By Berit Brogaard and Kristian Marlow
Whether "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" was a product of the Beatles' experimentation with psychedelic drugs is still a subject of great debate among Beatles fans and music experts. But it was no secret that the lyrics of many of the pop legend's famous tracks was inspired by LSD, including "I am a Walrus," "Tomorrow Never Knows," and "What's The Real Mary Jane." The Beatles' creating during a hallucinogenic trip is not a rare case of acid-driven creation, invention or discovery. The double helix structure of DNA occurred to geneticist and neuroscientist Francis Crick while he was tripping on the Lucy drug and low-level tech Kari Mullis hit on the idea behind Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), a now widely-used technique for amplifying a single piece of DNA by a factor of 100 billion, while cruising along the Pacific Coast Highway one night in his car on LSD.
Psychedelic drugs not only have immediate drastic effects on consciousness and cognition. Flying off with Lucy in the sky may also be able to alter mood and personality many months after exposure, according to longitudinal studies completed at Johns Hopkins Hospital. Hopkins neuroscientist Katherine MacLean and her colleagues at the Behavioral Biology Research Center at Johns HopkinsUniversity School of Medicine have conducted clinical trials on the effects of the psychedelic ingredient in magic mushrooms, or shrooms, for the past ten years.
The first trials at Hopkins indicated that the fungi ingredient, chemically known as psilocybin, can make you more open-minded to new ideas and creative activities. It may even relieve bothersome symptoms of depression. “In the trials healthy volunteers who had no prior experience with the drug were exposed to a heavy dose of psilocybin once. After 14 months they still felt the after-effects of their trip,” MacLean told us in an interview. The after-effects the research participants reported included feeling more patient, optimistic, inquisitive and being better able to engage with friends and family after their psychedelic experience, and the effects were still there more than a year later.
The researchers didn't look at their subjects beyond 14 months but occasionally research participants would remain in contact with the researchers, and they reported continued positive changes in their lives. Some volunteers became interested in spiritual practices like meditation or artistic forms of expression after their exposure to the magic drug. One woman reported that she had begun writing poetry after her one-time encounter with the drug. “I don’t know why I am doing this, it just feels right,” she said. The way psilocybin made her feel could only be captured artistically. All the volunteers in the studies at Hopkins seemed authentically connected to their deepest aspirations and purpose. That connection apparently helped them engage in those special abilities that otherwise get covered up by daily hassles and responsibilities.
How can the banned hallucinogenic drug have these remarkable effects on the brain for years to come? MacLean explains that psilocybin acts on the feel-good brain chemical serotonin. It mimics the actions of serotonin itself by binding to the same receptor sites in the brain. Raising the brain's levels of serotonin could explain the improved mood in the research participants. But MacLean doesn't think this is what explains all of the actions of the drug. She believes the psychedelic drug can affect the brain's levels of glutamate, the main excitatory neurotransmitter. Affecting the glutamate system drastically would give rise to an excitement of the whole nervous system and would explain why psilocybin is likely to cause anxiety in people and mimic aspects of psychosis during intoxication. Psilocybin could work through a combined response with some effects happening through the serotonin system and then later effects that are glutamate driven. So several pieces of evidence suggest that if you give someone with major depression a really strong serotonin agonist, like psilocybin, that that could jumpstart the underlying brain structure, without having to wait months for standard antidepressants to cause serotonin levels to build up and the receptors to change in density and then for the glutamate to change.
MacLean reminds us that the theories about the mechanism underlying the effects of psilocybin are mostly theoretical in nature. The long-lasting changes in mood and personality caused by a one-time exposure to psilocybin may not be directly related to serotonin or glutamate. They could be related instead to people’s spiritual experiences. The profoundly spiritual experiences that people have during their sessions apparently make a lasting impression on them, making them see the world differently and wanting to seek out new experiences. Near-death experience can have analogous spiritual effects, which people sometimes take to be absolute, verifiable evidence of the existence of an afterlife and a loving creator. “It’s interesting to me that the brain seems to be, for whatever reason, set up to occasion these experiences biologically,” says MacLean.
LSD is a much "dirtier drug" than psilocybin. Psilocybin acts specifically on serotonin receptors in the brain and perhaps also on glutamate receptors. LSD acts on all kinds of receptors in a much wilder fashion. Because of this difference, people exposed to psilocybin don’t lose a sense of being the agents of their illusions and hallucinations. They don’t enter a fully psychotic state with head voices and paranoia, as can be the case with LSD. People exposed to psilocybin sometimes report a liberating loss of time and space and personal identity through space and time. “It’s usually not a loss of the physical body,” says MacLean, “it’s the loss of the sense of ‘I am Katherine, sitting at my desk in this year 2012 and I had a childhood and then I went to college and then I moved across the country a couple of times and in the future I would like to do these things.’ That whole narrative is lost. You are an observer experiencing something but you are not a human being who has a certain identity. You are pure agency capable of experiencing the true nature of the universe.”
Mullis, K. (1998). Dancing Naked in the Mind Field. New York: Pantheon Books.
MacLean, K. A., Johnson, M. W., & Griffiths, R. R. (2011). Mystical Experiences Occasioned by the Hallucinogen Psilocybin Lead to Increases in the Personality Domain of Openness. Journal of Psychopharmacology. doi: 10.1177/0269881111420188