Psilocybin is a hallucinogenic, psychedelic drug associated with feelings of existing outside of time. Researchers asked 39 healthy participants to self-report on their trait mindfulness and how aware they generally are of physical sensations connected to eating magic mushrooms. The results underscore that a nuanced characteristic like trait mindfulness is almost certainly more complicated than expected.
Psilocybin, the psychedelic agent that puts the magic in magic mushrooms, has shown promise in treating people with depression and anxiety who do not respond well to other interventions. It has been hailed as a potential game-changer for everything from smoking cessation and alcohol abuse to obsessive-compulsive disorder.
But how does psilocybin affect people without mental health problems?
New research published in October in Frontiers in Psychology suggests that healthy people who take psilocybin and report more “mystical” experiences during their medicinal trip and lasting changes, an attribute psychologists call trait mindfulness, which measures the extent to which they are able to live in the moment.
“It is really interesting to see how big these psilocybin experiences are for healthy individuals,” says Anna Søndergaard, lead author of the study and former neurobiology researcher at Rigshospitalet in Copenhagen. “They come out with these meaningful experiences afterwards that they keep with them and try to implement in their life.”
Mushrooms and mindfulness
Psilocybin is a hallucinogenic, psychedelic drug associated with feelings of existing outside of time, a profound sense of peace and unity with all that is.
The effects of psilocybin jive well with the psychological concept of trait mindfulness, which is “supposed to be an indicator of mental health, meaning that you ruminate less and are more present and attentive to your emotions and the present experience,” Søndergaard explains.
“You do not label the present moment; you are just able to observe it, witness it and experience it,” adds co-author Dea Siggaard Stenbæk, Associate Professor and Researcher at Rigshospitalet’s Neurobiology Unit.
Trait mindfulness is considered a stable part of your personality, although research suggests that meditation and mindfulness practices can shift baselines.
Mysticism and paperwork
Søndergaard and her team asked 39 healthy participants to self-report on their trait mindfulness using the Mindful Attention Awareness Scale – self-rating their emotional processing, day-to-day ability to focus on tasks, how aware they generally are of physical sensations and other ways to measure trait mindfulness.
After careful instruction and emotional preparation, trained experimenters then supervised the participants through psilocybin experiences (or, as they would likely be called outside of the lab, guided trips). The researchers administered a medium-to-high dose of psilocybin in pill form, since mushrooms are impossible to standardise, and sat with participants in a calm, comfortable environment.
Some participants received PET or MRI scans as the psilocybin effects peaked as the researchers hoped to confirm findings from a previous study suggesting that certain serotonin receptors in the brain’s neocortex are linked to trait mindfulness.
Once the experience was complete, the researchers asked participants to fill out the Mystical Experience Questionnaire, which asked them to rate such experiences as “freedom from the limitations of your personal self and feeling a unity or bond with what was felt to be greater than your personal self” on a scale from 1 to 6. (And yes, the researchers appreciate that filling out a questionnaire is about the least mystical experience imaginable.)
Three months later, the researchers reassessed the participants’ trait mindfulness to see whether their mystical experience had a lasting effect on how they interact with the world.
More magic, more gains
The team found that participants across the board saw an average 8% increase in trait mindfulness scores after their psilocybin experience – certainly a “robust increase” that was sustained for months, Søndergaard says.
This is particularly striking compared with other interventions. A previous study tracked healthy participants through an intensive 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course, and subjects increased their trait mindfulness scores by just 7%.
The most interesting finding, the authors say, is that people who reported more intense mystical experiences saw a proportionally greater bump.
The researchers had also hoped to shed light on the potential mechanisms for how psilocybin affects the brain. Contrary to their expectations, the PET and MRI scans could not identify any clear relationship between changes to serotonin receptors in the neocortex or frontolimbic regions of the brain and changes in trait mindfulness scores. (These scores were statistically significantly correlated with activity in the right amygdala, a region of the brain associated with regulating emotions and consolidating memory, but Søndergaard and Stenbæk think that this is unlikely to be meaningful.)
The results underscore that a nuanced characteristic like trait mindfulness is almost certainly “more complicated than just one receptor,” Søndergaard points out.
The placebo problem
The research team plans to repeat the study with more participants and pair the trait mindfulness scores with data on how participants’ life circumstances might have changed in the intervening 3 months (being mindful is much easier when you and your family have stable housing and food security, for instance).
A consistent thorn in the side of psychedelic research is the difficulty of creating a control group, which in drug development relies on both the participants and experimenters being uncertain of which participants received an active dose to rule out the placebo effect. However, for psychedelics, whether someone is experiencing a vast connection with all that is or is simply sitting in a room for 6 hours, sober as a judge, is usually pretty obvious to everyone.
To circumvent this, Stenbæk’s team is currently conducting a study with a different kind of control group. “We give them a low dose – they feel something, so they may not be sure whether they got the low dose or the high dose,” she says.
The authors emphasise that that people should not take recent research into the potential benefits of psilocybin as an open call to experiment with psychedelics at home. Outside the controlled setting of a lab and without the meticulous psychological vetting involved in the study, psychedelic trips can turn dark quickly.
“I think this is really important to remember – as beautiful and wonderful as these experiences can be, they can be just as hellish as well,” Stenbæk says.
“We all know what being really scared and feeling really bad is like, but when you are in normal waking consciousness, you have time on your side – you have a sense of time and therefore have a sense that this is going to pass,” she explains. “When you take a psychedelic, time vanishes. And this is also why you can have these really big, beautiful experiences that feel infinite and eternal. But when you feel bad on a trip, you are also in eternity, so you feel bad forever, and it can take on a hellish type of character. You do not have that sense of time unfolding, so you are trapped in time loops feeling really horrible.”