THE STUDY "Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance," published in the journal Psychopharmacology.
THE PROBLEM After psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, was outlawed in the mid-1960s, hallucinogen researchers quit cold turkey. Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine psychopharmacologist Roland Griffiths thinks the drug deserves a second look as a medical treatment. "This class of compounds produces profound changes in human perception and consciousness, and essentially it's been taken off the clinical research bench for 40 years—it's almost unthinkable," he says.
THE FINDINGS 36 healthy, well-educated, psychologically stable middle-aged adults who had never used hallucinogens volunteered for the study. Griffiths and his colleagues also recruited a psychologist and a social worker familiar with altered states of consciousness to act as monitors and prepare each participant with 8 hours of individual counseling.
Accompanied by the monitors, volunteers entered "an aesthetic living-room-like environment designed specifically for the study" with a couch, Persian rug, abstract art on the walls, classical music, and eyeshades and took an unidentified blue capsule that contained either psilocybin or Ritalin. Ritalin was used as a control because, like psilocybin, it increases heart rate and blood pressure within 30 to 60 minutes. It also has similar side effects—like excitability, nervousness, and good mood.
In 23 percent of the drug sessions, the study monitors incorrectly judged who was tripping and who wasn't. The volunteers did better. Each was given a 100-item mystical "states of consciousness" questionnaire 7 hours after taking the drugs, in which they were asked to rate their experience on a 6-point scale in each of 7 domains: transcendence of time and space, ineffability, sacredness or reverence, infinite love, intuitive knowledge of ultimate reality, pure awareness, and unity of all things.
According to Griffiths, 61 percent of the participants had answers indicating a "complete mystical experience" after psilocybin compared with only 11 percent after Ritalin. Two months later, 71 percent of the volunteers rated psilocybin as one of the five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives; 79 percent said it increased their long-term sense of personal well-being or life satisfaction. Only 8 percent ranked Ritalin among the top five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives, and 21 percent said it increased their long-term sense of personal well-being or life satisfaction.
But it wasn't all good. After tripping on psilocybin, 30 percent reported experiencing strong or extreme fear; 17 percent of these reported paranoia. Two volunteers compared it to being in a war and 3 said they would never want to do anything like it again. None reported significant fear after Ritalin.
THE RESEARCHERS Roland Griffiths has never 'shroomed, and he doesn't think you should either. "I think I can best serve the research by not being a user-advocate," he says, heeding a healthy number of studies that show the drug can precipitate psychiatric illnesses like schizophrenia and cause people to engage in lethal behavior like jumping off buildings. Nonetheless, he says, the drug might have a future treating depression and anxiety. He also cites studies that show it increases abstinence in alcoholics.