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January 29, 2007

Mystical Mushrooms

Mark Kleiman has a long post running down recent research on the mystical experiences triggered by psilocybin ingestion, the active ingredient in 'shrooms. The short version is that a team of highly respected neuroscientists and psychiatrists published a study in the peer-reviewed journal Psychopharmacology running through the results of a triple-blind experiment in which 36 volunteers, each with some level of routine spiritual practice, were given the active ingredient in mushrooms or ritalin (or -- there were two rounds -- both). Neither the participants, nor the researchers, nor the attendant "guides," knew who got what. The results were startling:

Twenty-two of the thirty-six psilocybin sessions, but only four of the 36 Ritalin sessions, led to a "full" mystical experience. On a scale of personal meaningfulness or significance that went from "routine, the sort of thing that might happen any day," through "the most meaningful thing that would happen in the course of a typical week," then "month," then "year," then "five-year period," to "one of the ten most meaningful experiences of your lifetime," "among the five most meaningful" and finally "the single most meaningful experience of your lifetime," fully two-thirds of the respondents rated their psilocybin experience in the "five most meaningful" or "single most meaningful" categories, and none ranked it below "once a year." The Ritalin scores clustered near "once a month."

As might be expected among hallucinogen-naïve subjects getting a substantial dose, there were some scary experiences; thirty percent of the volunteers reported "significant fear" (lasting for short intervals for some and longer portions of the session for others), but no one needed more than comforting to deal with that fear and no one had any damaging after-effects. Two months later, the participants tended to report themselves as feeling better and behaving better than they had previously, and the community raters [independent acquaintances from their everyday lives] tended to agree.

As Mark notes, this has some heavy implications:

If taking a dose of psilocybin under controlled conditions has a better-than-even chance of occasioning a full-blown mystical experience, it seems fairly hard to argue that forbidding such use doesn't interfere with the free exercise of religion. How the courts will deal with those who want to seek out primary religious experience on an individual rather than a congregational basis remains to be seen.[...]

Now it seems that the Beatific Vision, or at least a 60% chance of something the feels a lot like the Beatific Vision, might be in reach of almost anyone with access to a competent guide, a comfortable room, headphones, eyeshades, and the right kind of mushrooms.

January 29, 2007 | Permalink


I'm having visions of the soma parties in Brave New World.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Jan 29, 2007 3:51:14 PM

Shrooms are way better than acid. The after affects don't linger nearly as long as with acid and the trip doesn't feel nearly as 'synthetic' as with acid(which makes sense). Gotta keep hydrated tho.

Legalize it all! (except cocaine, heroin, meth, wippits, smoking moon rocks, etc.)

Posted by: Captain Toke | Jan 29, 2007 3:53:18 PM

I hope there will be a follow-up in a year to see if they still rank the experiences the same way. Interesting stuff.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jan 29, 2007 4:02:02 PM

My read on this experiment is that "mystical" or "spiritual" experiences are really just misfirings of the brains synapses and not evidence of a deity.

Posted by: Col Bat Guano | Jan 29, 2007 4:13:11 PM

On the other hand, the Church of Ritalin is going to have a much harder time defending its practices.

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Jan 29, 2007 4:25:36 PM

Some users of mushrooms probably aren't surprised at these findings. Many who took them in college were more interested in the happy colors and body sensations they gave, but others (like those folks I was around in college) took them precisely to get a spiritual experience.

While that is the case, I don't think they should be treated as a "pill" to "get spiritual". I'd hope the revelations people have on mushrooms are analyzed and built upon in the future, sober, to piece together what people "believe in".

Posted by: verplanck colvin | Jan 29, 2007 4:27:19 PM

Wow, just WOW! and AWESOME too.

Now, which church is going to pass the plates around, one for mystical experiences, and one for money 'donated'.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jan 29, 2007 4:29:26 PM

I once worked with a guy who had Tourette's Syndrome. He told me that his only experience of living without symptoms were the four hours he spent tripping on mushrooms.

Posted by: Headline Junky | Jan 29, 2007 4:30:52 PM

The 'magic shroom' is amanita muscaria. Google for more info.

I recall reading a fascinating book in the '70s by John M. Allegro, titled THE SACRED MUSHROOM AND THE CROSS A Study of the Nature and Origins of Christianity within the Fertility Cults of the Ancient Near East. (1971) (search at amazon: John M. Allegro)

The book is now quite pricey ($50-100), but still available. An earlier version in 1970 was titled: Sacred Mushroom and the Cross: Fertility Cults and the Origins of Judaism and Christianity.

(I''ll post a short summary in the next post. I didn't provide links on the google and amazon mentions above, because TypePad thinks I'm doing comment spam)

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jan 29, 2007 5:40:16 PM

Short summary of the John M. Allegro book mentioned above:

"A major breakthrough in our understanding of the origin and nature of the languages of the Bible has made possible the decipherment of the names of the Jewish God and the patriarchs, and now shows the religion of the Israelites and their inheritors, the Christians, to have been founded in a very ancient fertitlity cult centered on the worship of the sacred mushroom, the red topped Amanita Muscaria.

After many years of studying the origins and roots of words common to the Sumerian and later Middle Eastern languages, John Allegro believes that many of the stories and characters, and much of the Old Testament must be examined afresh.

Biblical stories, previously supposed at least partly historical, now appear as mushroom myths, conforming to a pattern of such mythology throughout the Near East and classical writings. When, later, the mushroom cult became sophisticated into a mystery religion, involving drug taking and frenzied god possessed orgies with political overtones, it ran afoul of the authorities. To avoid persecution, its devotees transmitted their secret formulae in adaptations of the old mythologies, and it is to such cryptic devices we owe the Jesus stories of the New Testament.

The Roman persecutors of the early Christians were probably not deceived by the tale of the crucified Jewish rabbi, but the later church purged away disturbing reminders of its cultic origins in the cause of respectability, and thereafter preached an historical Jesus. 349 pages"

The publisher or current copywrite holder would do well to republish based on the findings discussed in Ezra's linked article. In the '70s, it was a mass market paperback and sold quite well (as one might assume in that era).

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jan 29, 2007 5:47:14 PM

I'm all for legalization of marijuana but shrooms are big medicine. I would question the judgment of anyone who thinks otherwise.

Posted by: ice weasel | Jan 29, 2007 6:14:55 PM

"Shrooms are way better than acid."

I beg to differ. Don't like the obvious loss of depth perception and tactile dominance. A crude and earthy high. Shrooms are safer than street acid tho.

Ain't no such things as mystical experiences, so you don't need special drugs or techniques to acquire them.
Just tell everybody Aldous Huxley talked to you out of the Santana Cover and pretty soon you will believe it too.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jan 29, 2007 6:47:39 PM

I'd hope the revelations people have on mushrooms are analyzed and built upon in the future, sober, to piece together what people "believe in".

...yeah, I'd hope so, too. If anyone forgets a mushroom trip then they've got Alzheimer's.

Posted by: scarshapedstar | Jan 29, 2007 7:22:31 PM

"aint no such things as mystical experiences..."

bob...have to differ with you in regard to that statement....
my experience on lsd was a true mystical experience...whether it was a misfiring of synapses or some other biochemical change...it was undeniably, one of the most beautiful, beatific and truly mystical experiences of my life, thoroughly beyond the realm of this consciousness.
it was a dimension of the sublime.
...also, i wonder if you regard any of your dreams as a kind of mystical experience.

Posted by: jacqueline | Jan 29, 2007 8:11:00 PM

Interesting Contribution:

Statement by NIDA Director Nora D. Volkow, M.D., in response to a study published in the Journal Psychopharmacology on July 11, 2006. Study authors: R.R. Griffiths, et al. Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
"As the nation's preeminent drug abuse research organization, NIDA's mission is to support research and provide information on the addictive and adverse health consequences of drugs of abuse. Therefore, NIDA discourages the use of hallucinogens, in order to promote the continuing downward trend in use of this class of drugs.

Although there is no evidence that psilocybin is addictive, its adverse effects are well known. Similar to the more commonly known hallucinogen LSD, psilocybin acts on serotonin receptors in the brain to profoundly distort a person's perceptions of reality. Psilocybin can trigger psychosis in susceptible individuals and cause other deleterious psychological effects, such as paranoia and extreme anxiety.

A recent study entitled "Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance" evaluated the subjective effects of psilocybin after acute administration and the recall of these subjective effects 2 months after its administration. While the investigators receiving the grant supporting this research did not initially propose to evaluate the effects of psilocybin, grantees maintain the scientific independence necessary to follow up on new areas of research.


Nora D. Volkow, M.D.

Posted by: RW | Jan 29, 2007 8:31:11 PM

"whether it was a misfiring of synapses or some other biochemical change"

Well, that is the point. I have had synanthesia, ecstasy, etc etc but I do not credit them to external sources or some higher reality or whatever. Kinda like the difference between nirvana and sartori. It is not the world that is an illusion, but the self, and moving the self out of the way ain't no big deal, just getting straight.

Music seeemmmsss rrreeaaallyy sslllooowww? Not in the music, not even in the hearing, but in the interpretation or perception. Mybe it is just me. No romance.

There are also the language and narratives we use to describe interior experience. JimPO touches this above.

"Yeah, my third bankruptcy and second divorce were the Dark Night of The Soul, like Osiris and Orpheus and Joseph in the Pit and what's described in the Third Bardo."

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jan 29, 2007 8:35:16 PM

Tried it a few times in college but didn't really like it. However, for the 24-48 hours afterward I suddenly had a vocabulary level several levels higher than usual.

Posted by: Mike | Jan 29, 2007 8:56:51 PM

bob...you write.."it is not the world that is an illusion,but the self..."
who is to say...which part of consciousness is the illusion...isnt it all seamless?
isnt it all real? or not?
......i do agree with you though, there aint anything more "real" than a third bankruptcy and a second divorce. one does reach the bardo, and it isnt beautiful or french.
by the way, touching on jim's comment, did you ever read "the origin of consciousness and the breakdown of the bicameral mind" by julian jaynes...it was interesting, along those lines.

Posted by: jacqueline | Jan 29, 2007 8:56:58 PM

"maybe it's just me. no romance".
nonsense!! one can perceive a definite romance of the intellect around here..
a good discussion seems to trip the "light fantastic",maybe not a huxley-esque moment, but hey, in this reality and all others, whatever floats one's boat!!! aspects of fantasy and mystical notions aside...!!

Posted by: jacqueline | Jan 29, 2007 9:19:43 PM

"maybe it's just me. no romance".

No romance? Sheeeee-yit. You should try tripping with your girlfriend sometime. My favorite aspect of the shroom trip is the near-telepathy it creates. Seeing the same things, finishing each other's sentences... you can quibble over whether the clarity it allows is a difference of kind or of degree, but it definitely helps people communicate on a very deep level. And the childhood memories... geesh. Best of all, you don't forget a moment of it.

Oh, and then there's the sex...

Posted by: scarshapedstar | Jan 29, 2007 9:33:25 PM

Jim, and everyone - Amanita muscaria are most definitely NOT "magic mushrooms." Amanitas (or fly agarics) can be highly toxic and even deadly; see Wikipedia article here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amanita_muscaria, though they may have some hallucinogenic effects.

Where did you get your information? Also according to Wikipedia, "Magic mushrooms" are Psilocybin species; they can be toxic at high doses as well.

Posted by: Emily DeVoto | Jan 29, 2007 10:36:31 PM

Well, depends on what you mean by magic. Amanitas will definitely trip you out. Like, Lewis Carroll stuff. However, they do indeed contain some toxins that will make you sick as a dog if you eat a lot of them. Supposedly there's ways to prepare them but, yes, the Psilocybin genus is nearly always what people refer to as "magic mushrooms". Toxicity, btw, is pretty laughable. If you die then you ate the wrong mushrooms.

Posted by: scarshapedstar | Jan 30, 2007 12:17:02 AM

"if anyone forgets a mushroom trip, then they've got alzheimers..."
.....maybe that's what they got it from !!!!

Posted by: jacqueline | Jan 30, 2007 8:13:30 AM

My read on this experiment is that "mystical" or "spiritual" experiences are really just misfirings of the brains synapses and not evidence of a deity.

One would assume that any connection to something mystical or spiritual would include measurable physical changes in the body.

If I can find god in a pill, that means there's no god? Feh.

Posted by: twig | Jan 30, 2007 9:41:14 AM

One would assume that any connection to something mystical or spiritual would include measurable physical changes in the body.

This wouldn't surprise me at all, but I'm not sure the study has (or can) be done.

Posted by: Col Bat Guano | Jan 30, 2007 2:08:37 PM

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