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Zack Lynch is author of The Neuro Revolution: How Brain Science Is Changing Our World (St. Martin's Press, July 2009).
He is the founder and executive director of the Neurotechnology Industry Organization (NIO) and co-founder of NeuroInsights. He serves on the advisory boards of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, the Center for Neuroeconomic Studies, Science Progress, and SocialText, a social software company. Please send newsworthy items or feedback - to Zack Lynch.
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Brain Waves

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July 12, 2006

Mystical Mushrooms, Sure...but Spiritual Ritalin?

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Posted by Zack Lynch

“Magic” mushrooms really do have a spiritual effect on people, according to a recent study in Psychopharmacology. Over one-third of volunteers in the carefully controlled new study had a “complete” mystical experience after taking psilocybin, with half of them describing their encounter as the single most spiritually significant experience in their lifetimes.

Roland Griffiths and the rest of his team at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, recruited 36 healthy volunteers who had not experimented with the drug before. They were informed that they would receive a hallucinogen but did not know in which of two or three sessions they would receive it. Each session was separated by two months.

magicmushrooms.gifThey either received a substantial dose – about 30 milligrams – of psilocybin or a similar dose of an "active" placebo, Ritalin. The latter has a stimulating effect but is not known as a hallucinogen. An inactive placebo would be easy to identify by the volunteers when compared to psilocybin, which could bias the experiences they reported.

The researchers used psychological questionnaires and found that 22 of the 36 volunteers had a “complete” mystical experience after taking psilocybin – far more than the four who reported this type of experience after taking Ritalin. WHAT?

I find that fact that four people claimed to have a complete mystical experience after taking ritalin to be much more interesting than the known outcome of taking high doses of psilocybin.

I agree with Ian McGregor, an Australian professor of psychopharmacology at the University of Sydney, who stated that he isn't surprised that the study confirms the ability of psilocybin to induce a spiritual state. "Psilocybin and related hallucinogens have been used since ancient times in religious rituals and this study is really formalizing ... what many people already know," he says.

In an interview with the New Scientist, Griffiths said that in the future psilocybin might have a therapeutic use, perhaps helping people who have just learned they have cancer come to terms with the news. But he is quick to add that “the therapeutic application is very speculative”. “My guess is that there will be people saying ‘You’re looking for a spiritual shortcut’” says Griffiths. He stresses that the drug is no replacement for the mental health benefits of continuous personal reflection: “There’s all the difference in the world between a spiritual experience and a spiritual life.

For more information on how other researchers are using psychedelics to map our brains, I recommending reading Tom Ray's five part guest series he wrote on Brain Waves regarding his research that is focused on mapping receptor space.

Comments (6) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Perception Shift


1. Alfred on July 13, 2006 3:06 PM writes...

You might be interested in the experiments by Timothy Leary in Concord State Prision beginning in March 1961. They are documented in Dr. Leary's book "Flashbacks" starting on page 85 until page 90.

By the fall of 1962 thirty five convicts had gone through the program and some were being paroled at the rate of 2 or 3 a month. The return rate shrunk from the prison's regular rate of 70% to 10%. The prison project was shut down when Alpert and Leary were driven from Harvard.

Dr.Leary gave credit to the drug psilocybin for being able to re-imprint the brain.

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2. Kensai on July 15, 2006 5:19 PM writes...

Hmm, we live in a ever-increasing atheist world. As a last [extreme] measure, clergymen and other spiritual people might try to "beef up" their believers' experience by coupling psilocybin with meditation/praying/etc. Now THAT would be interesting...


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3. pmp on July 17, 2006 11:20 AM writes...

Wow, researchers can legally get grants again for studying Schedule 1 drugs? That's great, in and of itself, regardless of whether there is anything of use to be found with psilocybin.

Also, I would like to point out that one of the religion students in Dr. Leary's 'good friday' experiment, who claimed to have a profound religious experience, was actually in the placebo group, so hey, why not Ritalin? Actually, though, amphetamines make some people downright kooky, from relatively low doses. It is an interesting question: what's different about their brains/physiology? Are they the ones who are more likely to demonstrate mental illness later in life? Do they metabolize adrenaline differently than most folks, or what?

Finally, I think 'transformative experience' would be a more useful term than 'spiritual experience', and it should also be noted that these things are really only suited for a different model of use than, say, something like an antipressant (which only demonstrates value while the individual is taking it regularly;) in these cases it is more effective to try and leverage as much psychological/behavioral change as possible from very few psychedelic sessions, ideally just a single one!

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4. Alfred on August 4, 2006 1:23 PM writes...

Mark Morford at SFGate just published (8-4) a delightful article on this medical news release.

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5. Murray Bowles on August 10, 2006 4:15 PM writes...

I'm glad you brought that up about Ritalin -- I thought I was the only one who considered it peculiar that people were claiming "complete" mystical experiences on Ritalin. I've never taken it myself but I thought one of its selling points as a drug for ADHD children was its minimal subjective effects.

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6. Fred Jones on August 24, 2006 12:23 AM writes...

>I thought I was the only one who considered
>it peculiar that people were claiming "complete"
>mystical experiences on Ritalin.

Note that the dose of ritalin given was quite high compared to the usual ADHD therapeutic doses, and the number of people reporting mystical experiences low relative to psilocybin.

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