A Moment of Science

Magic Mushrooms

Can these "magic" shrooms tell us more about our brain chemistry?

Magic Mushrooms

Photo: Roger Butterfield

Psilocybin is a powerful, and, we hasten to add, illegal chemical substance that can be derived from certain mushrooms.

Have you hear of psilocybin?

Psilocybin is a powerful, and, we hasten to add, illegal chemical substance that can be derived from certain mushrooms. It produces powerful hallucinations and, according to people who have taken it, even mystical experiences.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins have run the first serious controlled study of psilocybin since the psychedelic sixties, and they were amazed with the results. Volunteers who took the drug reported having profound spiritual experiences, which many of them rated as among the most significant events of their lives. They compared their experience to the birth of a child or losing a parent. Even weeks later they were found to have behavioral changes, too: they were more compassionate, optimistic, more patient.

What is going on?

Researchers don’t yet know. It may be that psilocybin triggers centers in our brains that are prewired for religious experience, though the full answer is probably more complicated than that. Whatever it is, understanding how these mushrooms work their magic may tell us a lot about the brain itself.

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