Magazine article Psychology Today

The 'Shroom Shift

Magazine article Psychology Today

The 'Shroom Shift

Article excerpt


Using psychedelic drugs even once can spark long-lasting changes. By Emily Laber-Warren

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" on page 37), 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. Ina subsequent study published in 2011, more than half the participants scored significantly higher on openness after taking psilocybin- a personality change that hadbarely 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- instachange. "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 die 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 but it convinced him to accept his emotions and stop numbing diem. "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 defineyou -'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 takingthem. Psychedelics clear the body withinhours, buttile effects can last a lifetime. The biology is largely unknown, but a study published lastyear in theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences provides clues. …

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