I’m talking about mushrooms (aka “magic mushrooms”) containing psychoactive compounds, that people often ingest for recreational purposes. And so, y’know, over the years as people have regaled me with their shroom-tripping experiences, it’s always something along the lines of “I thought all of the birds were going to attack me!” or “I saw mud people growing out of my living room carpet!”
A) This doesn’t sound fun to me in any way, and B) based on this, I’d assumed that shrooms make people’s brains way too overactive, for them to be experiencing things above and beyond reality.
But, new research says I was wrong about shrooms. Let’s discuss.
From what I previously understood, people would ingest mushrooms, and if they were in a negative state of mind, they’d have a “bad trip.” If they were with friends, with other people tripping, they were more likely to have a “good trip.” Aspects of these trips seemed to include lots of visual and auditory hallucinations: “halos” glowing around light sources, warping colors, maybe some synesthesia.
So I just figured that magic mushrooms must hyper-activate the parts of the brain that perceive color and sound, to the point where people perceive things that aren’t even there.
However, recent research out of the U.K. says that, surprisingly, I’ve got it all backwards. Scientists at the University of Bristol took 30 people and injected them directly with either a saltwater placebo or two milligrams of psilocybin, the psychoactive compound in shrooms. I want to make an aside here: the paper says that “All subjects had previous experience with a hallucinogenic drug but not within 6 wk of the study.” Okay cool, so here’s what I’m imagining:
Within a minute or two, the test subjects started to feel the effects of the psilocybin, and the researchers gave them fMRIs during their trips. Surprisingly to me, and to the scientists, brain activity and blood flow decreased by up to 20% during the influence of the drug, and these decreases were proportional to the reported intensity of the trip! The specific parts of the brain that experienced the suppressed activity and blood flow included the thalamus, the medial prefontal cortex, and the anterior cingulate cortex.
The thought behind this finding is that when people do shrooms, pathways in the brain that would normally restrict cognition are temporarily turned off, allowing people to cognate at higher levels than ever before. Some of these same cognition-restraining pathways are overactive in cases of depression, but I won’t go so far as to suggest shrooms as a treatment for depressive disorders!
In any case, I won’t discourage any research group from trying to find therapeutic value in naturally-occurring psychoactive drugs like psilocybin. In the U.K., at least, mushrooms even rank in as the least harmful drug by some measures:
The brain is already fascinating, and studies like this make it clear that there is a ton of work left to be done in the neuroscience field. The brain is constantly surprising us.
Carhart-Harris RL, Erritzoe D, Williams T, Stone JM, Reed LJ, Colasanti A, Tyacke RJ, Leech R, Malizia AL, Murphy K, Hobden P, Evans J, Feilding A, Wise RG, & Nutt DJ (2012). Neural correlates of the psychedelic state as determined by fMRI studies with psilocybin. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109 (6), 2138-43 PMID: 22308440