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?

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Mushroom Myth-conceptions, Part 2

That some hallucinogen experiences are trivial does not mean that none is profound.

Earlier, I posted some of the key findings of the Johns Hopkins psilocybin experiments and a condensation of the concerns and criticisms the research has drawn. I promised responses to some of those concerns; this is the first in that series.

Concern/criticism:  “What’s the big deal?  I took mushrooms, and my experience was neither ‘spiritual’ nor life-changing.”

This of course proves that not all hallucinogen experiences are profound, but not that none is.*

Why are some hallucinogen experiences recalled as life-transforming and others as trivial?  Likely because the trivial experiences involved a suboptimal dosage, ill-focused intentions, a suboptimal setting, or the wrong person. Or because even when all those things are right, any given experience may not be profound. But the research shows that well-screened and well-prepared people given a sufficient dose under good circumstances have a two-thirds or better chance of a profound experience, and a very small risk of real harm.
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