Mind Your Body: The Shroom Shift

Using psychedelic drugs even once can spark long-lasting changes.

By Emily Laber-Warren, published May 7, 2013 - last reviewed on June 18, 2018

If not for Steve Jobs, we wouldn’t have iPhones or iPads. But if not for psychedelic drugs, those inventions might never have existed. According to a biography published soon after the Apple founder’s death, Jobs called his LSD experiences profound and creativity-enhancing and ranked them among the most important of his life.

While plenty of less prominent people have claimed that psychedelics changed their lives, such accounts are subjective and impossible to verify. Now rigorously designed experiments confirm that while recreational use can be dangerous (see “Don’t Try This at Home” below), hallucinogens can actually change people for the better—often permanently. A study led by Johns Hopkins psychologist Roland Griffiths found that more than a year after receiving a single dose of psilocybin (the active ingredient in “magic” mushrooms), nearly two-thirds of 36 volunteers said the experience continued to increase their sense of well-being or life satisfaction. In a subsequent study published in 2011, more than half the participants scored significantly higher on openness after taking psilocybin—a personality change that had barely diminished 14 months later.

What’s remarkable about the recent psilocybin experiments is not just their dramatic effects but the time frame. Personality shifts tend to be slow and gradual in adulthood, barring a sudden trauma, says University of Oregon psychologist Sanjay Srivastava. Over the course of years or decades, events like marriage or parenthood can cause subtle alterations.

But psychedelics can induce a positive personality shift in a single day—insta-change. “There’s never been a relatively discrete laboratory intervention that’s been shown under experimentally controlled conditions to change a personality dimension,” says psychologist Matthew Johnson of Johns Hopkins, an author of the 2011 study. “That’s pretty dramatic.”

The new research mirrors the experiences of people like Alex Liu, 29, a freelance video producer in San Francisco who credits hallucinogens with altering his life trajectory. While in high school, Liu struggled with suicidal thoughts as he tried to come to terms with being gay. Then during spring break of his sophomore year at Berkeley, he took psychedelic mushrooms in a redwood forest.

“I’d been so focused on mundane details about what it means to be gay and how my life was endless suffering,” he recalls. “But being around trees that I knew were a thousand years old, I remember very clearly thinking: I’m a speck of dust in this huge ebb and flow of nature.” The experience didn’t dispel Liu’s frustration and sadness, but it convinced him to accept his emotions and stop numbing them. “That’s what led me to finally coming to terms with being gay.”

Watching one’s personal concerns recede in the face of a larger reality—as Liu did—is a key feature of many hallucinogenic experiences, says Johnson. “Sometimes people call it ego loss,” he explains. “All these things that you think define you —‘I’m male, I’m 38, I’m American, I’m a scientist’—with hallucinogens you find there is something that is you that has nothing to do with any of that and is far, far more important.”

Most drugs work only while you’re taking them. Psychedelics clear the body within hours, but the effects can last a lifetime. The biology is largely unknown, but a study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provides clues. Neuroscientist David Nutt of Imperial College London and colleagues delivered first a placebo and then psilocybin to 15 people as they lay in an MRI scanner. Under the influence of psilocybin, normal activity decreased in various brain circuits, including an area thought to sustain a sense of self. “People who get into depressive thinking, their brains are overconnected,” Nutt says. Regret and self-criticism create repetitive background chatter. “We think the dampening down of that circuit allows people to escape from being chained to that thinking process.” This quieting, he suggests, may be a tonic for depression, and in fact psilocybin mimics serotonin, the brain chemical targeted by many antidepressant drugs. The biologically soothing effects of psilocybin likely last just weeks or months; however, from these experiences people may learn a new way of thinking.

Hallucinogens may have value not just for depression but for people who experience other kinds of angst. The drugs show promise in preliminary studies for treating various addictions. And two studies under way, at Hopkins and NYU, suggest that psilocybin may help cancer patients trade dread for inner peace and even joy. One participant in the NYU study, a 53-year-old man with metastatic cancer who was despondent about the loss of a future with his beloved wife, experienced tremendous feelings of love and connection during his monitored psilocybin session. He later called it the second most important thing that had ever happened to him, after his marriage. From then until his death 18 months later, he took deep pleasure in daily life, viewed his future with tranquility and continued to report, “This is the best I’ve felt in years.”

“It recalibrates how people experience consciousness. They come back and say ‘I’m going to be more in the moment,’ that they are not solely defined by their cancer,” says psychologist Anthony Bossis, a lead investigator of the NYU cancer study. “People are telling us stories that I find stunning—that they’d have this kind of shift in one day, and that it would last.”

Don’t Try This at Home

Enthusiastic as they are about the medical potential of hallucinogens, researchers warn of dangers and take precautions. They exclude anyone with a family history of psychosis (to eliminate the remote but real possibility that the experience could tip someone into a prolonged delusional state). They provide chaperones to prevent accidents. And they dose precisely to limit episodes of extreme anxiety—something recreational users cannot do because the strength of two identical portions of mushrooms can vary by a factor of 10.

Think of heroin versus morphine, suggests Johns Hopkins psychologist Matthew Johnson. One, obtained illegally, is associated with fatal overdoses; the other is used safely and routinely in hospitals. “Pharmacologically they are virtually identical,” he says. Context is everything.

Instead of DIY efforts, Johnson and others envision clinics where people would go for carefully supervised hallucinogen treatments. “If there is a clinical future for this stuff, it’s going to be in centers that conduct sessions much the way we do in our research trials,” Johnson says. “It’s never going to be, ‘Take two of these and call me in the morning.’”