A follow-up to a 2006 Johns Hopkins study involving psilocybin, the active substance in “magic mushrooms”, found that the substantive spiritual effects produced by psilocybin were beneficial to participants interviewed more than a year later. The second paper, published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, noted that most of the 36 volunteers given psilocybin in the initial clinical study continued to state 14 months later that the experience increased their sense of well-being or life satisfaction.
This 2008 study by a Johns Hopkins psychological research team has shown that psilocybin, the main active constituent in “magic mushrooms”, produces substantive spiritual experiences whose positive effects last for more than a year. The study by Roland Griffiths et al interviewed 36 volunteers who first took psilocybin in a controlled setting in the team’s 2006 study on the psychedelic compound. 14 months later, the volunteers continued to say that the experience increased their sense of life satisfaction and sense of well-being (Griffiths et. al. 2008).
Researchers are so far unsure which parts of the brain are affected by psilocybin, an alkaloid that naturally occurs in mushrooms of the genus Psilocybe. Psilocybin seems to influence the brain by attaching to receptors of the neurotransmitter serotonin. While psilocybin mushrooms have a long history of use in indigenous cultures for shamanistic healing and religious purposes, the action of psilocybin has received little scientific study until recently. Details of the effects of psilocybin have mostly been drawn from accounts in descriptive anthropology. Due to the freeze on hallucinogen research enacted by the United States and other Western countries in the 1960’s, neurologists have only recently been able to study psilocybin’s physiological and chemical actions in the brain in controlled scientific settings.
Griffiths et al (2006) outlined guidelines for testing hallucinogens in a clinical setting, including methods for screening volunteers, establishing a calming setting, providing monitor support during the session, and conducting follow-up surveys with subjects. Griffiths added that “the guidelines caution against giving hallucinogens to people at risk for psychosis or certain other serious mental disorders. Detailed guidance is also provided for preparing participants and providing psychological support during and after the hallucinogen experience. These “best practices” contribute both to safety and to the standardization called for in human research” (Griffiths et al, 2006). Griffiths stated that the guidelines outlined might be even more important than the initial study because it will assist researchers in creating scientifically rigorous studies involving hallucinogens in the future.
In the words of Charles Schuster, former head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Johns Hopkins follow-up paper on guidelines for hallucinogen research was “a landmark study”, because it hails a new systematic approach for working with hallucinogenic alkaloids, which were seen in the 1950’s to have great potential in therapy and research into sensory perception and consciousness.
In the initial 2006 study, the Johns Hopkins team administered psilocybin to a group of 36 healthy, well-educated volunteers with active spiritual lives, of whom 60 percent reported having a “full mystical experience after taking psilocybin” (Griffiths et al, 2006). None of the volunteers had ever taken psilocybin prior to the study, which required them to attend two 8-hour drug sessions at two-month intervals.
In one session the participants were given psilocybin in capsules, while in the other they received Ritalin (methylphenidate) as a placebo. Neither the participants nor the monitors of each session were told whether they were getting the placebo or psilocybin in the session. To counter the subjects’ anxieties and potential adverse reactions, each volunteer met with a monitor with experience in overseeing drug trials several times before the sessions. Each session was held in a space outfitted to look like a slightly upscale living room, with soft lighting, calming music and comfortable furniture. Participants’ blood pressure and heart rate were also monitored throughout the sessions.
“With appropriately screened and prepared individuals, under supportive conditions and with adequate supervision, hallucinogens can be given with a level of safety that compares favorably with many human research and medical procedures,” says, Matthew W. Johnson, Ph.D (Lazarou 2008). Johnson is a psychopharmacologist and also teaches in the Johns Hopkins Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. For instance, the study screened out any volunteers with a family history of psychosis or bi-polar disorder, out of concern that administration of a psychedelic could cause a psychotic break in someone with a potential for these disorders. Although some of the study participants experienced strong anxiety or fear for part of their 8-hour psilocybin sessions, all participants were able to overcome these negative reactions with help from their session monitor.
Psilocybin is not physically toxic to either humans or animals. However, the research team highlighted the possibility that if psilocybin were used outside of a clinical setting without proper screening procedures, there is a potential that these fear or anxiety responses could create harmful coping behavior in users. Both immediately after the 2006 sessions and in the follow-up interviews, none of the volunteers “reported any lingering harmful effects, and we didn’t observe any clinical evidence of harm” (Griffiths et al, 2006).
In fact, a third of participants surveyed two months later rated their experience with psilocybin as the most spiritually meaningful event in their lives. Two-thirds placed it among their five most meaningful spiritual experiences, and 60% of participants’ descriptions of their experience met established criteria for a full-blown mystical experience. 79% of participants interviewed after two months reported a higher level of well-being, better mood, and enhanced life satisfaction than those given only the placebo. Structured interviews with friends, family members, and co-workers of the participants generally confirmed these responses.
Examining the lasting effects of the experience after 14 months, the follow-up study re-administered the questions from the first study and a raft of additional questions to each volunteer. Their results revealed that the same proportions of volunteers rated their psilocybin experience as the most or one of the five most spiritually significant and personally meaningful events of their lives. The same proportions of those interviewed also stated that their psilocybin session had increased their sense of personal well-being and life satisfaction (Griffiths et al, 2006).
“This is a truly remarkable finding,” Griffiths said in a press release. “Rarely in psychological research do we see such persistently positive reports from a single event in the laboratory. This gives credence to the claims that the mystical-type experiences some people have during hallucinogen sessions may help patients suffering from cancer-related anxiety or depression and may serve as a potential treatment for drug dependence. We’re eager to move ahead with that research” (Lazarou 2008).
A 2011 study also linked the spiritual effects of psilocybin to the dose administered, with the most frequent spiritual experiences linked to a dose of between 20-30 mg per 70 kg of body weight. Participants were given psilocybin either in increasing or decreasing doses from 5mg to 30mg in five sessions, each a month apart. The best results were achieved when lower doses were given first, suggesting that familiarity with psilocybin at lower doses may increase its therapeutic benefit at higher doses. The results of the 2011 study may be of use in designing psilocybin therapies for patients with anxiety and other psychiatric disorders, as well as those who may be suffering depression or anxiety as a result of terminal illness (Griffiths et. al. 2011).
Psilocybin and other psychedelics may offer hope of treatment for people suffering from clinical anxiety and depression, eating disorders, and obsessive compulsive disorder, the last two of which are difficult to treat with currently available medications. More broadly, studies like those at Johns Hopkins are starting to pave the way for a reintroduction of psilocybin in psychotherapy and studies into the nature of consciousness and peak spiritual experiences. For a more detailed discussion of this study and their implications, check out our article on Scientifically-Proven Religious Experiences.
Griffiths, R.R., W.A. Richards, U. McCann, and R. Jesse. “Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance.” Psychopharmacology (July 11, 2006).
Griffiths, Roland, Matthew W. Johnson, Una McCann, William A. Richards,
Brian D. Richards, and Robert Jesse. “Psilocybin occasioned mystical-type experiences: immediate and persisting dose-related effects.” Psychopharmacology (June 15, 2011).
Keim, Brandon. “Psilocybin Study Hints at Rebirth of Hallucinogen Research.” Wired Magazine, July 1, 2008. http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2008/07/psilocybin-stud/.
Lazarou, J. “Spiritual Effects of Hallucinogens Persist, Johns Hopkins Researchers Report.” Hopkins Medicine, July 1, 2008. http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/news/media/releases/spiritual_effects_of_hallucinogens_persist_johns_hopkins_researchers_report.
Scientists Show Hallucinogen in Mushrooms Creates Universal “Mystical” Experience. Press Release. Johns Hopkins Medical, Media Relations and Public Affairs, July 11, 2006. http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/press_releases/2006/07_11_06.html.