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Wednesday, July 12, 2006
Guinea pigs hail 'mystical experience'
By ROWAN HOOPER
What was the most spiritually meaningful moment in your life?
The answer probably depends on your age, your background or your religious inclination. Older people might think of the birth of their first child, or the death of a parent. Religious people might think of the moment they first felt themselves aware of a higher power.
Others, who might not yet have experienced something as pivotal and life-changing as the birth of a child or the entrance of a god into their lives, might say that the most spiritually significant thing they've done was a trip they took at a music festival one summer. Yes, that's a trip at -- not to -- a music festival.
This might sound frivolous, or even insulting, compared to the experience of losing a parent or feeling the presence of god, but in a report published this week on the effects of magic mushrooms, more than 60 percent of people taking the hallucinogenic drug said the resulting "trip" met the criteria for a "full mystical experience" as measured by established psychological scales.
One third of the 36 subjects said that the experience was the single most spiritually significant of their lifetimes; and more than two-thirds rated it among their five most meaningful and spiritually significant experiences.
Many of the subjects, who were healthy, well-educated volunteers, and most of whom were middle-aged, compared the importance of the experience to the birth of their first child or the death of a parent.
Aficionados of magic mushrooms -- the term applies to mushrooms containing the hallucinogenic alkaloid psilocybin -- will not be surprised by the study, which is published in the journal Psychopharmacology. But others, including those politicians who in their wisdom voted in 2002 to ban the sale of magic mushrooms in Japan, will probably be surprised. And wait for the next bit.
Two months after the experiment, the researchers conducted follow-up interviews with their volunteers. Almost 80 percent of them said they felt a moderately or greatly increased sense of well-being or life satisfaction compared with those volunteers who had only been given a placebo drug at the same test session.
Most of the mushroom-takers said their mood, attitudes and behaviors had changed for the better. Their family members, friends and coworkers generally confirmed the subjects' remarks.
The researchers, from the prestigious Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, in Baltimore, Maryland, then conducted psychological tests on the subjects. They found no harm had been caused and no addictive or toxic effects were found, though some subjects said they felt extreme anxiety in the hours after they took the drug.
"In this regard," said Roland Griffiths, a psychopharmacologist at Hopkins' departments of Neuroscience and Psychiatry and Behavioral Biology, "it contrasts with MDMA [ecstasy], amphetamines or alcohol."
So why did Japan, which has 11 species of magic mushrooms growing across its land, ban the sale of this seemingly wonderful drug? Probably because the authorities think that if people take a natural, harmless drug, they might be tempted to start experimenting with other drugs, which aren't so harmless. This has always been a dubious, though politically strong, argument.
Perhaps, many people say, the real reason for banning magic mushrooms is that the authorities don't want people to start having "the most spiritually significant events of their lifetimes" every weekend. What would that do to productivity?
Leaving aside the question of legality, there are several reasons why this new research is important. First, it shows clearly, and scientifically, that psilocybin can produce mystical experiences.
"It's an early step in what we hope will be a large body of scientific work that will ultimately help people," said Griffiths.
Many people spend their whole lives trying to understand the spiritual meaning of their existence. Some never achieve it. Is Griffiths trying to find a short cut to enlightenment?
"Our focus in this research was to study the effects of psilocybin using the methods of modern psychopharmacology," he said. "It's true that 'transformative' changes in values, self-perception, and behaviors have been reported across cultures and eras as a consequence of mystical-type experience. This bears investigation."
Thought, emotion, and ultimately behavior, are grounded in biology, Griffiths said. "We're just measuring what can be observed. We're not entering into 'Does God exist or not exist.' This work can't and won't go there."
Firmly rooted in the scientific method then, Griffiths and his team investigate "The Beyond," that feeling of "something else" that is often reported by people undergoing mystical experiences.
"Many of the volunteers in our study reported, in one way or another, a direct, personal experience of the 'Beyond,' " said Griffiths.
"Far from being threatened, the only thing we can imagine being of greater interest to religions is whether people live more wholesome, compassionate and equanimous lives in consequence of such experiences."
For a fascinating account of the use of psilocybin, read Andy Letcher's book, "Shroom: A cultural history of the magic mushroom," published by Faber and Faber.
A book of Rowan Hooper's Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese, "Nou to sekkusu no seibutsugaku ( Evolution, Sex and the Brain)," is published by Shinchosha. A second volume, "The Evolving Human: How new biology explains your journey through life," will be published in August.