Mushrooms and mysticism

01/29/2007 03:31 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

There's now good scientific support for the claim that psilocybin, the active agent in "magic" mushrooms, has a better-than-even chance of generating a full-blown mystical experience in properly selected and prepared subjects.

Now what?

Last summer, there appeared in the profoundly respectable journal Psychopharmacology a most unusual paper, written by a team at Johns Hopkins Medical School led by the profoundly respectable Roland Griffiths, Professor of Neuroscience and Psychiatry, who spends most of his time studying the effects of caffeine. (They're bigger than you thought they were. The technical term for that headache you have until you have your morning cup of coffee is "withdrawal syndrome.")

The paper is called "Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance." (Psilocybin is one of the long-known hallucinogens, being the active agent in "magic" or "sacred" mushrooms.)

The research team found thirty-six healthy volunteers, all with some sort of regular religious or spiritual activity (e.g., weekly churchgoing), none with any serious psychiatric histories, and none with any previous experience with any of the hallucinogens (aka psychedelics, aka entheogens: the group that includes LSD, the mescaline in peyote, and the DMT in ayahuasca).

Following a series of four two-hour preparation sessions with a psychologist experienced at guiding hallucinogen sessions (from his days at the Spring Grove Hospital when it was a center of that research effort) the subjects were then brought into a living-room-like setting and given either a fairly hefty dose of psilocybin (almost half a milligram per kilogram of body weight) or a comparably hefty dose of methylphenidate, the stimulant prescribed as Ritalin to treat attention deficit disorder.

After swallowing the capsule, the subjects were encouraged to put on eyeshades and earphones (with a set music program) and "go inside." The dosing was triple-blind: neither the principal investigator, the subject, nor the two "guides" present for the session (including Bill Richards, the psychologist who handled the preparation sessions) knew which material was present in the capsule the subject took.

The process was repeated two months later, again triple-blind. Most subjects got psilocybin one of the two times, none both times; the few who got the Ritalin twice running then had an "open-label" (unblinded) session with psilocybin. This elaborate scheme was designed to separate out the effects of the chemical from the effects of expectancy.

Subjects took a whole battery of psychological tests before and after the session, and were debriefed immediately afterwards, two months later, and a year later. (The year-later results have yet to be published, but reportedly there don't seem to have been any surprising changes compared to the two-month follow-up.) In addition, each person designated, in advance, three family members, friends, neighbors, or co-workers to serve as "community raters"; they, too, were interviewed.

The findings were nothing short of astonishing. The subjects' accounts of their experiences were scored, according to pre-set criteria based on previous work in the psychology of religion, for how closely they corresponded with the accounts of mystical experience from, for example, Hildegard von Bingen or Meister Eckhardt or Julian of Norwich, and their equivalents in other spiritual traditions.

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 tended to agree.

In the same issue as the study itself, Psychopharmacology published an editorial comment and four invited commentaries from other profoundly respectable scientists, including a former Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and a former deputy "drug czar" under William Bennett. All were full of praise for the high quality of the scientific work, the significance of the findings, and the importance of doing more research in the area. (That favorable response was reflected in the widespread press coverage the study received.)

But neither those comments, nor the extraordinarily high score — in the top 7.4% of all submissions — peer reviewers gave a follow-up proposal was enough to persuade the current NIDA Director to support that additional work, so the team is now scrambling to find enough funding to keep itself together.

The results have potentially large importance for both law and policy.
Though psilocybe mushrooms grow wild in much of the country and are fairly easily cultivated, the psilocybin they contain is a Schedule I controlled substance, contraband except for specially-approved research purposes, and therefore so are the mushrooms themselves.

But the Supreme Court recently held (Gonzales v. O Centro) that the use of hallucinogens in religious ceremonies is protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and must be permitted unless there is a particularized showing of harm. It is well-established fact that psilocybin is neither addictive nor physically toxic, though it is not without psychological and behavioral risks, especially when used haphazardly.

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.

Cognate problems will arise under other legal systems, and in international law, where the treaty banning psilocybin among other chemicals seems to run squarely into the internationally recognized human right to religious practice, belief, and expression.

Mystical experience seems to be as old as recorded history, and perhaps older. It occurs in every culture, sometimes spontaneously and sometimes after what is often a long and arduous period of preparation, involving prayer, meditation, chanting, dancing, waking, prolonged silence, or fasting, alone or in various combinations. Accounts of its dangers are also widespread, from the Talmudic account of "the four [sages] who entered Paradise" (one died on the spot, one went mad, one became an apostate, and only one — R. Akiba — "came in peace and departed in peace") to the story of the Quest of the Holy Grail, which splintered the Fellowship of the Round Table.

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.

Would that be a good thing? How much mystical insight can this society handle? Do we have, or could we build, institutions capable of converting peak experiences into beneficially altered lives? I don't claim that the average mega-church isn't up to the task, but that certainly isn't the task the mega-church was designed to handle. Historically, the mystical traditions (for example, Sufism within Islam, Kabbalah within Judaism) are somewhat esoteric; when they turn into mass movements they tend to degenerate into superstition and magic-working, which is what happened to Taoism in China. 

Is the world ready for mass-market mysticism? Damned if I know. In Num. 11:24-29, Moses seems to think that it would be a good thing: "Were that all my people were prophets, and that HaShem would put His spirit upon them!" Joshua, on the other hand, isn't so sure.

In any case, it looks as if we'd better get ready to find out.