How Magic Mushrooms Really ‘Expand the Mind’

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By Rachael Rettner

Your brain on psychedelic drugs looks similar to your brain when you’re dreaming, suggests a new study that may also explain why people on psychedelics feel they are expanding their mind.

In the study, the researchers scanned the brains of 15 people before and after they received an injection of psilocybin, the hallucinogen found in magic mushrooms.

Under psilocybin, the activity of primitive brain areas thought to be involved in emotion and memory — including the hippocampus and the anterior cingulate cortex — become more synchronized, suggesting these areas were working together, the researchers said.

This pattern of brain activity is similar to that seen in people who are dreaming, the researchers said.

28 COMMENTS

    • I shouldn’t judge without going to read the whole article. But I will anyway. I always find these kinds of studies unconvincing.

      “This pattern of brain activity is similar to that seen in people who are dreaming, the researchers said.”

      To me that’s like looking at a computer when it calculates a complex mathematical program and then looking at it while it runs a video and seeing that the same parts of the computer (more or less) are used and concluding that for a computer processing a video is the same as a fourier transform.

      That’s not a perfect analogy because a computer probably is a not more general purpose than the brain but my point is just looking at a high level at the kind of centers that light up in an fMRI for example is interesting and good data but by itself without a richer theory of the mind brain than we are anywhere near to right now it’s wrong to make much out of data like this and to jump to concluding X and Y have a lot of cognitive similarity just because at a very high level physical analysis (the only kind we can do now on a living brain with current technology) they look similar.

      • The author has written “suggests” and “may”.

        Read the full article though, it’s more in depth and the findings are fairly convincing but not conclusive.

        “These are preliminary results, and a lot more research is required before claims can be made about the therapeutic value of psychedelics,” Carhart-Harris said. “However, the initial signs are promising.”

  1. One of our daughters graduated from London Imperial College with a 2/1 in Biochemistry, and is now working as a research assistant in the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, a department within the Oxford University Medical Science Division.

    Just thought I’d mention that in passing.

  2. I must be very uncool indeed. I’ve never wanted to experience the effects of hallucinogenic substances. It’s not a feeling I enjoy. Nor do I like the feeling of being ‘out of control’ one gets from alcohol. I enjoy the mild effects of being relaxed and talkative but when I feel that I’m acting differently, it’s time to stop.

    Apparently Sam Harris would think that I’m missing out on one of life’s important experiences. I heard a recent account of this message as it applied to his own daughter(s). These substances do not result in damage to neurons it would seem, unlike the damage caused by alcohol.

    So…I’m not being judgmental! For the risk takers out there I say go for it, but I prefer not.

    • I’ve never had these drugs (though I did experiment with party drugs when I was 19-20) for fear of long lasting effects and the opportunity never really presented itself. I’ve always been curious to try after hearing others talk of their experiences however if this study proves to be true then it’s really just a sham, isn’t it? Users always talk about it unlocking their mind and allowing them to experience higher brain function but according to this study it’s quite the opposite… Guess I was right to be sceptical on mind altering drugs being a “window to a higher plane of existence” ;) Would still be an interesting experience no doubt.

      • Hi Trevor,

        how do you come to conclude based on this study, experiences people had are just a sham?

        It’s just a few lines of text in this article. One line stating that different parts of the brain work more coherent. The second line stating this coherent activity is also seen when a person is dreaming.

        Our brain filters reality so it’s comprehensible. In a way, your experience of reality is simplified. If you never experienced another way, than what you see seems to be the absolute truth. The truth is that the way you experience reality is ‘nothing more’ than a way which has been best for our survival as a monkey-like species. It is amazing how your brain chops up everything in your field of visual into the objects that are there and just gives you this feeling of: keyboard, mouse, door. It searches for patterns. It is an apparatus. You don’t really notice. A person’s focussed attention in waking consciousness is usually very narrow.

        If brain activity is more coherent, maybe somewhat resembling the dreaming state of sleep, but you are still wide awake, alert and active, than this is a fourth state of consciousness. This has been studied a lot on the subject of meditation. Transcendental Meditation focuses much on scientific study instead of personal experience. But besides that there’s a lot of study and a lot of literature to get into. I think you’re making very fast conclusions and.. well I interpret that you mean to say these ‘experiences’ are just a dream, and not real. But that’s not what this article is saying at all.

    • I’m not proud of it but I have more than a little hands on experience in this area. First of all the idea that magic mushrooms are harmless or even less harmful than alcohol is nonsense. All these things depend on the individual, the amount, the purity, the context, etc. For one thing mushrooms are a killer to digest. I took too many once and had one of the worst experiences in my life and never did mushrooms again after that.

      I think it’s possible to get some insight (for some people) via psychadelic drugs. But you get to a point, at least a lot of people do I know it’s not just me I’ve read about and talked to others who say similar things, where you realized you’ve experienced it and that’s it and more tripping is pointless and even kind of boring. It’s one of the things I find interesting, I’ve never known anyone who gave up alcohol easily or without good health reasons but I gave up psychadelics that way and as I said I know others have as well.

      So in that sense I agree, in general much less chance for addiction with shrooms or acid but I’ve heard of people who essentially were hooked on them, did them every day for years and as you can guess it took it’s toll.

      Not to mention if you are predisposed to schizophrenia or other types of mental illness even one trip can precipitate a serious psychotic episode. Those kinds of dangers have been greatly exaggerated as part of the “drug war” but they do happen.

      As for the daughter thing, are you saying Harris is encouraging his daughter to do psychadelics? Then again he believes having a gun in his home makes his family safer so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised if Yosemite Sam thinks his kids should be tripping while they defend their home from the bad guys with their shootin’ irons.

      • . I’m not proud of it but I have more than a little hands on experience in this area.

        I knew it! Ha ha ha! I could tell that you would have ‘dabbled’ as opposed to my ultra cautious self! I always joke that I’ve never even been offered marijuana. How uncool is that! I have felt sort of trippy on a couple of occasions when I’ve had a very high temperature and I found it extremely unpleasant. It’s not an experience I’d be keen to repeat.

        The Sam Harris that I grew to know and love from the Four Horsemen videos is not the one I’m seeing today. I was terribly disappointed with his stance on gun control and went so far as to write a letter expressing my disappointment via his contact button. I was really thrilled when he personally answered my email, though was disappointed once again that he didn’t address the points I’d brought up.

        @Trevor. If the long term effects were proven to be harmless beyond doubt, would you experiment?

        • Hi Nitya,

          it’s funny because I read that same article and I really admired Sam Harris for posting that. Lets just look at that for a moment without opposing opinions. One article, one Sam Harris, one in admiration, one disappointed. Sam Harris probably gets email’s from both extremes. It must be a very odd but amazing position.

          There’s a lot of focus as drugs being a bad thing. I notice when I watch Dr. Phil and it’s brought up so often. But these people (ab)using drugs have suffered much, or are suffering so much; it’s unimaginable. All they want is to-get-out, maybe just an inch away from suicide. And everything that’s different is fine. Now, for a sane human being whose life situation is stable and well, to experience this and reflect upon it, and not speak about it because of fear of others opinions, that to me, would be very disappointing.

          I’ve experienced drugs and unlike Red Dog I’m just fine with it, and am rather thankful that I have. It gave me a lot of insights and understanding. It made me more humble in a way. It is one thing to understand something intellectually, it’s quite another to experience it first handed. How do you share an experience of increased sense of depth, having a wider sense of focus, or viewing something in full-detail? And that’s just one, easier to communicate about, aspect: the visual. While there’s a whole inner world to discover. Of course if you don’t want to experience psychedelic drugs, than you mustn’t do it. But if you take on an opposition to drugs, based on some personal feeling against it.. I don’t know, It might have it’s roots somewhere.. it’s really difficult. Because you might feel: I don’t have to murder someone in order to know I am against murdering. But with drugs – I do come across some very open minded people who haven’t tried any, aren’t planning to do so, but are interested in the discussion and don’t oppose drugs. They are scarce.

          Usually people in bad life circumstances use drugs to get out of what they continually feel. While people in good life circumstances, are either or so focussed on their job that they are too busy to stray away for just an inch, or are just content, and don’t see why they would.

          • Hi Tom.

            Sorry if I misjudged your comment by lumping it in with that of Jack. It was thoughtful and you have benefitted from the experimentation, by the sound of it.

            I imagine the sensations produced by hallucinogens would be similar to those of a vivid dream as stated in the article. Fortunately I often remember my dreams and I find them strangely satisfying. I don’t think I’d want to bring these sensations on by artificial means, however. On odd occasions my dreams are frightening and I suppose this would be considered a bad trip.

      • It is physically impossible to do psilocybin and LSD everyday as physical tolerance builds up quickly if you take it more then once per week and it take days for the tolerance to diminish. So after a few days of taking mushrooms you would have to eat handfuls just to get any effect. [Last sentence removed by moderator - please see Terms of Use]

        • I also second this. Although I find the last sentence a bit harsh :P Nonetheless it’s true. It’s impossible to get addicted to LSD or Mushrooms. Even if you could, it’s not a state of being one would choose to be in non-stop. Because your world would be too overwhelming.

          • “it’s not a state of being one would choose to be in non-stop”

            As opposed to being a crack or heroin addict which is just loads of fun. No one chooses to let drugs just fuck up their lives, but it can happen very easily and due to our tendency for self deception it’s very easy to be in denial about how much you are doing and why. Just to be clear, I agree the chances for addiction are far less with pscychadelics. And I’m not saying if I had it to do over again I would be Mr. Just Say No and never touch a drug.

            But I also don’t like self deception and bullshit. If I’m going to do drugs I’m honest with myself that I’m doing it to enjoy myself not to have some spiritual revelation. I read science and listen to Beethoven for those.

        • @ Jack I think the following comments taken from the rest of the article should discourage the use of such substances.

          .some people can experience terrifying “bad trips” on psychedelics, he said. Without proper psychological care, the effects can be long-lasting and harmful.

          Long lasting and harmful! Why take the risk!

          • I think this is misleading. If there is any risk of permanent harm, it is exceedingly low.

            Risk is involved in anything you do. It all depends on whether you think the benefit of the activity is worth the risk.

          • crossing the road and getting hit by a car can have longlasting and harmfull effects… lets all stay indoors.. or lets not surf where sharks swim about in the sea..
            I myself indulge in some tripping (on LSD, I don´t much care for magic mushrooms any more..).. and I know a hell of a lotof people who do the same and I know none who have had these longlasting and harmfull effects..

            we as humans all do something or other which is/ could be harmfull.. no reason to not do it..
            I don´t dive out of airplanes..

            being indoctrinated by the clergy can also pose longlasting harmfull effects.. lets all not go to church ;-)

          • @Anti-theist preacher July 10. 6.14am

            All depends on the risk vs benefits in the eyes of the subject. I can’t imagine an experience that would be so great that I’d be prepared to take the risk even though it may be relatively small. I’m a risk averse person by nature, so I suspect the anxiety produced wouldn’t enhance the experience. Not that I’d like to judge those who are willing to experiment, I hasten to add.

            Social pressure can strongly influence people to do things against their better judgement particularly if the person is young and easily led. I really hope that my kids wouldn’t be tempted to experiment, but who knows! They probably would be tempted and probably have indulged. They’re not like me and that’s probably a good thing.

      • . As for the daughter thing, are you saying Harris is encouraging his daughter to do psychadelics?

        Not at all. Apparently he was asked how he would feel if his daughters tried psychedelic drugs, when they were old enough of course. He replied that he wouldn’t freak out but would consider this youthful experimentation ( or words to that effect). Bear in mind that this is third hand. It was a small part of The Atheist Experience Podcast I listen to from time to time.

      • I hope you were trolling Red Dog. You stunned me.
        I could have said: the way in which ‘the media’ shapes your concept of drugs. But instead I choose to say ‘Dr. Phil’.

        If you weren’t trolling, than you just showed there’s no talking with you.

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