“Magic Mushrooms” Might Be More Magic than We First Thought

In 1960, two promising young psychologists at Harvard, Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert, began to explore the effects of psychotropic substances on the human mind. They believed that psilocybin, the active chemical in “magic” mushrooms, had the power to change people’s brains for the better.

They reasoned that psychology is the study of the mind, including its relationship to the brain, body, and environment. Therefore, psychology has a legitimate interest in how cognition, perception, and emotion are affected by mind-altering substances. Fifty years later, scientists are beginning to realize Leary may have been on to something.

Today, research on psychedelic drugs is experiencing a renewal of interest in the scientific community. A growing body of studies from major universities and medical centers suggests that the substances may hold promise as therapeutic interventions for a number of mental health conditions. Because of their ability to temporarily create profound changes in consciousness, and sometimes lasting changes in psychological well-being, mushrooms have been an area of particular interest. Unfortunately, research has been greatly restricted due to the classification of these mushrooms as a Schedule 1 drug.

In a new British study, researchers analyzed fMRI scans of 15 people after being injected with psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, and compared them to scans of their brain activity after receiving a placebo. Investigating psychedelics was not the direct purpose of the experiment, claimed study co-author Giovanni Petri, a mathematician at Italy’s Institute for Scientific Interchange, but the experiment yielded some intriguing data.

Psilocybin makes for an ideal test system: It is a sure-fire way of altering consciousness. In mathematical terms, normal brains have a well-ordered correlation state. There is not much cross-linking between networks. That changes after the psilocybin dose. Suddenly the networks are cross-linking like crazy, but not in random ways. New types of order emerge.”

Psilocybin profoundly alters consciousness, rearranging the brain so that new connections between neurons are created and accessing them becomes easier. This does not occur randomly, but instead, the neurons assume a new order, which brings clarity and new perspectives on old and new thoughts. Those effects are then combined with what scientists have found to be activation in the area of the brain, the hippocampus and anterior cingulate cortex, responsible for emotion and dreaming.

Meanwhile, with the activity in the emotion region of the brain working at full-force, the area that helps us find a sense of self-awareness (the ego) goes quiet. Thus, the dreamlike state of enlightenment is commonly report by those using the drug.

Johns Hopkins researchers found that using small amounts of psilocybin in a controlled setting could lead to life-changing positive experiences that increased long-term psychological well-being. The researchers said that they ultimately hope to see whether transcendent experiences, facilitated by taking psilocybin in therapeutic settings, could help treat conditions like addiction, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The stigma of psychedelics may be slowly shifting as more and more research finds that substances like LSD and psilocybin show promise as therapeutic tools for dealing with a range of mental health problems. So far, the evidence has shown some interesting possibilities.


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