Psilocybin, Hallucinations, and the Spiritual Enlightenment
22 February, 2010
Neurobiology 202: Web Paper 1
Psilocybin, Hallucinations, and the Spiritual Enlightenment
Classroom discussions have driven our dialogue, naturally, to the intricacies and evolution of thought surrounding the human nervous system – it’s structure and function, and the implications of inputs influencing outputs, outputs influencing inputs, and the nervous system as a cyclical unit; a loop generating both inputs and outputs. Interesting, then, are instances in which one perceives a stimulus that does not exist outside the brain and are instead imagined, generated by the brain – hallucinated. What I hope to do here is look at hallucinations as a breakdown of our internal-external stimulus awareness, and call upon studies of drug-induced hallucinations and, particularly, those psychoactive drugs as entheogens, and report on the findings of an experiment that left subjects of a test using psilocybin feeling spiritually enlightened and, overall – to put it simply – happier people. I then want to compare these findings to the symptoms experienced by patients with acute schizophrenia who experience, in their first stages of the disorder, hallucinations of a similar nature.
Hallucinations, are, of course, not only a reaction to psychoactive drugs or a symptom of schizophrenia. A number of diseases and brain deficits (e.g. Parkinson’s, focal epilepsy, sleep deprivation) often include, in symptoms, hallucinations that can occur in any sensory modality. One who experiences hallucinations perceives stimuli without the presence of an external stimulus (and, unlike vivid dreams or nightmares, require consciousness). Thoughts about the causes of hallucinations traveled the then-popular Freudian route into psychoanalysis; hallucinations were thought to be symptoms of the traumatized or repressed, the un-called-upon emergence of unconscious desires. But those theories took a more biological turn with a newfound understanding of brain deficits, specifically those that might yield to hallucinations – perhaps most famously, schizophrenia.
Like other psychoactive drugs, hallucinogenic mushrooms, or psilocybin mushrooms, have long existed as aspects of spiritual and religious ceremonies in different cultures. Only recently, however, have psilocybin mushrooms (discovered in 1943 alongside d-lysergic acid diethylamide – LSD) returned from a 40-year hiatus of attention to be put back under the microscope as a new-age spiritual movement takes flight (Bowers 216). Psilocybin mushrooms have been used in studies that have begun to unearth “implications for advancing our understanding of spiritual dimensions of consciousness” (Richards 377).
A study conducted by Ronald R. Griffith at Johns Hopkins suggests that “you can safely and fairly reliably occasion a mystical experience using psilocybin that may lead to positive changes in a person” (Bower 216). Subjects of the study – 36 middle-aged, self-described spiritual – but non-psychedelic-drug-using – men and women, ingested psilocybin under a double-blind test. The controlled aspect of the study was the use of methylphenidate, or Ritalin, which is not known to produce “mystical” effects. The majority of the subjects (25 of the 36) declared the experience as in the top 3 or 5 most spiritual experiences of their lives, and reported (as did friends and family) increased quality of life months, and subsequently, years, following the study (Bowler 217). Bower reports that “feelings of extreme fear or dread” were present for 11 of the 36 participants. A review of the study goes on to cite instances of psilocybin as a life-changing tool, moving one user of the drug to confound Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935 because of the spiritual and effects of the drug.
Interesting that both brain deficits and disorders – and let us specifically look at schizophrenia now – and the ingestion of psychoactive drugs induce similar hallucinations, and yet there appears to be evidence of a positive impact on spirituality and general temperament from the psilocybin mushrooms, but overall negative experiences for those suffering from schizophrenia. This observation suggests that it is not the hallucinatory aspect of the psilocybin, but some other result, that induces these positive changes. This very contrast was studied with the following major distinctions made: first, that psychoactive drugs produced mostly visual hallucinations, as opposed to the auditory hallucinations more frequently experienced by schizophrenic patients; second, that hallucinations for those under the influence of psychoactive drugs were much more often described as pleasurable, while those experienced by schizophrenic patients were more often described as unpleasant; third, that the hallucinatory symptoms of a person suffering from schizophrenia often had been developing for much longer – years longer – than those of a person using psilocybin mushrooms, which take discourse in a matter of hours; and fourth, that a person who knowingly ingests psilocybin mushrooms also is likely to knowingly accept the hallucinatory effects and the relatively speedy return to normalcy, while those effects might seem unexplained and unending to those with schizophrenia. (Snyder, Banjerie, Yamamura, and Greenburg, 1245).
These differences are important to keep in mind when reviewing the striking similarities between the internally-generated stimuli that occur from psilocybin mushrooms and the first stages of acute schizophrenia: “feelings of enhanced self-awareness, awe, and ecstasy, with sensations of increased acuity and profundity of all sensory perception … Perceptual modes were heightened, the patients feeling that they had broken through conventional modes of perceiving, thinking and feeling to attain a “new creativity” (Snyder, Banjerie, Yamamura, and Greenburg, 1245). The feelings of extreme dread and fear also seem to match up well. It would be well, then, to next investigate the properties of psilocybin unrelated to hallucinations, that might offer insight into why those under the influence of the drug have such drastically positive immediate and long-lasting effects compared to those of schizophrenic patients, and where, outside of the hallucinations, that divide lies.
Chemical Enlightenment. Bruce Bower Science News, Vol. 170, No. 14 (Sep. 30, 2006), pp. 216-217+220
Published by: Society for Science & the Public
Drugs, Neurotransmitters, and Schizophrenia
Solomon H. Snyder, Shailesh P. Banerjee, Henry I. Yamamura, David Greenberg
- Science, New Series, Vol. 184, No. 4143 (Jun. 21, 1974), pp. 1243-1253
- Published by: American Association for the Advancement of Science
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1738058
Sacks, Oliver W. Man who mistook his wife for a hat and other clinical tales. New York,
NY: Simon & Schuster, 1998. Google Books. Web. 20 Feb. 2010.
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