Psychology/Psychiatry

How Do You Keep the Magic?

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I'm a little late in noting this, but last week the Journal of Psychopharmacology published a follow-up to the 2006 study in which Johns Hopkins researchers found that psilocybin triggered "mystical-type experiences" in experimental subjects who had never used psychedelics before. The first report described the 36 subjects' impressions two months after the experiment, when a large majority reported meaningful, generally positive experiences of lasting significance. The new report says the general picture remained the same after another year:

At the 14-month follow-up, 58% and 67%, respectively, of volunteers rated the psilocybin-occasioned experience as being among the five most personally meaningful and among the five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives; 64% indicated that the experience increased well-being or life satisfaction; 58% met criteria for having had a "complete" mystical experience.

The sense that the psilocybin sessions had lingering positive effects on the subjects' attitudes and behavior was confirmed by "community observers." The persistence of these feelings is not surprising, inasmuch as Rick Doblin found that the good vibes from Walter Pahnke's classic 1962 psilocybin experiment involving divinity students at Boston University's Marsh Chapel were still felt a quarter century later.

Although these results may not seem startling to anyone who has tried psychedelics, it's interesting that psilocybin commonly elicits quasi-religious feelings even in a secular environment (albeit with subjects who reported "regular participation in religious or spiritual activities"). The most important aspect of the study probably is the publicity it has attracted to the possibility that something good might come from using politically incorrect drugs. My favorite part is that some of the funding for the project came from the prohibition-boosting National Institute on Drug Abuse.

I considered the legal status of religious drug use in a 2007 reason article that was accompanied by a sidebar discussing the Johns Hopkins study. Last July I reviewed Andy Letcher's history of magic mushrooms.

NEXT: What's the Matter With Chicago?

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  1. Me and the fungus had a great time at the Natural History museum. It was all good until the giant jellyfish freaked me out. It didn’t last long, and I got to enjoy the gem exhibit.

    It’s retarded that it’s illegal.

  2. I’d never recommend hallucinogenic substances to others. They were good for me though.

  3. volunteers rated the psilocybin-occasioned experience as being among the five most personally meaningful and among the five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives; 64% indicated that the experience increased well-being or life satisfaction

    So this stuff has to be illegal, right?

  4. The last time I tripped out was at the botanical gardens in Montreal, and it was just amazing. I even smoked a joint at the memorial for all the mounties shot in the line of duty. It was a total coincidence, but the mushrooms guided me there, I shit you not.

    Going to Amsterdam in a couple of months, and it’s been banned there now, too.

  5. I did them in the magic kingdom with about 12 other people 20 years ago on spring break. It was really, really cool.

  6. I was floored when I saw a segment on this on the CNN morning program. “Coming up next; how magic mushrooms can have a lasting, positive effect on your life!” On CNN. Of course, at the end there was the standard disclaimer, “But if you’re thinking about trying magic mushrooms — don’t! They’re ILLEGAL! And scientists say if you take them unsupervised, they could be dangerous!”

    Still, when a mainstream news program sings the praises of psychedelics, you know there’s something going on in the larger culture.

  7. My only real experience with them was camping out in Yosemite. We went swimming in the river as the sun set over El Capitan, then made snacks with the mushrooms as dusk fell. I was in an enchanted forest that was part Toontown, then transcended and had the universe-collapsing experience common to these studies.
    When I woke up, we got ticketed by the ranger for improper food storage (our snacks had attracted coyotes and could have led to bears).

    Definitely a profound experience that helped me understand my place in the universe.

  8. Wake me up when the stop trying to ban cigarettes. The country is moving in one direction, and the liberalization of drug law ain’t it.

  9. When I was in college stropharia cubensis* grew everywhere just outside of town.They were always available and free. The only people who charged for them were yankee kids when they brought them back up to the frigid north.I probably ate over a lb dry weight in my late teens/early 20s.I liked LSD better though.

    *they changed the name!
    psilocybe now

  10. First time I did mushrooms was in amsterdam’s botanical garden. We accidentally wandered out and down the streets with the multi colored buildings, and ended up just exploring the entire town from coffee shop to coffee shop. Unbelievably good experience, have done them a few times since too.

  11. Much of what I’ve seen and heard in my life leads me to believe that, when used responsibly, magic mushrooms are a good thing. I’ve never personally used.

  12. I’m pretty anti-drug for the most part as they seem to largely be a waste of time for most people and are potentially fatal to a small group of people.

    What interests me about hallucinogens is their role in traditional religious and meditative practice.

    For example, both the Buddhist and Taoist cannons are filled with a virtual treasure chest of herbal (read drug) compounds and formulas to amplify, extend, or alternatively tone down various meditative states and/or experiences.

    While I have never used hallucinagenic drugs myself many of my meditative experiences closely mirror what some people from various studies describe.

    Interesting.

  13. Speaking of FARC, Colombia, and the eternal human comedy, here we have what has to be the ultimate apologia for tyranny coming from none other than the “libertarian” magazine that goes by the moniker Reason:

    “So yes, the Uribe government is far from perfect – it is Latin America after all, so we must judge on a steep curve – but as even the left-leaning Guardian acknowledged this week, Uribe is indeed a ‘skilled politician’ who ‘has been able to bring a degree of order, security and prosperity to the country that was scarcely believed possible when he took office in 2002.'”

    Aside from the borderline racism embedded in that “it is Latin America, after all” remark, the same sort of nonsense could easily be imagined coming from the lips of a left-wing apologist for Fidel Castro. After all, the guy has given Cubans affordable – free! – health care, and Cuba’s literacy rate exceeds our own. And certainly he’s kept “order.” So what’s to complain about? Well, uh, plenty?

    This is particularly galling coming as it does from Reason, which, in order to prevent itself from becoming just another right-wing mouthpiece, has prided itself on its devotion to civil liberties, particularly when it comes to opposing the War on Drugs – a war that Colombia has been fighting, on behalf of and in league with the U.S. military, for decades, with a notable lack of success. Uribe, for his part, is a known collaborator with right-wing terror squads, and his own ties to the kingmakers of Colombia’s drug cartels are no secret. For the Reasonoids to peddle him as some sort of sympathetic figure is more of the Bizarro “libertarianism” their ever dwindling band of readers has come to expect from them.
    ~ Justin Raimondo

  14. Aside from the borderline racism embedded in that “it is Latin America, after all”

    Hold your horses, pal! There’s no racism there but what you imagined. If certain regions are more likely to harbor certain political philosophies that can be, in a roundabout way, attributed to history and culture. It’s bigots of all sort who conflate culture (and subculture) with race*, but there is nothing inherently bigoted in saying that much of Latin America and much of Africa are more politically unstable than most parts of N. America or Europe.

    *Actually an argument I was going to put in my Jesse Jackson rant.

  15. The rest of your screed is pretty uninspiring, too.

  16. While I have never used hallucinagenic drugs myself many of my meditative experiences closely mirror what some people from various studies describe.

    What Robert Anton Wilson described as “the technology of religion.” The psychedelic experience can be (with the right set and setting) identical to the mystical experience, only more reproducible and, arguably, more powerful.

  17. If certain regions are more likely to harbor certain political philosophies that can be, in a roundabout way, attributed to history and culture. It’s bigots of all sort who conflate culture (and subculture) with race*, but there is nothing inherently bigoted in saying that much of Latin America and much of Africa are more politically unstable than most parts of N. America or Europe.

  18. My good friend the Kosmik Kid coulda told them that. 🙂

  19. I recently consumed a low dose as a potential relief from Cluster Headaches. By low dose I mean less that it would take to find your “Spirit Animal” or whatever. Morality and laws be damned. I’d have strangled a kitty if it promised a cure. Am extremely pleased to announce a broken headache cycle. There is a potential Harvard study on the way.

  20. Serious question: Do you think anyone who goes in knowing the scientific backdrops of this — e.g., even those of us who merely read the above blurb — could still have a legitimate “quasi-religious” experience?

    In other words, isn’t it possible to be too conscious of your consciousness and mess the whole thing up?

  21. Tom, your question gets to the set and setting of the psychedelic experience. I am sure that, with the right (wrong?) mindset, you could prevent yourself from experiencing what others experience.

    As a point of interest, Robert Anton Wilson was virulently anti-religious, and also a major proponent of the use of psychedelics (and other techniques) for personal enlightenment.

  22. R C Dean,

    Thanks for the comment on Wilson. I approached the medium from a unique perspective. I was having experiences with things that most people would label as having a mystic nature, but growing up in a largely secular family I used meditation to answer some of the questions my experiences raised.

    For the record, I now feel that not only is the meditative experience completely replicable, but it is also very mechanical in nature. Again, in my experience it is much safer than drug use and far more controlled. It does require a fair amount of discipline and effort to safetly achieve.

    As someone coming from a largely post-religious background it took me quite awhile to figure out what was happening and what to do about it. Luckily, not being from a traditional culture, I was able to approach the issue from a perspective free of their cultural biases.

    Even now, I am unsure if what I experienced was simply an interesting biological glitch unique to humans or a brush with something that transcends normal reality. Whatever that is.

    Experience would lead me to draw a certain conclusion, but as many people here would be quick to point out perception of reality and reality itself are often at odds.

    I think it is that desire to be aware of something greater than themselves that leads many people down that path. I also think a small group of people take hallucinagens to try to have that experience as well.

    Best of luck

  23. He also (RAW) was my introduction to libertarian thought.

  24. Many religions incorporate mind altering drugs like tobacco and alcohol.

  25. Bob Wilson could in no way be described as virulently anti-religious. Skeptical, yes, in religion as in all things. He could at times in person be glibly dismissive on any subject, but that was not the way to know him.

    As funny (ha-ha) as he was, it could sometimes elude observers that he would entertain subjects for years before committing to a position, as for example General Semantics or weapons control. As with Howard A. Stern, it was easy to miss the thinker behind the funny man.

    The sad part is that Bob had influence far beyond his remuneration and recognition.

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