Taking Shrooms Seriously

A new study sheds light on what happens to your brain on psilocybin, the key compound in magic mushrooms:

"Psychedelics are thought of as ‘mind-expanding’ drugs, so it has commonly been assumed that they work by increasing brain activity,” says [David Nutt, a neuropsychopharmacologist]. "Surprisingly, we found that psilocybin actually caused activity to decrease in areas that have the densest connections with other areas."

Maia Szalavitz elaborates:

Under the influence of mushrooms, overall brain activity drops, particularly in certain regions that are densely connected to sensory areas of the brain. When functioning normally, these connective "hubs" appear to help constrain the way we see, hear and experience the world, grounding us in reality. They are also the key nodes of a brain network linked to self-consciousness and depression. Psilocybin cuts activity in these nodes and severs their connection to other brain areas, allowing the senses to run free.

The findings bode well for the the therapeutic potential of psilocybin:

Two regions that showed the greatest decline in activity were the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC). The mPFC is an area that, when dysfunctional, is linked with rumination and obsessive thinking. "Probably the most reliable finding in depression is that the mPFC is overactive," says Carhart-Harris. … "[Psilocybin] shuts off this ruminating area and allows the mind to work more freely," he says. “That’s a strong indication of the potential of psilocybin as a treatment for depression."

Aldous Huxley remains, I think, the most powerful exponent of what this is about. It is about, in his words, the revelation that "the universe is All Right".

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching.

If you believe, as I do, that we are at root children of God, trapped, as Pascal put it, between being angels and beasts, then there will be moments in our lives when we are closer to being angels and closer to being beasts. In my view, our beastliness, as it were, is a function of our contingency as evolving primates, having to tackle a terrifying world of death, disease, war, hatred, and fear with intelligence and self-control and self-defense. This is the world of the first half of Hobbes' Leviathan.

But we are also more than that, as Jesus taught us. We are children of God. Our alienation is because something deep within us yearns to come home, a home we do not remember, but we know exists. What psilocybin seems to do is remove the veil from seeing and accepting this wondrous, difficult truth. It does not add something to our consciousness that isn't already there. It simply calms the noise around it so we can hear what is already within us. Hence the parallels between brains in deep meditation and brains on psilocybin.

Of course, we need the veil to survive in our physical, practical lives. As Huxley notes above, we couldn't walk across the street without it. If we were always aware of the staggering beauty of Creation and the overwhelming force of God's love for us, we would be like Jesus – homeless, jobless, possession-less, beyond family or tribe. And that is where the saints are and where we are lucky occasionally, by grace, to find ourselves. Mystics have sometimes strained against their physical limits to see the truth. Jesus starved and meditated for 40 days in the desert. Others, like Julian of Norwich or St Teresa of Avila, had experiences of such intensity they live on in our consciousness even now.

To glimpse this even once – by chemical ingestion – opens up the truth as to who and what we are. It is not a substitute for living that truth, or searching for it every day, or prayer, or the sacraments, or caritas. But it is a sacramental glimpse. And however far into the darkening forest you walk, you never forget the mountaintop.

Or the view, which is eternity. Now.

Psilocybin At The End Of Life

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Dr. Stephen Ross's research uses "psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy to treat end-of-life distress in people with cancer." The results:

In my fifteen years as a psychiatrist, I’ve seen some profound things. Here I’ve seen decreased death anxiety, decreased depression, greater integration back into daily life, improved family function, and increased spiritual states. Half of our patients had classic mystical experiences, and the other half probably had near-mystical experiences. … I think psilocybin is a safe treatment modality that can potentially be a paradigm change within psychiatry and very helpful to dying patients.

If only we can transcend the fear.

(Photo of Psilocybe Cubensis by Flickr user afgooey74)

A Technicolor Lining To The Storm?

by Chris Bodenner

Hurricane Irene could cause a boom of boomers:

[O]ne of the strange aftermaths of a hurricane is an increased amount of mushrooms popping up — especially the psilocybin — or "magic" kind — the ones that cause hallucinations. According to Dr. Casey Simon, an addiction expert based in Orange County, Calif., hurricanes create the perfect climactic conditions for the mushrooms to grow. "Mushrooms are spores and they multiply in moisture and are spread by wind," he told [David Moye].

But a word of caution:

Simon says the real danger of the mushrooms isn't the psilocybin. "Some mushrooms can attract a fungus that makes them more toxic," he said. "It looks like a gray mold on the under side. Just a few differences in temperature can make a difference." 

[Dr. Suneil] Jain says that's why experienced mushroom experts pick mushrooms when they are as fresh as possible. "The optimal time to pick is right after the storm before the other elements can affect them," he said.

Happy hunting.

The Other Side Of Psychedelics

by Chris Bodenner

Sam Harris, who detests the War on Drugs and wants his daughter to try psilocybin or LSD at least once in her life, describes a bad trip:

On my first trip to Nepal, I took a rowboat out on Phewa Lake in Pokhara, which  offers a stunning view of the Annapurna range. It was early morning, and I was alone. Bad-tripAs the sun rose over the water, I ingested 400 micrograms of LSD. I was 20 years old and had taken the drug at least ten times previously. What could go wrong?

Everything, as it turns out. Well, not everything—I didn’t drown. And I have a vague memory of drifting ashore and of being surrounded by a group of Nepali soldiers. After watching me for a while, as I ogled them over the gunwale like a lunatic, they seemed on the verge of deciding what to do with me. Some polite words of Esperanto, and a few, mad oar strokes, and I was off shore and into oblivion. So I suppose that could have ended differently.

But soon there was no lake or mountains or boat—and if I had fallen into the water I am pretty sure there would have been no one to swim. For the next several hours my mind became the perfect instrument of self-torture. All that remained was a continuous shattering and terror for which I have no words.

These encounters take something out of you. Even if drugs like LSD are biologically safe, the potential for extremely unpleasant and destabilizing experiences presents its own risks. I believe I was positively affected for weeks and months by my good trips, and negatively affected by the bad ones. Given these roulette-like odds, one can only recommend these experiences with caution.

(Photo by Matt Bodenner)

The Spiritual Power Of Psilocybin, Ctd

A reader writes:

I’ve been followingBill Hicks clip in the thread, but I feel compelled to write to say how odd it is to read HicksBill classified as an atheist.  I was a close friend of Bill’s and in fact was one of the two  friends hementions in this clip who tripped with him, which I did often. One thing I can tell you is that Bill talked about God more than anyone I knew. I hope people know that he is talking sincerely in the clip when he says:

“The heavens parted and God looked down and rained gifts of forgiveness onto my being, healing me on every level … and I realized our true nature is spirit, not body, and we are eternal beings and God’s love is unconditional. We are one with God and He loves us.”

This is pure Bill and hardly the words of an atheist. What Bill was against was hypocrisy, ignorance and fundamentalism of all kinds. He felt that organized religion, among other things, breeds these afflictions and ultimately hinders us from having a direct relationship with God.  As he often said, “No middle man required.”

I thought you  may enjoy this photo of Bill taken during one our mushroom trips. Please feel free to share the photo with your readers.

We verified our reader’s relationship with Hicks. What a wonderfully small world the Dish can be.

The Spiritual Power Of Psilocybin, Ctd

A reader writes:

It seems to me that the debate between spiritualist and scientific interpretations of the psilocybin experience depends on a false alternative. It’s true that a scientific perspective rules out witnessing supernatural facts. But that’s not the same as ruling out witnessing spiritual facts, at least not in the sense that most people mean by the word “spiritual”.

It is entirely compatible with what science has revealed about the world that human individuals bear a profound kinship to other parts of the universe, a kinship that ought to have tremendous value. The common misconception that science – unlike the Medieval world-view it replaced – implies our alienation from the world – our being strangers in a valueless world indifferent to our fates – ignores what science has shown. Darwin’s theory, for example, shows the profound connections that all creatures, including human beings, bear to each other. We learn about our own bodies by studying the genes of house flies!

If contemporary science is right, we are parts of the universe in a more profound way than most religious traditions have ever suspected. Furthermore, we play a very special role in the universe: we (as well as other sapient species, if there are any) are the universe becoming conscious of itself – matter coming to the realization of its own existence, both the fact of it and its nature.

The realization of our connectedness with and kinship to everything is a deeply spiritual one. If anything should be valued (and valuing is a non-negotiable part of human experience), then this reflexive awareness that, through our existence, the universe has of its own beauty, power, and complexity, should be. The valuing of this profound fact is as spiritual an experience as I can think of.

Of course, it’s not the same kind of spirituality as many mainstream religions offer. It’s true that it eliminates the notion of a personal God, separate from the universe, with an interest in the fates of each and everyone of us. But the alternative it offers is still profoundly spiritual. As one of your other commentators noted, the idea that our existence is fleeting makes each moment precious and irreplaceable. Each human individual is a unique manifestation of the universe’s growing awareness of itself. I certainly find this thought awesomely spiritual. And psilocybin experiences give individuals the direct experience of such facts. One looks at a tree, and one feels at home with it, part of the same enterprise, in some sense.

This is exactly what science teaches. But psilocybin enables one to experience such facts directly – thus its spiritual value. It is one thing to theoretically appreciate a natural phenomenon – say a supernova – and another to experience it directly through instruments, like telescopes. I think psilocybin is an instrument that enables us to experience directly facts that science has long appreciated theoretically: that we are profoundly at home in this universe, and have a special role in it – that of constituting its growing awareness of itself.

This may be a kind of Spinozistic pantheism enhanced with a Hegelian conceptualization of the human role in it. So it’s not the kind of spirituality preached by most religions. But it is a kind of spirituality consistent with science, that makes clear why the human experience of and connection to nature is of paramount value. It is this spiritual insight that the psilocybin experience can reveal in a uniquely direct way.

But what if the universe being conscious of itself is a workable definition of God? In which case, we are indeed made in the image of God but our consciousness is limited by our humanity, by the “fall”. I find far less conflict between these spiritual experiences and the religions that feel threatened by them than others do.

The Spiritual Power Of Psilocybin, Ctd

It’s an old debate, but this reader makes the point for me:

At the risk of oversimplifying, what things like Psilocybin may bring home experientially, and therefore powerfully, for those that partake is that qualitative states matter.  That the world as we know it is shot through and through by our qualitative experience of it; see Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason” for a deeply rational account of what may come to be realized experientially for those who use psychotropics.

As Kant rightly showed us, there will always be a gulf between the noumena and us, Psilocybe.mexicana and when someone is tripping balls they can easily experience that chasm, commonly resulting in a radically spiritual effect.  Psychotropics allow for this because they allow one to experience how deeply brain states shape reality, that we will never have complete, direct, or as Kant would put it, “pure” access to “things in themselves.”

Another way to speak of spirituality is to speak of the qualitative frameworks we all have. It’s not something we can step out of. That said, any experience that brings to the foreground our qualitative framework, its contingent nature, and its immense implications for our lives and our reality, will inherently be a deeply spiritual affair.

The disenchantment of the world via scientism, is merely another approach to the world via a qualitative framework, it’s a spirituality as well, with all the moral, emotional, and psychological implications that come with it. I would encourage everyone, especially atheists and science-minded members of the audience to try and have more experiences that allow them to better understand the radical contingency of their own qualitative framework, drug-induced or otherwise.  All of a sudden, science, poetry, narrative, life, and yes, maybe even God-talk may become far more interesting.

Indeed they do. Another echoes:

In regard to brain states and experiences of what Hitch calls “The Numinous”, the scientific materialists miss an important point.

All human experiences are mediated by the brain. It’s thus legitimate to point out that if transpersonal experience can be reductively explained as a brain state only, while disregarding the aesthetic, moral, and transformative aspects of such experiences, the same critique could be applied to anything. Enjoy reading Richard Dawkins? That’s the brain. Gazing at the night sky? Brain again. Good sex? “That’s the brain, honey.” Such a person would rightfully get a slap from his/her lover!

Dawkins et al. might claim they only use this criticism to attack empirical or epistemic and supernatural claims of divinity, but people like Rebecca Goldstein even use “it’s all the brain” to debunk mystics who are clearly speaking metaphorically and poetically.

I’m still working on my own response to the fascinating thread. Busy week. Still only one hand.

(Photo: by Cactu/Wiki here)

The Spiritual Power Of Psilocybin, Ctd

Materialists return fire. One writes:

The Shrooms from inside the brain with a voice emanating from a cell phone is completely flawed. Of course a reasonable person would not believe that the voice originates from the cell phone, because a person using a cell phone knows that he or she is talking to another person. We know this by common sense and because we have used cell phones before.

Consider for a moment that we dropped a cell phone down to a tribe of people who have not had contact with the outside world for hundreds of years. One of them picks it up, not knowing what it is, and when it begins ringing, fumbles around with it until he accepts the call. It is possible, if not likely, that this person would think the voice on the phone was indeed originating from the phone. It would be perhaps equally likely that the people of this tribe would believe the voice of the phone was god’s. God is always what we attribute to the unknown.

We might not know how or why psilocybin has the effect on the brain that it does, but that in itself does not mean that something spiritual or supernatural is at work. It only means that we do not yet understand what is happening, just as that tribesman does not understand what a cell phone is.

Another further breaks down the analogy:

It is a universal experience of people who speak on the phone to have also conducted conversations with people in person, where we have heard, seen, touched and smelled them. Very often in fact, we conduct conversations over the phone with the very same people we have spoken to in real life. If any doubt were to ever arise in ones mind as to the true origin of the voice in the phone, a quick real life conversation with the supposed source of that voice would be all that was needed to set ones mind at ease.

We know how cell phones work. Cut down your nearest cell phone tower, or put your phone in a Faraday cage and the voices coming from the phone disappear. Use a radio scanner to see the radio frequencies it receives and emits with the corresponding conversation. Blast enough radiation across the band and the voice drops away.

You will notice that none of these experiments will work with god. You can only ever to talk to god on the phone as it were, no double checking by having a real life conversation with him (and of course, even talking to him on the “phone” is not by any means universal. I have never had the pleasure myself, but even amongst people who have, there seems to be quite a debate about what his telephone number is and what he likes to talk about). There are no prayer waves, and thus no prayer Faraday cages or cutting down the prayer cell tower. If you cut down the cell phone tower, no amount of faith or belief will make your, or anyone else’s phone work.

Another steps back:

This is ridiculous.  Look, scientific theories are abstract models of the universe.  Models explain data.  We can compare two different models by evaluating how well they explain the data – our observations about the universe.  There are models that include a god or gods that have omniscient powers and are undetectable in the physical world.  The problem is that none of these models explain the data any better than models that do not include gods.  That’s Occam’s razor.

The materialist view does not require us to dismiss any model, including one that includes undetectable gods.  We dismiss it because it has unnecessary complications.  But if we suddenly have some observation such that that model becomes the best fit to ALL the data, then we bring it back into play.  That observation might be, say, somebody rising from the dead (in such a way that there is no other possible explanation that fits with any other model).  There is nothing “mad” about this.  It is in fact completely logical.  Most of us happen to think that something that would bring that model back into play is extremely unlikely, so there is no point in working with it until something like that does happen, and whatever that is is indisputably support for that model (rather than being explainable by people lying or some trickery).

Another:

This thread has clarified for me the essence of the materialist/spiritual divide. Spiritual folk believe that faith that makes them happy is self-validating. It MUST be true. How could it feel so right and powerful if it were untrue?  This seductive thought is absolutely refuted by the complete lack of reproducibilty across individuals, religions, cultures, and time. It is clearly a highly error-prone way to think, if not error-guaranteed.

Another:

There’s a distinct problem with your reader’s comparison of the religious or sacred sense to other perceptions: it presumes that the sacred sense is a perception, and not a reaction. For instance, say I enjoy the taste of Chinese food (and oh, I do). Do we then say that the Chinese food objectively contains my enjoyment, and that my enjoyment reaction in my brain is merely a perception of that objective enjoyment? No. Enjoyment is merely my subjective response to a stimulus. Someone who hates Chinese food would not derive that same enjoyment from the same stimuli. It’s certainly clear that not everyone receives the same dose of sacred sense from the same stimuli – I get much more of it from nature, while a friend finds it in a loud, raucous, speaking-in-tongues Born Again church that I frankly find intimidating and alien.

Finally, your reader presumes that a materialist viewpoint is inherently inferior – that it does not lead to the same happiness and love that “living from the point of view of conscious being” does. My partner and I have shared love for nine years, and I am extremely happy. Materialism is why I am happy. Everything that I am will die out when I stop breathing – this knowledge makes each moment precious, because I have no hope of eternity to remove the importance from the moment. It forces me to consider each moment deeply, to derive what I can from it. It makes me treasure everything I have, because I am aware that it is fleeting and unique – that this moment will never repeat again, because I do not have infinity to wait for it to recur. If I had infinity, then wasting my life would mean nothing, because it is only an imperceptibly tiny fraction of the time I am allotted.

The discussion thread thus far – in chronological order – here, here, here and here. Fear not. I will return to this debate soon.

(Photo of Psilocybe Cubensis by Flickr user afgooey74)

The Spiritual Power Of Psilocybin, Ctd

Andrew Sabl adds his voice to these dissents:

Give mushrooms to a bunch of hippies and they’ll gain a new appreciation for yoga; give them to a heterodox Catholic and he’ll ponder the Incarnation. Give them to me and I might start to (wrongly) believe that I can understand complex mathematical proofs or conceive (wrongly) that I remember my once-adequate ancient Greek—which once gave me the very fulfilling experience of being able to read easy bits of Plato without a dictionary. But in none of these cases is there any reason to think that the drug-takers have come to know anything that’s actually true. And I would have thought that this would be relevant.

Drum introduces romance into the debate. I'm working on a follow-up post.