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.