Hallucinations aren't the only way psychedelics change how you see the world.
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We tried to ignore the taste—something like gasoline mixed with detergent—as we lay back and talked and waited, watching the ducks, grass, and heavy gray clouds for hints that our trip was about to begin. My friend Alice and I were sitting by a stream in the Vondelpark gardens in Amsterdam, and we’d just chewed through about a third of a box of truffles (the parts of the magic mushroom that grows underground).
An hour later, we were back in our hostel. A thunderstorm had broken out. Alice was tripping balls. I was vomiting hard into a plastic bag Alice had borrowed from a nice woman whose face, she told me, was “turning blue and melting away into droplets.” In our room, Alice sat on the sill of the tall window, looking out into the garden. When my stomach eventually settled, I joined her.
I could see a large tree with a few dead yellow leaves clinging to it. She could see the tree growing from a sapling to a giant, sprouting fresh green leaves that passed through all the colors and then falling over dead, before becoming a sapling again.
Hallucinations aren’t the only way a psychedelic trip changes how you see the world. The visions might wear off after just a few hours, but recent research on psilocybin, the active component of magic mushrooms, suggests that taking psychedelics leaves an imprint on your personality—and forms beliefs that last well beyond the end of the trip.
Your political views, your personality and how you feel connected with the world and nature can all shift after just a couple of doses of psilocybin, according to a study published in January by researchers at Imperial College London in the UK. Though the study is tiny (with only seven people with depression given psilocybin, compared with seven healthy people who weren’t), the findings hint at the effects of psilocybin on personality and personal beliefs.
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After two doses in one week—the first 10 mg psilocybin, the second 25 mg (enough for a significant trip)—the patients were measured for changes in their personalities. They came out with questionnaire responses corresponding with less authoritarian views than before the treatment, measured by how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements like: “For some crimes, the death penalty is the most appropriate sentence.” Having less authoritarian political views, and also feeling more connected with nature, persisted for many months after the treatments, the study found.
“Something is happening. Now we need to find out what that is,” says Taylor Lyons, a doctoral candidate at Imperial and an author of the study. “Beliefs and attitudes are normally long-held and don't really change much throughout life—people generally don't swing from one end to the other; they tend to be quite consistent. The participants only took psilocybin twice, and this change [in their beliefs] happened quite rapidly.”
The authors can’t say yet why exactly this shift in political beliefs and feelings towards nature happened. A bigger study, looking at both people with depression and without depression would be needed to start digging into the cause and effect.The university’s team is planning to follow this up to come up with some firmer answers.
“I think that this study brings a very interesting question to the table,” says Alexander Lebedev, a psychiatrist and brain imaging researcher at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, who wasn’t involved with the study. “To what extent does the character of our brain dynamics affect how we behave and what we believe in?”
One possibility is that the experience of taking psilocybin changes the brain. “The general take-home message is that the psychedelic state is seemingly the breakdown of hierarchical organization in the brain,” Lebedev says. In a sense, this breakdown could somehow be mirrored in people’s shift in political beliefs, he suggests. “In that way, it’s not completely surprising that we see these changes after such a session.”
Another possibility is a less direct effect. Lebedev implies that in western cultures, taking psychedelics is generally associated with more liberal politics. After having a meaningful experience with psilocybin, he asserts, it’s possible that people could consciously re-evaluate their politics afterwards.
I ask Alice if her views towards nature, the environment and politics had changed since her trip—and she says yes. “I would say my experience taking truffles fundamentally and profoundly changed my view of the world around me,” she tells me. Alice suspects the change many people experience after a positive experience with psilocybin was because it didn’t fit the narrative around drugs she knew.
“You realize that all those images that were hammered into your head for years—people jumping off buildings thinking they can fly, or successful people ruining their lives forever from taking mushrooms one time—simply weren't true. It feels like you've opened a door into a new, beautiful, peaceful world.” she says. “You wonder why the government has been so adamant in censoring it for everyone.”
Her realization is something many users of shrooms or truffles can relate to. Aaron, now in his 20s, first tried shrooms when he was 19. They had a big effect on how he related to the environment, and played a part in changing his political views. But he feels it’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation.
“It’s hard to pinpoint whether I was becoming more interested in anti-authoritarian ideas and this led me to trying shrooms, or whether it was the other way around and my use of psychedelics was causing me to become less authoritarian,” Aaron says. “Either way, over this period I definitely noticed long-lasting changes in my outlook and my personality, which I’m sure were influenced by psychedelics in some way.”
Of course, not all researchers are convinced that taking psilocybin can cause a shift in your political views. Roland Griffiths, of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, has been researching psychopharmacology for more than 35 years and agrees with the UK researchers about the fact that much larger studies will be necessary to probe this effect of psilocybin on political views.
His team has, however, seen other long-lasting changes to personality and outlook on life in their research. In many years of research, Griffiths has found that after treatment with psilocybin, people score more highly for gratitude, forgiveness, death transcendence and religious faith. “You can see some very powerful effects of the drug,” he says.
What we do know so far is that psychedelics have a long-lasting, measurable influence on the brain and on aspects of personality. Experts tell me that scans of people on a psychedelic trip look like a bright, morphing jigsaw of activity compared with the sober brain, which looks largely grey on the scans, with fleeting, localized hints of color and activity. Neural networks that are normally pretty independent in daily life—auditory perception, visual perception and higher cognition—start cross-talking in a big way.
But the full implications of what the trip, the afterglow, and the long-term legacy of taking psychedelics like shrooms does to the brain, personality and beliefs is still barely understood. Ingesting psilocybin could change your life. Or alternatively you could make like me and throw it straight back up into a bag and be done with it.
*Names of people who took psilocybin (besides the author) have been changed because of the effects their drug use would have on their employment.
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