What Do Shrooms Do?

What do shrooms do? Explore the mysterious psychedelic effects of psilocybin-containing magic mushrooms.

Mushrooms that contain the psychedelic compound psilocybin (“magic mushrooms,” or, “shrooms,” as they are commonly called), have been ritually used for religious, spiritual, and medicinal purposes for thousands of years.

The Selva Pascuala mural, a work of post-Paleolithic rock art in a cave near the town of Villar del Humo in Spain dating back to 4000 BCE depicts the use of psilocybin mushrooms, providing possibly the earliest evidence of the use of psychedelic mushrooms in Europe.

Furthermore, archaeological mushroom stones and statues discovered in Guatemala and Mexico indicate sophisticated religious use of magic mushrooms, specifically Psilocybe mexicana, dating back to 1500 BCE.

In the mid-16th century, Spanish priest Bernardino de Sahagún wrote in his Florentine Codex about the use of teonanácatl (God’s flesh) by the Aztecs, which was the word they used to describe the sacred shrooms.

Almost 4 centuries later, the father of ethnobotany, Richard Evans Schultes, and Austrian-born ethnobotanist, Dr. Blas Reko, traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico, and confirmed that teonanácatl was the Psilocybe mexicana mushroom. 

In 1955 J.P. Morgan banker and amateur mycologist R. Gordon Wasson visited Oaxaca, and having got the go-ahead from Mexico’s most famous curandera (female healer), María Sabina, aka the “priestess of mushrooms,” Wasson partook in a traditional Mazatec magico-religious mushroom ceremony.

After describing his “incredible” experience in a landmark 1957 essay entitled ‘Seeking the Magic Mushroom’ published in Time magazine, it wasn’t long before Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, already of LSD fame, had isolated psilocybin as the psychoactive component of the Mazatec’s sacred mushroom, having received some samples of Psilocybe mexicana from French mycologist, Roger Heim. 

The following decade would see an explosion of scientific interest in psilocybin and shrooms before association with the counterculture movement provoked their eventual banning in 1970.

Now, after decades of unfounded scientific censorship, a new era of researchers have revived a dormant interest in psychedelics, sparking an explosion of scientific investigation. Having been inaccurately categorized as medically useless drugs of abuse, psychedelic science has emphatically re-emerged, with psilocybin, in particular, displaying powerful clinical potential.

But, what exactly do shrooms do? And what do they feel like?

What do Shrooms Do in the Brain? 

The action (pharmacology) of psilocybin in the brain — like most psychedelic compounds — is complicated and can be quite difficult to comprehensively pin down. 

Even pharmacologists possess a mere primitive understanding of how psilocybin exerts its effects. This, of course, is not because pharmacologists are incompetent. Rather, the unsubstantiated war on drugs prevented them from conducting important mechanistic studies for half a century. 

One thing that we do know, thanks to eminent Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann, who in 1958 isolated psilocybin from Psilocybe mexicana and determined that its metabolite, psilocin, is the active agent behind its divine properties.

Unlike psilocybin which is thought to exert relatively insignificant pharmacologic action, psilocin’s lipid solubility facilitates its free crossing of the blood-brain barrier where it binds to the 5-HT2A serotonin receptor and initiates a psychedelic experience. 

Several studies have now beautifully demonstrated that this fascinating mushroom ingredient can reliably occasion mystical-type experiences that have enduring positive impact on mood, attitude, and behavior.

And so you might ask, “what is a mystical experience? And how does it occur?”

Shroom-induced Mystical Experiences 

In his The Varieties of Religious Experience, the Father of American psychology, William James, who himself had personally experimented with nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and the mescaline-containing cactus, peyote, specified mystical consciousness states as those containing the following 4 characteristics: 

  • Ineffability - A mystical experience defies expression and it must be experienced directly to be understood. 
  • A Noetic Quality - Mystical experiences seem to be states of knowledge that uncover heretofore hidden truths, spiritual illuminations, and meaningful revelations. 
  • Transiency - The mystical experience cannot be sustained for long. 
  • Passivity - One feels as if their will is suspended and indeed that they are held by a superior power. The mystical experience, according to James, is a form of self-transcendence where one feels as though they have merged or become one with something greater. 

Mystical states are also typically characterized by a drastic reduction, or complete obliteration, in the self-referential awareness that defines normal waking consciousness. This phenomenon, referred to in psychedelic circles as “ego-dissolution,” is often characterized by the breaking down of emotional boundaries and a sense of unity with others and one’s surroundings. 

The shroom-induced mystical experience is thought to be at least somewhat associated with the disintegration of a network of interacting brain areas called the default mode network (DMN). The DMN comes alive when people are not focused on the external environment but instead are consumed by ruminative self-reflective thoughts and judgments.

Distinguished neuroscientist Robin Carhart-Harris has shown by way of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) techniques that the action of psilocin — the active agent in shrooms — may fragment old conditioned mind patterns and stimulate life-changing shifts in perspective. 

Also, as one’s shroom experience blossoms into a full-blown mystical experience, there occurs a simultaneous increase in global functional connectivity between distal brain regions that typically do not communicate. 

Other prominent psychedelic researchers have expressed doubts regarding the centrality of the DMN’s role in mystical states, however, citing inconsistent evidence as justification for their healthy skepticism. It is safe to say that a significant gap still remains regarding our current knowledge of the neural correlates of psychedelics-occasioned mystical states, a gap that may never be fully bridged. 

The Effects of Magic Mushrooms 

Sidelining the characteristics of a mystical experience for a moment, fascinating as they may be, there is a laundry list of supplementary subjective effects that may be experienced after consuming shrooms. 

In general, users describe the mind space of a shroom journey, which typically lasts 4-6 hours, as rather mellow and relaxing in comparison to more stimulating psychedelics like mescaline, LSD, and DMT, but uniquely as profound. It is also generally described as being less lucid than other commonly used tryptamines, which may be due to the presence of other alkaloids, in addition to psilocybin, in shrooms. 

It is worth noting that the nature of one’s experience is very much influenced by the individual’s “set” (psychological state, intentions, and expectations), “setting” (the context in which use occurs), and dose. Ensuring that set, setting, and dose are appropriate significantly reduces the probability of having a difficult experience, or so-called “bad trip.”

Doses for the most common shrooms, such as Psilocybe cubensis, when dried, are as follows:

  • Microdose: < 0.25 gram 
  • Low dose: 0.25 -1 gram
  • Average dose: 1 – 2.5 grams
  • High dose: 2.5 – 5 grams
  • Very high dose: > 5 grams

Physical Effects of Shrooms 

  • Nausea
  • Sedation 
  • Body heaviness
  • Euphoric “body high”
  • Changes in felt bodily form
  • Space distortion 
  • Tactile enhancement 
  • Pain relief 
  • Excessive yawning 
  • Pupil dilation 

Psychological Effects of Shrooms 

  • Euphoria
  • Emotion enhancement 
  • Increased empathy
  • Increased affection 
  • Euthymia (lessening/eradication of mood disturbances)
  • Increased ability to process/analyze complex ideas/concepts 
  • Anxiety (typically occurs during the come-up phase and subsides once primary effects set in 
  • Confusion 
  • Thought deceleration 
  • Increased mindfulness 
  • Suppression of personal biases 
  • Autobiographical memory enhancement 
  • Catharsis 

Sensory Effects of Shrooms 

  • Color enhancement 
  • Color shifting (objects changing their color)
  • Visual acuity enhancement (low doses)
  • Melting/breathing of surfaces (higher doses) 
  • Scenery slicing 
  • Geometric visuals
  • Depth perception and perspective distortions 
  • Auditory distortion
  • Synesthesia (blending of the senses) 

Shrooms: A Tool For Healing and Spiritual Exploration

Shrooms have been consumed by a variety of cultures for their divine visionary qualities, particularly among the Mesoamerican Aztec tribes in the post-classical period, and later among the Mazatecs and Zapotecs of Northern Oaxaca in southern Mexico. 

Since the long overdue, inspiring revival of psychedelic research, psilocybin, the active ingredient in shrooms, has demonstrated extraordinary clinical efficacy for a wide variety of psychological disorders, from anxiety and treatment-resistant depression to tobacco and alcohol addiction, anorexia nervosa and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Experts in the field of psychedelic science surmise that psilocybin-induced meaningful experiences may be pivotal for positive therapeutic outcomes. Crucially, set, setting, dose, and supportive psychotherapy delivered before, during, and after the psilocybin experience are also foundational to the drug’s clinical efficacy.

While psychedelic medicines hold a lot of promise, they are not a panacea for the world’s innumerable ails, nor is psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy suited to everyone. That said, clinical study results to date, in the main, have been very positive.

Without question, psychedelic compounds, when used as an aid to psychotherapy, have the potential to set free a growing number of suffering souls from the shackles of mental turmoil.

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