Psychedelic research is having a renaissance, and psilocybin is one of the main substances studied. One reason that psilocybin has taken center stage is that LSD has not yet recovered from the bad press it received in the 60s. New companies are popping up every month as they anticipate psilocybin therapy’s rollout over the coming years, for everything from depression to palliative care. What is psilocybin all about? Why is the psilocybin experience so special, and why does it hold such power for healing?
What Is Psilocybin?
Psilocybin is the psychoactive compound found in magic mushrooms. It is a molecule that resembles serotonin and thereby affects this brain pathway, producing dramatic alterations in consciousness that typically last from 4 to 6 hours. It was first identified and synthesized by Albert Hoffman, the same Swiss chemist who discovered LSD. Before this particular chemical was extracted, however, the mushrooms themselves were used by humans across the world for millennia.
Around 5000 BC, the Tassili n’Ajjer plateau inhabitants in modern-day Algeria were painting on the wall of a cave. One of these paintings was of a person with a bee’s face, grasping mushrooms in each hand. This figure was interpreted as a shaman or medicine person holding psilocybin mushrooms. Around 4000 BC, artists painted a mushroom mural on a cave wall in what is now Spain. By around 1500 BC, people in Guatemala had begun carving sculptures of mushrooms in stone. Similar stones were being made in Mexico by 1000 BC. Perhaps it should not be surprising that this mushroom’s mind-altering effects were identified and embraced by human cultures across time and space. However, these artifacts provide evidence that psilocybin mushrooms’ consumption is a characteristic trait of our species.
As colonizing empires came to dominate the world, the empowering practices of using natural medicines like psilocybin mushrooms were suppressed. The Roman empire declared such pagan practices immoral and outlawed them in Europe, and the colonizers of the Americas would do the same with the indigenous practices there. The use of these mushrooms in one culture, in particular, managed to survive throughout all of this. Nestled in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico, the Mazatec people have continued to use the mushroom in its traditional context, right up to the present day.
Traditional Mushroom Ceremonies
A Mazatec mushroom ceremony typically takes place at night. The participants eat fresh mushrooms with honey and cocoa beans. They might start with the equivalent of approximately 2.5-3 dried grams (25 to 30 grams of fresh mushrooms, as they are 90% water) followed by a second plate of the equivalent of 2 dried grams (20 grams fresh). The ceremony takes place in the dark with the curandera or curandero, the medicine person, who sings and speaks prayers so that their voice holds the space. In this respect, it is similar to a Shipibo ayahuasca ceremony. After, there is an emphasis on integrating the experience by focusing on the emotions felt and sharing experiences.
Psilocybin Comes to the West
One curandera in particular, María Sabina, was responsible for introducing the west to the mushrooms. She referred to the mushrooms as “Los niños santos” or “the holy children” and used them in healing ceremonies. Ethnomycologist R. Gordon Wasson visited María Sabina in 1955 and was allowed to take part in a ceremony. He took the mushroom’s spores with him to Europe and cultivated them, and the active compound, psilocybin, identified. Unfortunately, this exposure led to a disruptive tourist trail forming to the town of Huautla de Jiménez, where María Sabina lived. She later commented, “Before Wasson, nobody took the children simply to find God. They were always taken to cure the sick.”
The Western engagement with psychedelics in the 60s placed a large emphasis on the rediscovery of direct religious experience. These humble mushrooms proved capable of stripping back layers of delusion in one’s consciousness to reveal a vision of a sacred, spiritual reality underneath. For a generation of Westerners for whom religion was associated mainly with dogma and institutionalized control, and therefore were starved of spiritual nourishment, these substances came as a powerful remedy. Many would undergo powerful healing experiences, but the traditional healing context in which these mushrooms had been used was comparatively neglected in favor of emphasizing spirituality.
The Mystical Experience
A mystical experience, in which the psychological ego dissolves and is replaced with a blissful feeling of connection with the rest of reality, is a common feature of psilocybin experiences at around four dried grams and higher. As distortions in one’s perception get more and more intense, eventually, the perceived boundaries allowing a person to keep track of where their body ends and the world begins breaks down. What is left is an experience of the fact that consciousness exists before the sense of self. People may feel as though they are experiencing a field of awareness with psychedelic patterns constantly changing within it but with no center or sense of identity.
This experience can lead to profound insights into what exists underneath the sense of self and the mechanisms of suffering. With the sense of self gone, there is no more suffering and no-one to suffer. These ideas are in Buddhism’s core teachings, and such an experience can precipitate an interest in exploring these truths through meditation.
The Psychedelic Renaissance
In 2006, pioneering researchers Bill Richards, Bob Jesse, and Roland Griffiths published a scientific study showing that psilocybin can produce mystical experiences in healthy individuals. In these studies, the equivalent amount of psilocybin found in approximately 4 grams of dried mushrooms is given in its pure chemical form. Participants lay on a comfortable couch with a blanket and typically with two guides in the room. The participants wear eyeshades and headphones to listen to a pre-prepared playlist. The author’s playlist can be found here. The safety and security of such a setting, combined with the eyeshades and music’s internal focus, allows people to surrender to the psilocybin experience and let go, even of their sense of identity, resulting in the occurrence of a mystical experience.
Treating Mental Health Issues
Research attention quickly turned to what this could be used for, and in the following decade and a half, psilocybin-occasioned mystical experiences have shown promise in treating mental health such as anxiety, addiction, depression, and much more. However, the curandera’s ways, where the mushrooms’ visionary experiences would be used for psychological healing, have received less attention as a powerful way to use these mushrooms. Psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy is now studied under clinical trials to treat depression, which may be the closest equivalent in the western medical model.
A Catalyst for Psychological Healing and Growth
While the medical model struggles with the complexity of holistic healing approaches, the use of mushrooms in this context has not been lost. For the last several decades, French guide and counselor Françoise Bourzat has been studying with curandera Julieta Casimiro Estrada in the Mazatec tradition. In 2019, she published her accumulated wisdom in the book Consciousness Medicine. Many others have independently discovered the healing potential of these mushrooms in their experiments with them.
At standard full doses, between 1 and 3 grams of dried mushroom, the experience can unveil unconscious psychological patterns, produce insight into how we live our lives, and allow us to release and process past traumas. These experiences are more likely if one prepares to turn inward towards psychological material, by wearing an eye mask, listening to pre-prepared music, and setting an intention. It is common to see colorful geometric visions in the early stages, often with a distinctly mesoamerican character. As the experience progresses, associations between memories may begin to unfold, leading deeper into the mind and toward whatever unconscious thoughts are present.
Of course, not everyone takes mushrooms for healing or spiritual experiences. Many take them recreationally, to have a good time. By interacting in the world with one’s eyes open, the chance of confronting inner psychological material may reduce. If one is out in nature, natural forms may seem captivating and more alive than usual. Being close to nature may positively impact mood, and one may begin to feel more aware of the natural form, of the sensations in the body. Recreational experiences are often motivated by the mood-elevating effects of mushrooms. However, aiming only to experience positive moods opens one up to struggling with any challenging psychological material that may surface, producing a “bad trip” if one fails to surrender to and learn from the material coming up. Knowing how to keep calm and move towards any difficult material is crucial in any such experience.
People report that microdosing, the practice of taking small doses of psilocybin mushrooms, can help with depression, focus, and creativity. It can also increase one’s psychological ability, facilitating psychotherapeutic work. Microdosers typically take one-tenth of a full dose, 0.1-0.2g, once every three days with a two day break in between, or for five days in a row with a two-day break to prevent the brain from adapting the effects. Microdosers may experience elevated mood, focus, creativity, and energy without the perceptual distortions associated with full doses of a psychedelic.
The Heroic Dose
The ethnobotanist and psychedelic pioneer Terence McKenna advocated for a specific approach when engaging with the mushroom. He found that taking a “heroic dose” of five dried grams in silent darkness would precipitate a confrontation with seemingly alien presences. For creatures such as ourselves that evolved as prey for larger predators, silence and darkness might push our brains into a threat-detection mode, making experiences of entities distinct from ourselves more likely. Think of how trees can look like people when walking through a wood at night. In such a situation, we err on being too cautious and perceiving the worst until we are sure we are safe.
A smaller dose, around four grams, is used in scientific studies to encounter mystical experiences. In such a situation, the participant feels safe and cared for by a guide, and they listen to reassuring music. The safety of the situation seems to allow them to surrender to an experience of unity. In contrast to the strange experience of beings perceived to be very much distinct from ourselves, the difference between self and other collapses.
In 2020, the psychedelic community lost a respected pioneer to COVID-19, Kilindi Iyi. Iyi was known for pushing the boundaries of psychological exploration with the use of psilocybin. While many psychonauts may never venture near a heroic dose of five dried grams, and the prospect of 7-10 grams terrifies many veteran psychedelic explorers, Iyi experimented with doses of 40-50 grams. He reported experiences that bore similarities to experiences had on high doses of DMT, a chemical compound related to psilocybin. Rather than producing a whiteout or more complex geometric visions, these doses produced highly structured interactive experiences that can feel like visiting other worlds, rich in symbolic content, in Iyi’s case of ancient Egypt or “Khamet” in particular.
What Is Psilocybin All About?
Depending on the approach and dose taken, psilocybin has an incredible range of experiences to offer. From mood-elevating microdoses, to mystical union with the universe; from healing trauma to strange visionary encounters of other worlds – it can all be found with the psilocybin experience.