Psilocybin and personality change

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 the key personality domain called “Openness.”

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.

The new Hopkins findings were reported by dozens of media outlets, including Bloomberg, WebMD, and the Tehran Times.

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?

8 thoughts on “Psilocybin and personality change”

  1. Psychedelic expierience was a turning point in my life. At the age of 60 years I must say I don’t think I could stand the strain of taking it now. So kids, don’t try to get mom and dad to drop a tab with you. It probably wouldn’t go well.
    As to triping in a laboratory setting, controled by experts, for your safty: How can anybody stay indoors while tripping??? Ya GOTTA WALK!!! Besides out there is where all the stuff to learn is happening. What are you gonna do inside? Watch TV? Play crosswords? Take personality tests provided by an expert??? Oh God if you go out there you might walk in front of a bus or stare at the sun.
    Anyway, it’s nice that after all these years serious scientists are tumbling to what millions of hippies knew way back when. Tripping in moderation is good for you. Bless their pointy little heads.
    Then again it could inspire you to chuck the job, say f*** the mortgage and head for the outback with a backpack, a hairbrained plan and a big grin pasted on your face.

  2. I don’t know about Crick’s LSD experiences leading to discovery of DNA structure (though Crick did refer to having taken LSD), but Kary Mullis’s LSD experience leading to Mullis’s discovery of polymerase chain reaction (PCR, a foundation of biotech) is well known and readily discussed by Mullis.

  3. I wonder, given the general prejudice against these things, as well as the fear they invoke in many people, chief amongst them, the politicians who have crafted the prohibition laws, whether these kinds of studies will ever result in a change in the views of those who won’t take the medicine. The longstanding historical political dominance of the fundamentalist Christian culture that still prevails in much of America, which resulted in alcohol prohibition, as well as the later prohibition of what are, at root, spiritual medicines of the indigenous peoples, cannot allow for acceptance of the mind-changing effects that use of the these things can result in; for it is a real threat to the egoic mind that requires the support of a belief system to find a sense of psychological safety and security. This group still runs our government at many levels and it is currently the dominant world view of the American people, as it has been since its founding. No matter how many studies are done and published, we will continue to come up against individuals who hold to the inflexible opinion (their “belief”) that these things result in a “deterioration in character” as Dr. Daniel Angres of Rush University Medical Center asserts in his recent review of the John Hopkins psilocybin study.

    The way the indigenous peoples have managed to keep the knowledge of these things alive is by going underground. The indigenous peoples of the Sierra Mazateca Oaxaca region kept their tradition alive as secret knowledge, not to be shared with outsiders, for over 500 years. As prohibition was again reasserted in the late 1960’s, the knowledge has been kept alive by those who know going underground. There are many professionals who have been deeply nurtured by their experiences with these indigenous medicines and their laboratory tweaks, Kary Mullis and Steve Jobs being more well-known examples; however, most choose not to expose themselves to misunderstanding and persecution and, in the tradition of the indigenous peoples, keep the knowledge secret. A study that looks at the characterological traits of these individuals would be most interesting, but, again, will not result in any change in “opinion” of those who hold fast to their belief systems that exposure to these medicines are somehow “deteriorating” influences.

    I applaud the efforts of the heroes who are trying to create change through research channels. I suspect that the real change will come when those who have been positively transformed by their secret practices are asked what they have done to become such, and invited to share their experiences and knowledge. With over 40 years of direct observation, I have noted that not everyone benefits from working with these medicines; some, in fact, do appear to use them to their detriment, just as many do with alcohol. Without a context for interpreting and understanding these experiences, such as an ethical/spiritual transformative tradition of some sort, it has been my experience that many individuals become more confused and lost by dabbling with these things. If our culture can mature enough to become truly democratic and tolerant of all paths, including the path of the transformative medicines from our indigenous peoples, we may possibly create that context. Clearly, the John Hopkins team, led by Rolland Griffiths, is an attempt at creating this context and I wish them support from all levels, inner, outer, and the creative matrix where these two aspects of our being act as one.

  4. Does this mean that *exposure* to psilocybin could help those individuals whose thinking processes are dominated by their reptilian brain to evolve to higher levels of consciousness and even, *gasp* exprience empathy? Have we, at long last, found the cure for conservatism?

  5. jimbo123: What I’ve noticed in “from the hip” quotidian conscious raising is that set (and setting) are usually amplified, rarely changed. So, snark aside, I think not. One thing, however, that strikes me about the JH studies is the structural similarity to primary cultural practices involving entheogenic induced transcendence: highly structured within and carrying global/specific social and cultural expectations, and carefully administered by practiced, learned guides for the purposes of personality loosening and restructuring. It seems as though we might be on our way to de facto acceptance and return of shamanic entheogenic practices, filtered through the Enlightenment lens. I hope so.

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