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Half a century ago, people began regularly using hallucinogens such as LSD and “magic mushrooms” recreationally. Almost immediately after, scientists started studying their effects and found clues that they may treat psychological problems including depression, addiction, and PTSD. It was also found to ease fears regarding death, which could have great implications for people facing a terminal disease. However, many of those early studies were not tightly controlled.

Today, a new generation of researchers is trying to figure out exactly what the impacts of these drugs are.

Reaching a higher state with mushrooms

People have long described the use of psilocybin (the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms) as leading to a transcendental state – a sense of being one with the universe, outside of space and time. When people started using LSD recreationally in the 1960s, they found the experiences so transcendent that some users believed the drug had the capability to usher in a new era of world peace. Those same transcendental experiences can lead to long-lasting psychological growth. However, taking too much can lead to fear, anxiety, and even panic.

With a lesser dose, most people can generally experience the same mysticism, but with a huge drop in the likelihood of anxiety or powerlessness. Researchers at Johns Hopkins have focused on pinpointing the perfect dosage for a person to experience the transcendental feeling without the negative side effects.

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The best times of their lives

One study by Roland Griffiths, professor of behavioral biology, gave 18 spiritually inclined healthy adults varying doses of psilocybin. The participants spent the day in a comfortable environment within Johns Hopkins (the staff wanted medical professionals easily accessible, though they were not needed), blindfolded and listening to music. They were surrounded by a supportive team of people they felt comfortable with so that they never felt unsafe.

Most of the participants found their experience extremely positive, saying that they understood both themselves and others better. After the study, the participants reported much greater patience and compassion.

Participants reported better relationships, increased empathy, less judgment and diminished alcohol usage.

The effects lasted, too. More than a year later, 94% of the participants that received the drug still considered it to be ‘one of the top five most meaningful experiences of their lives.’

This is certainly not surprising – the group averaged 46 years old, and usually our personalities are set by about age 25. A single hallucinogenic experience can change a person’s personality more than several decades of typical adult experiences.

The future for mushrooms

More studies that may help us understand magic mushrooms are soon to come. Griffiths is currently working on other studies to see if psychedelics could help people facing a terminal diagnosis (by transcending life and death on a “trip”) or trying to quit an addiction (by wiring new neural pathways). In these situations, psilocybin could not only help people have a “mystical” experience leading to greater openness, but it could also actually help them overcome something that is causing great suffering in their life. The medical potential of mushrooms is promising.

Early research on hallucinogens suffered from exaggerated claims and insufficient rigor, but a few scientists are trying to remedy that now. The drug is still illegal, and it will likely be a long time before it’s regularly prescribed to patients, but learning how to manage dosage is one of the most important first steps to using this sort of drug for treatment and Griffith’s research is playing an important role in that.

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