity to benefit from the hallucinations. However, assuming you are capable of performing a good analysis, and proceed to do so, inducing hallucinations will certainly give excellent material upon which to work, and through the process you will likely learn a massive amount about yourself. The potential for psychotherapeutic benefit cannot be overemphasised.

    Note that the above is true of any hallucinations, including fever dreams and everything else. I would like to argue that visions produced through serotonergic psychedelics (as well as kappa-opioid agonists such as iboga) tend to also have particular didactic value which can be demonstrated through other lines of evidence and argumentation — that is, the visions psychedelics give often seem inherently insightful and beneficial even before a separate analysis is performed — but even if that weren’t the case, even if they were 100% arbitrary and silly, they’d still be highly useful analytic tools due to their complexity, their factuality,* and the affective charge they come with. Freudian free association is weak sauce in comparison, but works through similar pathways.

    *Unlike most of the conversation you’ll have with your psychologist, the hallucinations are not hypotheticals. They are things you certainly did experience, so there’s no running from them as, at minimum, bits and pieces of your psychological makeup. Like all facts, they cry out to be dealt with, one way or another. Dismissing them as “just a hallucination” implies an utter failure to understand the basis of the entire discipline of psychology.

  12. Here’s a set of questions I hope you’ll address: What is spirituality? What does it mean? What is a spiritual seeker? What does such a person seek? Why? Sitting here as an atheist, I haven’t the faintest idea what these things mean, so the whole enterprise makes no sense to me.

  13. It’s something to do with appreciating deeper meaning in things than their physical makeup, and something about introspection. Admiration and respect for the universe also factors into it. I consider Carl Sagan a deeply spiritual man, for example, though he was certainly also a prototypical skeptic.

    An issue here is that spirituality is more a feeling than it is an analytical concept, and thus it’s hard to express. And it’s a feeling that many of us are estranged from, because the religions we grew up in tended to either be really awful at producing spiritual experience, or they’d produce some approximation of it but combine that with deeply problematic crap with which we’d come to associate the whole affair and not want to have anything to do with it. Or both. But the failings of the churches we were raised in ought not to preclude ever finding something with some shred of legitimacy.

    The role of psychedelics like psilocybin seems to be making it blindingly obvious that spirituality is a real thing that can be pursued… if you want to see some examples and more explanation of what that process might look like, check out this research project I did a few years ago to answer the question, “what is the role of psychoactive substances within contemporary alchemical/spagyric practice?” It’s all about intelligent people having drug experiences and being inspired to pursue a spiritual path (specifically, alchemy).

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