The God Pill

The Economist
July 13, 2006


[No author listed]

Hallucinogens induce lasting spiritual highs in the religious

ONE June night in Mexico in 1955, Gordon Wasson, a vice-president of J.P. Morgan, became one of the first outsiders to eat what the Aztecs called TEONANaCATL, the flesh of the gods. Actually, it is the flesh of a fungus, and it soon became known to hippies as the magic mushroom. But, whereas the flower children of the 1960s and their descendants gobbled the hallucinogenic fungi in search of a good time, the Aztecs had a deeper purpose. They used the mushrooms in religious ceremonies for healing, divination and communing with the spirit world.

Now a study led by Roland Griffiths of Johns Hopkins University, and published this week in PSYCHOPHARMACOLOGY, has shown that psilocybin–the active component in magic mushrooms–does indeed induce mental states akin to the highest religious experiences. Moreover, it has lasting positive effects on those who take it.

Experiments involving drugs of any kind need to have a control–that is, an otherwise identical experiment in which something other than the drug is administered–to check that any effects are caused by the drug and not something else. Ideally, neither experimental subjects nor researchers should know who is in the control group, but for experiments involving psychedelic drugs this is difficult, because it quickly becomes apparent who is high and who is not.

For his control, Dr Griffiths decided to use methylphenidate hydrochloride, otherwise known as Ritalin, a drug that calms hyperactive children. On one of two occasions, he gave 36 volunteers who had never taken hallucinogenic drugs either psilocybin or Ritalin, swapping the drugs on the second occasion. The choice of Ritalin was inspired. Neither the volunteers nor the experimenters could say reliably which drug was being administered on which occasion.

A close eye was kept on the volunteers for eight hours after the drugs were given, to check all was well. They were then asked about their experience. Two-thirds of the participants, who were mostly middle-aged college graduates, ranked being given psilocybin as either the best or in the top five best experiences of their lives–on a par with the birth of a first child. They described feeling peace, intense happiness and a sense of the unity of all things.

The participants were no strangers to spiritual highs. Almost all engaged at least monthly in religious or spiritual activities such as prayer or attending religious services, and were selected for participation in the trial on this basis. Yet two months after the trial, 79% of them reported moderately or greatly increased well-being or satisfaction. Their positive changes in attitudes and behaviour were confirmed by independent assessments made by friends and family.

Why this should be is not yet well understood. Psilocybin is thought to work by mimicking serotonin. This is one of the messenger molecules that carry signals between nerve cells in the brain, and it is known to influence mood. But there has been little research of late. Clinical studies using psilocybin and other hallucinogens were halted when recreational use of the drugs took off. They have only just resumed after a four-decade hiatus.

Dr Griffiths and his colleagues argue that the mood-lifting effects of hallucinogens might be used to treat drug and alcohol addiction. Psilocybin itself is not addictive, although they recommend that its availability should continue to be limited. Psychedelic drugs could even be used to probe the basis of consciousness, according to Solomon Snyder, one of Dr Griffith’s colleagues. Dr Snyder believes that investigation of such drugs could help scientists understand the molecular changes in the brain that underlie religious experiences.

Back in the 1950s, Gordon Wasson spent years gaining the trust of Amerindians who had continued the religious traditions of their pre-Columbian ancestors. Eventually he was allowed to partake of the mushroom. His experience, from which he said he emerged awestruck, started a short period of study that ended prematurely because of the mushroom’s widespread recreational use. By showing it is possible to conduct such research responsibly, Dr Griffiths has opened the door for further work to be done on the properties of psychedelic drugs.

A NIDA-funded research team from John Hopkins University published the first modern-day continuation of the Good Friday Experiment, finding that psilocybin is likely to induce spiritual experiences in most subjects. A former NIDA director and a former deputy director of ONDCP supported the results of the study, but the current NIDA director issued a statement distancing NIDA from the study. Read about this amazing psychedelic research development as reported by the Economist, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, LA Times, and ABC News, which features a salient quote from MAPS President Rick Doblin.

Later the same week, National Public Radio”s Weekend America aired two related stories: one detailing the implications of the John Hopkins study, and another desribing Dr. Charles Grob’s research investigating psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy as a treatment for subjects with advanced stage cancer suffering from clinical anxiety. Click here to listen. The Boston Globe’s Science section also published “Psychedelic mushrooms earn serious 2d look from science”.