Psychedelics Open the Mind
Psilocybin boosts Openness to Experience
Posted Oct 10, 2011
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.
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.
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.
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
Acknowledgement: Thanks to Melanie Beaussart for bringing this research study to my attention.