With magic mushroom season approaching, I thought it might be nice to talk about their history, and what they do. As much as describing mushrooms, is like describing travel!
Ancient evidence suggests that shamanic use of magic mushrooms stretches back far into our history, how far no one knows. The mushrooms were used extensively across ancient Mesoamerica, especially in the Aztec culture – which it must be said, was very driven by psychedelic thinking. There are hints of their use in other places, such as the symbolism and language surrounding NZ’s Weraroa mushroom. The suppression of the fungi’s use by the Spanish, calling it a means of summoning evil spirits, pre-dates the beginning of prohibition, much like the taboo surrounding the use of Kava in missionary settled pacific communities. Indeed, this cultural oppression, and xenophobia, manifests much like the reefer madness did – as a in-group, out-group intolerance – and perhaps that is the true origin of prohibition.
Before I get into what is happening to your brain, and what the potential positive sides are regarding those effects- let me describe briefly what it is like for those that don’t know. It’s very hard to describe a psychedelic experience to the uninitiated, but I will try. First you feel a certain ‘body load’, perhaps like you’d eaten an overly greasy meal. This gives way often to a surprising and sort of incoherent giggling – you may laugh but you don’t know why. They the visual and mental changes start to creep up on you – breathing walls, colours brighter than you can imagine, a blurring of distance vision, patterns, and even more significantly a changed state of mind that starts to experience the world in a more emotionally sensitive, symbolic, connected and dream-like manner. One’s inner life, plays out in the senses. It has a certain levity compared to LSD, much like the other natural psychedelic mescaline, it’s more slow paced, and serious emotional moments are broken by euphoria, and laughter. It’s sort of vulnerable, sensory, giddy and profound. The peak lasts typically about 3-4 hours.
So what is going on here, in the brain, during this sort of experience? Well with psychedelics in general, they seem to do two things – one they dampen areas of the brain typically more active, and two, they increase connections between parts of the brain that normally talk less. In layman’s terms, they turn up the volume of all the things that are normally beneath the surface, and down the volume of the things that are normally on the surface. The above picture illustrates the connectivity of the brain under the influence of psilocybin, the psychedelic component of the fungi.
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Now it’s worth saying that psychedelics can produce anxiety, and exacerbate confusion in those without good inner balance. It’s a trialling experience sometimes. The advice usually give is ‘set and setting’, that if you plan to use mushrooms, that you should be in a good state of mind, balanced, grounded, and well – and use them in a location that is not negatively stimulating, or overwhelming. Moderate consumption with friends in a quiet natural location for example is far probably preferable to large doses taken on ones own, in a challenging environment. If you have any family history of mental illness, feelings of derealisation, anxiety, or just a powerful imagination – be aware – increased brain connectivity may just give life to things within you, and new neural connections, like bad experiences, are a genie let out of a bottle. While many people find inspiration, or self-realisation, others find confusion or challenge especially in over use. Psychedelics are powerful tools, they are not toys – they will make your inner life bigger, and it’s important to consider whether or not you have the inner resources to deal with that. And whether you can cope with it or not, even in controlled settings 22% of people have challenging experiences while on the drug.
If you ever find someone dealing with a bad trip, just treat the person like someone who is overwhelmed, and stuck in mental loops. Gentle reassurance helps a great deal, as does a pleasant and calm environment. A change of scene, or the subtle influence of music, or some non-challenging media, may help shift the mood – as may things that serve as a source of joy, such as play or humour.
Many people report new insights, personal insights, or even profound spiritual experiences from using psychedelics like magic mushrooms. This ability to ‘shift perception’, presumably related to the increased connectivity, is the cause of numerous potential medical benefits.
Despite the risk in some people, for increased fear, or bad experiences, overall, people taking magic mushrooms report increased wellbeing for months later. That is to say, there appears to be an anti-depressive effect. They also appear to help migraines.
There have been studies showing that magic mushrooms strongly assist people grappling with their mortality, ie terminal patients. And there is a lot of evidence to suggest they are helpful for breaking addictions, whether it be alcohol, tobacco or illicit drugs. The efficacy of this anti-addictive action, like with fear of death, is very high. As well as potentially being anti-depressant, magic mushrooms appear to have uses in treating OCD. These psychological benefits are indeed profound. And they do really beg the question why, magic mushroom use is not permitted for use by psychiatrists and other health professionals, in a highly controlled manner.
Now if people are going to do what they are going to do, I’d be irresponsible not to offer some advice. Identify your mushrooms very carefully, some are poisonous.
Whether a psychologist administering a drug like this, or a shaman doing a healing ritual, the ideal conditions for psychedelic experiences are very controlled. Typically, someone else is sober, or more sober, or a lot more experienced when a person is taken on a first trip, so they can be objective, and calmly guide the person along. The person in question is mentally prepared for it, and in a good space, and the setting is one in which the focus in not on events, or the environment, but mood, conversation, beauty – the inner world. Now, I understand that people out there are not going to replicate these conditions exactly every time – but because the effects of psychedelics are profound, it’s genuinely worth everyone’s time, to just consider how close to ideal conditions the experience can be made. And just as importantly, consider who your first trip is with. If the people you trip with are cavalier about it, it might be worth waiting to find some other people who show more respect for the power of the magic mushroom.
Take care of yourselves out there this mushroom season. I’ll see you in the dream world!
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