Although the religious use of mushrooms containing the psychedelic drug psilocybin dates back thousands of years, early practitioners were not familiar with controlled, double-blind experimental methods. That helps explain the sensation caused by a study in the journal Psychopharmacology, whose title announced that “psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance.”
In a more rigorous version of the classic “Good Friday Experiment” of 1962, researchers at Johns Hopkins recruited 30 subjects who had never used psychedelics but who reported “regular participation in religious or spiritual activities.” The subjects were randomly chosen to receive either psilocybin or Ritalin, a stimulant with a similar duration and effect on mood. During individual eight-hour sessions, they were encouraged to close their eyes, listen to classical music, and “direct their attention inward.” At a second session two months later, the two groups were switched.
While a few of the volunteers had bad trips after taking psilocybin, questionnaires the subjects filled out indicated that for most it was a very positive experience. Six out of 10 subjects met the criteria for a “complete mystical experience” after taking psilocybin, compared to about one out of 10 after taking Ritalin. Four-fifths said the psilocybin session improved their sense of well-being or life satisfaction “moderately” or “very much,” compared to one-fifth who said the same of the Ritalin session. Two-thirds of the volunteers considered the psilocybin session among the top five most meaningful experiences of their lives, a rating less than one in 10 gave the Ritalin session.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the experiment was that it occurred at all, given that psilocybin is banned by the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. Not only did the researchers manage to get the requisite approvals from the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Food and Drug Administration; they obtained funding for the study from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a federal agency whose mission is to accentuate the negative aspects of illegal drugs. NIDA Director Norah Volkow, emphasizing that “NIDA discourages the use of hallucinogens,” claimed “the investigators receiving the grant supporting this research did not initially propose to evaluate the effects of psilocybin.” At the same time, she conceded that “grantees maintain the scientific independence necessary to follow up on new areas of research.”