Beautiful Minds

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Psychedelics Open the Mind

Psilocybin boosts Openness to Experience

I always thought there was something psychedelic about Apple products.

In an interview with New York Times reporter John Markoff, Steve Jobs noted that "doing LSD was one of the two or three most important things I have done in my life." He even remarked that Bill Gates would "be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once"!

Recent research suggests that Jobs' trips in the 70's may have indeed opened up his mind.

Katharine MacLean and her colleagues at John Hopkins Medical School administered a high-dose of psilocybin (the active ingredient of 'magic mushrooms') to 52 people, aged 46 on average, who were not well acquainted with hallucinogens but were curious about their effects. The participants completed two to five 8-hour sessions separated by at least three weeks. During the sessions, they either took psilocybin or a non-hallucinogenic drug, lied down on a couch, put on an eye mask, and listened to music on headphones. They were instructed to focus on their inner experience. To minimize psychological damage, all participants received extensive initial screening (to make sure they didn't have any prior mental disorders) and received extensive support and guidance before, during, and after the sessions. All participants were followed up more than a year after the last session involving psilocybin.

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Participants showed a significant increase in Openness to Experience after taking the psilocybin, but showed no differences in Neuroticism, Extraversion, Agreeableness, or Conscentiousness. The dimensions of Openness that increased were openness to fantasy, aesthetics, feelings, and ideas. Openness to Values didn't budge as much as the others.

30 participants had a "complete mystical experience", which consisted of scoring above 60% on the dimensions of unity, transcendence of time and space, ineffability and paradoxicality, sacredness, noetic quality, and positive mood (I'm not sure I even know what all that means, but I'm sure I would if I took such a high dosage of psilocybin!). For these participants, Openness to Experience remained significantly higher than their baseline score more than 1 year after the sessions were over. The 22 patients who did not have a complete mystical experience showed no change over the long haul. Interestingly, mystical experiences were not related to initial levels of Openness.

These results are rather striking, as the changes found in personality are larger than what is typically observed in healthy adults over decades. In fact, Openness usually decreases as one ages instead of showing such a dramatic increase. This is the first experiment to demonstrate such large changes in personality in healthy adults. Psilocybin had more of an effect than solitary meditation over 3 months and the use of antidepressant medications.

The point of this post is not to promote the use of hallucinogens. The use of psychadelic drugs can be very dangerous, and can lead to extreme anxiety and panic. All of the participants in this study received support. Nonetheless, the study is important in terms of our understanding of personality and the potential for change. Openness to Experience is an important dimension of our personalities, and is strongly associated with the experience of flow, absorption, and artistic creativity, as well as a breakdown of mental boundaries. Understanding the biological and psychological mechanisms by which psilocybin is exerting its effects is important, as we may be able to simulate the effects using other methods of relaxation and transcendence.

While psilocybin may be dangerous to use, its potential effects can have far reaching consequences. Recent reviews suggest that hallucinogens could have positive effects on clinical disorders such as anxiety and mood disorders. Qualitative research has documented sudden and dramatic positive changes in attitudes, values, and behaviors following spontaneous mystical or spiritual experiences. Such experiences have also facilitated recovery from addiction and has been shown to help coping with cancer.

It will be important to replicate this finding with other groups of participants. The present study included unpaid community volunteers who were  curious about the effects of psilocybin. Nearly all of the participants regularly engaged in spiritual activities such as religious services, prayer, and meditation. It will be interesting to see if mystical experiences and changes in personality occur so dramatically among those who are more skeptical of psilocybin's effects.

At any rate, this study is important, as it suggests that even though personality is heritable and tends to remain relatively stable across the lifespan, there is still great potential for opening up one's mind.

© 2011 by Scott Barry Kaufman

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Acknowledgement: Thanks to Melanie Beaussart for bringing this research study to my attention.

Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

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