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Psilocybin is a naturally occurring psychedelic prodrug compound produced by more than 200 species of mushrooms, collectively known as psilocybin mushrooms. The most potent are members of the genus Psilocybe, such as P. azurescens, P. semilanceata, and P. cyanescens, but psilocybin has also been isolated from about a dozen other genera. As a prodrug, psilocybin is quickly converted by the body to psilocin, which has mind-altering effects similar, in some aspects, to those of LSD, mescaline, and DMT. In general, the effects include euphoria, visual and mental hallucinations, changes in perception, a distorted sense of time, and spiritual experiences, and can also include possible adverse reactions such as nausea and panic attacks.
Imagery found on prehistoric murals and rock paintings of modern-day Spain and Algeria suggests that human usage of psilocybin mushrooms predates recorded history. In Mesoamerica, the mushrooms had long been consumed in spiritual and divinatory ceremonies before Spanish chroniclers first documented their use in the 16th century. In 1959, the Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann isolated the active principle psilocybin from the mushroom Psilocybe mexicana. Hofmann’s employer Sandoz marketed and sold pure psilocybin to physicians and clinicians worldwide for use in psychedelic psychotherapy. Although the increasingly restrictive drug laws of the late 1960s curbed scientific research into the effects of psilocybin and other hallucinogens, its popularity as an entheogen (spirituality-enhancing agent) grew in the next decade, owing largely to the increased availability of information on how to cultivate psilocybin mushrooms.
The intensity and duration of the effects of psilocybin are variable, depending on species or cultivar of mushrooms, dosage, individual physiology, and set and setting, as was shown in experiments led by Timothy Leary at Harvard University in the early 1960s. Once ingested, psilocybin is rapidly metabolized to psilocin, which then acts on serotonin receptors in the brain. The mind-altering effects of psilocybin typically last from two to six hours, although to individuals under the influence of psilocybin, the effects may seem to last much longer, since the drug can distort the perception of time. Psilocybin has a low toxicity and a low harm potential. Possession of psilocybin-containing mushrooms has been outlawed in most countries, and it has been classified as a scheduled drug by many national drug laws.
Psilocybin mushrooms have been and continue to be used in indigenous New World cultures in religious, divinatory, or spiritual contexts. Reflecting the meaning of the word entheogen (“the god within”), the mushrooms are revered as powerful spiritual sacraments that provide access to sacred worlds. Typically used in small group community settings, they enhance group cohesion and reaffirm traditional values. Terence McKenna documented the worldwide practices of psilocybin mushroom usage as part of a cultural ethos relating to the Earth and mysteries of nature, and suggested that mushrooms enhanced self-awareness and a sense of contact with a “Transcendent Other”—reflecting a deeper understanding of our connectedness with nature.
Psychedelic drugs can induce states of consciousness that have lasting personal meaning and spiritual significance in individuals who are religious or spiritually inclined; these states are called mystical experiences. Some scholars have proposed that many of the qualities of a drug-induced mystical experience are indistinguishable from mystical experiences achieved through non-drug techniques, such as meditation or holotropic breathwork. In the 1960s, Walter Pahnke and colleagues systematically evaluated mystical experiences (which they called “mystical consciousness”) by categorizing their common features. These categories, according to Pahnke, “describe the core of a universal psychological experience, free from culturally determined philosophical or theological interpretations”, and allow researchers to assess mystical experiences on a qualitative, numerical scale.
In their studies on the psilocybin experience, Johns Hopkins researchers use peaceful music and a comfortable room to help ensure a comfortable setting, and experienced guides to monitor and reassure the volunteers.
The effects of psilocybin are highly variable and depend on the mindset and environment in which the user has the experience, factors commonly referred to as set and setting. In the early 1960s, Timothy Leary and colleagues at Harvard University investigated the role of set and setting on the effects of psilocybin. They administered the drug to 175 volunteers from various backgrounds in an environment intended to be similar to a comfortable living room. Ninety-eight of the subjects were given questionnaires to assess their experiences and the contribution of background and situational factors. Individuals who had experience with psilocybin prior to the study reported more pleasant experiences than those for whom the drug was novel. Group size, dosage, preparation, and expectancy were important determinants of the drug response. In general, those placed in groups of more than eight individuals felt that the groups were less supportive, and their experiences were less pleasant. Conversely, smaller groups (fewer than six individuals) were seen as more supportive. Participants also reported having more positive reactions to the drug in those groups. Leary and colleagues proposed that psilocybin heightens suggestibility, making an individual more receptive to interpersonal interactions and environmental stimuli. These findings were affirmed in a later review by Jos ten Berge (1999), who concluded that dosage, set, and setting were fundamental factors in determining the outcome of experiments that tested the effects of psychedelic drugs on artists’ creativity.
Common responses include pupil dilation (93%); changes in heart rate (100%), including increases (56%), decreases (13%), and variable responses (31%); changes in blood pressure (84%), including hypotension (34%), hypertension (28%), and general instability (22%); changes in stretch reflex (86%), including increases (80%) and decreases (6%); nausea (44%); tremor (25%); and dysmetria (16%) (inability to properly direct or limit motions).[b] The temporary increases in blood pressure caused by the drug can be a risk factor for users with pre-existing hypertension. These qualitative somatic effects caused by psilocybin have been corroborated by several early clinical studies. A 2005 magazine survey of club goers in the UK found that nausea or vomiting was experienced by over a quarter of those who had used psilocybin mushrooms in the last year, although this effect is caused by the mushroom rather than psilocybin itself. In one study, administration of gradually increasing dosages of psilocybin daily for 21 days had no measurable effect on electrolyte levels, blood sugar levels, or liver toxicity tests.
The ability of psilocybin to cause perceptual distortions is linked to its influence on the activity of the prefrontal cortex.
Psilocybin is known to strongly influence the subjective experience of the passage of time. Users often feel as if time is slowed down, resulting in the perception that “minutes appear to be hours” or “time is standing still”. Studies have demonstrated that psilocybin significantly impairs subjects’ ability to gauge time intervals longer than 2.5 seconds, impairs their ability to synchronize to inter-beat intervals longer than 2 seconds, and reduces their preferred tapping rate. These results are consistent with the drug’s role in affecting prefrontal cortex activity, and the role that the prefrontal cortex is known to play in time perception. However, the neurochemical basis of psilocybin’s effects on the perception of time are not known with certainty.