SBS does not endorse or advocate illegal drug taking, or condone the possession or supply of prohibited substances. In keeping with the spirit of Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia, this story is intended to educate and inform readers about the latest research when it comes to a particular substance.
Magic mushrooms often conjure up images of blissed-out '60s hippies, splayed out in fields as they find hidden meanings in Pink Floyd songs. Truth is, there exists a longstanding tradition of cultures using funny fungi to a variety of allegedly positive ends. It is believed the ancient Aztecs referred to these complex growths as “flesh of the gods”, suggesting that even 11,000 years ago, 'shrooms weren’t merely used as a means to get messed up.
While the claim that magic mushrooms and spiritual development go hand-in-hand is as well known as it is divisive, today’s scientists and medical professionals are researching new and equally controversial ways that may be of benefit to humans.
With the second season of Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia finishing off with a mushroom-focused episode, what better time to delve into these recent breakthroughs?
Kick-starting the depressed brain
If you’ve ever experienced clinical depression, you’ll know it’s so completely debilitating so as to seem that only something like magic will help you through it.
The idea of using psychedelic mushrooms (any of 200 species containing the hallucinogenic compound psilocybin) to tackle depression might seem far-fetched, but over the past decade, researchers all around the world have conducted numerous studies on the effect of psilocybin on treatment-resistant depression and anxiety.
A recent effort took a small group of sufferers and treated them with two doses of psilocybin, spaced one week apart. Those treated showed a marked immediate increase in their connectedness to the environment, one which lasted for up to a year after the fact. In other words, it seems psilocybin got patients out of their heads, and suggested that further treatment could help cultivate new non-depressive attitudes, personality traits and beliefs.
A study from last year, which took 20 patients and dosed them similarly, revealed the potential for psilocybin to foster a "reset" of the psychological system. One particular volunteer phrased the change as if his brain had been “defragged” like the tangled harddrive of an overused computer. Two studies from 2016 showed that a single dose of psilocybin can lead to considerable alleviation of depressive symptoms. And the list goes on.
Targeting toxic ideology
On the surface, the idea that tripping can help cure fascists of their toxic worldviews sounds a little ludicrous, though in reality it's merely an extension of the research highlighted above. In fact, the 2018 study already mentioned is the same that suggested mushrooms might aid the taming or reversal of authoritarian views.
Once again, the increased connectedness to nature brought on by psilocybin seems to directly correlate to the decrease in fascist thinking. The realisation that one is part of nature, as opposed to separate from it, can place dangerous political alignments, which are primarily cerebral and largely removed from nature, under a new light.
Taylor Lyons and Robin L Carhart-Harris, leading experts in their field and conveners of the study, summed up the substance’s potential:
“Our findings tentatively raise the possibility that given in this way, psilocybin may produce sustained changes in outlook and political perspective, here in the direction of increased nature relatedness and decreased authoritarianism."
Breaking the cycle of addiction
As we can see, a strong case can be made that magic mushrooms could aid a positive shifting of perspective. A depressed patient takes psilocybin in a controlled environment and they see a world outside their own suffering. A patient with potentially harmful ideological views can see a world outside of limited empathy. With addicts, psilocybin could potentially help break the cycle of compulsive thinking, whereby a world outside cyclical substance abuse becomes visible.
Matthew Johnson, professor of psychology at John Hopkins University, told VICE that this kind of treatment is “sort of like a crash course in mindfulness; I'm starting to think of it like that."
Food for thought. Literally.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves…
Of course, significantly more research across wider sample sizes is required before any of the above conclusions are set in stone. We can’t forget that the psychedelic experience may exacerbate the more complex mental illnesses such as schizophrenia. Self-dosing based on the above studies is dangerous and never recommended.
If you or someone you know needs help dealing with a drug problem or wants information about treatment options, the Department of Health has a helpful list of support services on its website or you can call the Alcohol and Drug Foundation on 1300 85 85 84.
Watch the final episode of Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia season two on Tuesday 27 February at 8:30pm on SBS VICELAND. Missed the previous episode? Watch it at SBS On Demand: