By Emma Young
“Conferences on psychedelics are popping up everywhere, like mushrooms!” said Jakobien van der Weijden, of the Psychedelic Society of the Netherlands, when I met her in Amsterdam last week. Indeed, research into the use of psychedelic (mind-altering) drugs as tools in the treatment of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and end-of-life angst, is on the increase. Psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, may help to alleviate symptoms of depression by altering brain activity in key areas involved in emotional processing, for example.
Now a study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, led by Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins University, has found that for mentally and physically healthy volunteers, two doses of psilocybin in conjunction with a programme of meditation and other “spiritual” practices was enough to bring about lasting, positive changes to traits including altruism, gratitude, forgiveness and feeling close to others.
The researchers recruited 75 healthy adults, with an average age of 42, from the general population, and allocated them at random to one of three groups. The first group enrolled in “standard-level” support for spiritual practice, which consisted of a meditation book plus five hours meditation and spiritual training with an experienced “guide”. These participants then took two very low doses of psilocybin (just 1mg per 70kg – intended to act as a placebo), spaced one month apart, with each dose followed by a discussion of the experience with their spiritual guide.
The second group of participants had the same level of spiritual practice support, but they were given higher doses of psilocybin – 20 mg/70kg for the first dose, and 30mg/70kg for the second (both fit into the range of dosages likely from recreational use of magic mushrooms.). Earlier studies have shown that psilocybin has various effects on the brain. It reduces blood flow in the amygdala, which is involved in emotional responses, for example.
The third group took the higher doses of psilocybin but also had far more extensive support and face-to-face time with their guides, and this continued for four months after their second dose of psilocybin. This included taking part in twice-monthly, 90-minute group dialogue sessions, in which they were encouraged to focus on discussing their successes and challenges in sustaining the regular spiritual practices of meditation, awareness and journaling.
Neither the participants nor the guides knew which psilocybin doses they had received. Six months after the start of the study, both of the high-dose groups showed large, statistically significant positive changes on measures of interpersonal closeness, gratitude, life meaning or purpose, death transcendence, daily spiritual experiences, and religious faith and coping, whereas the placebo group did not.
The high-dose, high-support group scored highest on all the scales. In some cases, such as life meaning and a rating of life “strivings” as being sacred or spiritual, they scored much higher. Unlike the high dose/standard support group, they also showed a big increase in trait forgiveness.
The researchers noted, “Strikingly, more than half of participants in the high spiritual support condition rated their experience in one or both psilocybin sessions as the single most spiritually significant experience of their life, with 96 per cent rating it as among the top five most spiritually significant experiences.” In contrast, the percentages for the high-dose, standard support group were 40 per cent and 76 per cent respectively.
It was the differences in their perception of the sessions, and their rates of engagement with meditation and other spiritual practices, that explained why the high-support, high-dose group showed larger trait changes and more intense spiritual experiences than the modest-support high-dose group, the researchers said.
It’s worth noting that the people recruited for the study all responded to an advert for volunteers who were interested in “developing their spiritual lives by participating in a study of the combined effects of meditation and psilocybin”. It’s not clear, then, whether this kind of programme could help people who aren’t particularly interested in developing their spiritual lives. Since there was no low-dose, high-support group, it’s also hard to be sure how important psilocybin was to the observed effects – perhaps the intensive “spiritual practices” and support were the more critical ingredient.
Still, the work does suggest that further investigation of the effects of psilocybin may in theory lead to new interventions, not only to help people with a mental health disorder, but to create positive changes in attitudes and behaviour in healthy people. But there would have to be a change in the law. At the moment, in the UK, as in many other countries, psilocybin can only be consumed legally as part of an approved academic research programme.
Other researchers involved in studies of psychedelic drugs have stressed that this work is still experimental, and have warned against self-medication. Magic mushrooms and closely-related psilocybin-containing truffles (which are legal in the Netherlands), contain varying levels of the drug, so it’s impossible to be sure of the dosage.
—Psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experience in combination with meditation and other spiritual practices produces enduring positive changes in psychological functioning and in trait measures of prosocial attitudes and behaviors