Posted by: coyotefeets | November 22, 2011

Earth Medicine: Research into the Therapeutic Use of Psilocybin

Since the psychedelic raging of the 1960’s, psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in “magic mushrooms,” and other drugs like it have been largely demonized or, at best, ignored.  Promoted by people like Timothy Leary, who coined the slogan “turn on, tune in, drop out,” Huston Smith, Richard Alpert (Ram Dass), and even Allen Ginsberg, hallucinogenic drugs have earned themselves a bad rap as nothing but scary, dangerous toys and ultimately fast track tools for total burnout.  Today psilocybin mushrooms are illegal under Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act, meaning that, among other things, it has a high potential for abuse and currently no accepted medical use in the United States.  However, recently scientists have begun to challenge that second assertion, and as a result have won permission to resume studying psilocybin’s potential for treating mental illnesses like depression (a John Hopkins medical school study looks specifically at treating depression in terminally ill patients), obsessive compulsive disorder, end-of-life anxiety (again in cancer patients), post-traumatic stress disorder, and addiction to drugs and alcohol, an area in which another, similar psychoactive drug called ibogaine has also proven successful.

A recent study by Dr. Roland Griffiths at John Hopkins medical school has shown that psilocybin use may have “lasting medical and spiritual benefits.”  In the study, researchers were able to pin down the “sweet spot” where they are able to “optimize the positive persistent effects,” as well as eliminate the possibility of a traumatic trip by avoiding some of the fear and anxiety.  Eighteen healthy adults between the ages of 21 and 70 participated in five eight-hour long trip sessions, and were given either varying doses of psilocybin or a placebo.  Almost all of the volunteers were college graduates, 78% regularly attended religious activities, and all were interested in coming away with a spiritual experience.

The participants were placed in a “living room-like setting” that had been designed to be “calm, comfortable, and attractive.”  As any experienced psychonaut is aware, set and setting are an extremely important part of tripping.  Experimenters and review boards have developed standard guidelines for this reason, setting up comfortable environments with expert monitors who are equipped to handle adverse reactions to the drug.  In Dr. Griffiths’ most recent study, volunteers listened to classical music through headphones, wore eyeshades, and were directed to “direct their attention inward” for the duration of their trip.  Each person was also accompanied by a “monitor” and “assistant monitor,” both of whom were familiar with people under the psychoactive influence and were able to be empathetic and supportive.  Before being dosed, the participants were all made familiar with their monitors.

Afterwards, the participants reported leaving with “the sense that they understood themselves and others better,” and “therefore had greater compassion and patience.”  “There is more empathy,” one volunteer said, “a greater understanding of people and understanding their difficulties and less judgment.  Less judging of myself too.”  Another claimed to have developed a “better interaction with close friends and family and with acquaintances and strangers.”  The same participant also reported a dramatic drop in their alcohol usage.  Lasting change was observed in the facet of the personality we refer to as “openness,” which includes traits related to imagination, aesthetics, feelings, abstract ideas, and general broad- or open-mindedness.  These changes, measured on a “widely used and scientifically validated personality inventory,” where greater than changes seen in healthy adults over years of life experiences.

In a previous study – one of his first – Dr. Griffith gave psilocybin to 36 people with no serious physical or emotional issues, and found that the drug could induce what his subjects described as “a profound spiritual experience with lasting positive effects.”  In that study, none of the volunteers had had any previous experience with hallucinogens, and were even unsure of the identity of the administered drug (the subjects were given either a placebo, psilocybin, or another drug like Ritalin, nicotine, caffeine, or an amphetamine, and were not informed beforehand which one it would be).  Although some of the participants did experience anxiety during their respective trips, it was typically short-lived, and no one reported any serious negative effects.  Two months later, the psilocybin group reported “significantly more improvements in their general feelings and behavior,” as opposed to the other groups.  Fourteen months later, the psilocybin patients once again expressed more general satisfaction with their lives, and 94% rated the experience as one of the five most meaningful events of their lives.  39% of the participants claimed it as the most meaningful event of their lives.

Clark Martin, a retired clinical psychologist, was one of the participants in one of Dr. Griffiths’ studies: at 65, diagnosed with kidney cancer, he was suffering through chemotherapy, failing in counseling, and receiving zero relief from the antidepressants he was prescribed for his depression.  Dr. Griffiths’ study was his first psychedelic experience, and he now credits it with helping him overcome his depression, as well as “profoundly transforming his relationships.”  Like the above-mentioned subjects, Martin ranks the experiment among the most meaningful events of his life.  “It was a whole personality shift for me,” Martin says.  “I wasn’t any longer attached to my performance and trying to control things.  I could see that the really good things in life will happen if you just show up and share your natural enthusiasms with people.”  His reaction is pretty standard, according to Dr. Griffiths: “an improved outlook on life after an experience in which the boundaries between the self and others disappear.”  In interviews, Martin and other subjects have described scenarios in which their egos and bodies vanished as they “felt part of some larger state of consciousness.”

These reports so closely mirrored the accounts of various religious mystical experiences, that Dr. Griffiths believes it likely that the human brain is “wired to undergo these ‘unitive’ experiences.”  These similarities between psychedelic and mystically induced “life-changing revelations” are especially intriguing to scientists.  “There’s this coming together of science and spirituality,” says Rick Doblin, the executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), one of the nonprofit organizations supporting the work of Dr. Griffiths’ and others like him.  He mentions the fairly recent social acceptance of the hospice movement, yoga, and meditation.  “Our culture is much more receptive now, and we’re showing that these drugs can provide benefits that current treatments can’t.”

Dr. Charles S. Grob, a psychiatrist involved in psilocybin research at UCLA, describes it as “existential medicine.”  He writes, “Under the influence of hallucinogens, individuals transcend their primary identification with their bodies and experience ego-free states before the time of their actual physical demise, and return with a new perspective and profound acceptance of the life constant: change.”

Psilocybin research is currently receiving support from nonprofit organizations such as MAPS and the Heffter Research Institute.  Federal regulators are granting approval for controlled psychedelic experiments, but so far little public money has been granted for the research.  The University of Arizona, Harvard, New York University, and the University of California, Los Angeles are among the institutions looking more closely a therapeutic usage of psilocybin.  Their findings so far are highly encouraging, but also preliminary, and the participating researchers warn against reading too much into what are relatively small-scale studies.

Word Count: 1200


Tierney, John. “Hallucinogens Have Doctors Tuning In Again.” New York Times. (2010): n. page. Web. 21 Nov. 2011. <;.

Szalavitz, Maia. “‘Magic Mushrooms’ Can Improve Psychological Health Long Term.” TIME Healthland. (2011): n. page. Web. 21 Nov. 2011. <;.

Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. “Single dose of ‘magic mushrooms’ hallucinogen may create lasting personality change, study suggests.” ScienceDaily, 29 Sep. 2011. Web. 21 Nov. 2011. <;.

Other Links

John Hopkins study:

Psychopharmacology papers:


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