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How Magic Mushrooms Work

A new pair of studies claim that magic mushrooms don't actually expand the mind—in a sense, they contract it.

Psilocybin, the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms, has a "long history of use in healing ceremonies," but it has yet to achieve the legitimacy afforded regulated pharmaceutical drugs. A growing body of shroom research may change that. One recent study found that when volunteers took psilocybin—and were subjected to a soundtrack of "world music"—the subjects reported "improved relationships with family and others, increased physical and psychological self-care, and increased devotion to spiritual practice"—typical mind-expansion stuff. Now, a new pair of studies claim that magic mushrooms don't actually expand the mind—in a sense, they contract it.


In one study, researchers took a set of 15 "healthy, hallucinogen-experienced" volunteers, gave them psilocybin, then watched their brains. The researchers recorded that the drug's typical "profound changes in consciousness" correlated to "decreases in cerebral blood flow," particularly in areas of the brain that are usually highly active. Scientists believe that those brain regions are responsible for "high-level constructs" like the self and the ego; deactivating them may result in "a state of unconstrained cognition."

The result? Strange trips. Volunteers reported seeing "geometric patterns," feeling "unusual bodily sensations," sensing that sounds were impacting what they saw, and experiencing an "extremely vivid" imagination. But researchers believe the process could also have a more traditional therapeutic effect. Psilocybin helps deactivate an area of the brain associated with the "pathological brooding" of depression; reducing connectivity in these parts of the brain may actually help alleviate depression's "rigidly pessimistic" way of thinking. No world music necessary.

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via Barry Schapiro / Twitter

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