Updated: Dec 26, 2022
Psychedelics are enjoying a massive resurgence into mainstream awareness as tools for personal and spiritual growth and as therapies for common mental health challenges such as depression and anxiety. This change was already happening before Michael Pollan's How to Change Your Mind series went live on Netflix. Now, more people than ever are motivated to explore these enigmatic substances.
Among psychedelics, one group stands out for its ability to bring about profound personal transformation on a collective scale in a safe, accessible, and sustainable way: Magic Mushrooms.
In this post, we'll be giving 5 science-based examples of how magic mushrooms may be able to produce changes to your mind and, therefore, your life.
But first, a little about Magic Mushrooms.
What are Magic Mushrooms, and Why are They Important?
"Magic mushrooms" is the common term for hundreds of mushroom species that contain the psychedelic compounds psilocybin and psilocin. These are mainly mushrooms from the Psilocybe family, but other families may contain psilocybin, such as Panaeolus. The most common magic mushroom is Psilocybe cubensis, commonly known as "gold tops" or simply "cubes." Popular strains of cubes include Golden Teachers, B+, and Penis Envy (named for its somewhat phallic appearance and less awkwardly referred to as simply "PE"). Other well-known psilocybe mushrooms include Psilocybe cyanescens - Wavy Caps, which grow around the Pacific Northwest, or Psilocybe subaeruginosa - Subs, from south-eastern Australia.
Not all Psilocybe fungi are utilized as mushrooms, either. Psilocybe mexicana, Psilocybe tampanensis, and Psilocybe galindoi all produce an underground truffle containing psilocybin. These "magic truffles" are less common in much of the world but are currently legal in the Netherlands, where they are widely available.
Psilocybin is the main active constituent in magic mushrooms and magic truffles. Once digested, our bodies convert psilocybin to psilocin, which then interacts with serotonin receptors in our brains to produce shifts in our perceptions, and how we think and feel. These effects can range from subtle mood changes from microdosing to profound and all-encompassing mystical experiences from larger doses (and everything in between.)
Science has shown psilocybin to effectively enhance the lives of people experiencing difficult-to-treat conditions and those with no severe health issues. There has been an explosion of research on psilocybin in recent years. The articles discussed below represent only a tiny fraction of the scientific literature on the subject.
So, yeah, magic mushrooms are highly significant! But what could they do for you?
5 Ways Magic Mushrooms Could Change Your Mind
Regarding psilocybin research for mental health, depression is the area that is currently most heavily investigated. Existing therapies, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), often fail to alleviate symptoms for many people suffering from depression.
Fortunately, mounting evidence points to the effectiveness of psilocybin in addressing the root causes of treatment-resistant depression. Given that hundreds of millions of people worldwide suffer from chronic depression, the benefits of psilocybin have broad potential worth exploring in greater depth.
Recent research led by Robin Carhart-Harris provides ample evidence of psilocybin's beneficial effects on depression. In his 2016 open-label study, he discovered that two moderate to high doses of psilocybin, given in a supportive environment seven days apart, significantly reduced symptoms of depression. This effect was so strong that almost 60% of participants no longer met the criteria for being clinically depressed at the three-month follow-up. His open-label trial in 2017 showed similar results that persisted for up to 6 months after the psilocybin sessions. And his 2021 double-blind, randomized controlled trial showed that two doses of psilocybin were at least as effective as six weeks’ use of a conventional antidepressant.
Psilocybin also seems to produce beneficial changes in how people think. Research led by Rosalind Watts showed that after two psilocybin experiences, people suffering from treatment-resistant depression felt more connected with other people. They were also less likely to avoid thinking about or dealing with difficult emotions or thoughts.
While scientists have conducted most of this research under strict clinical conditions, the benefits are not limited to these settings. Richard Ziefman and his team surveyed people before and after using psychedelics (including psilocybin) in non-clinical settings, such as in their homes and at guided psychedelic retreats. Most survey participants had lower depression severity than before, at rates similar to trials operating with stricter clinical approaches.
In much of the research around psilocybin and depression, anxiety has also been part of the investigation. A 2020 meta-analysis of existing depression research has confirmed that participants also experienced significant reductions in anxiety during these studies. This is consistent with research a decade earlier that showed psilocybin reduced anxiety in patients who had received a terminal cancer diagnosis.
Research into psilocybin and anxiety isn’t as advanced as it is for depression. This is likely to change, with researchers currently trialing it for a range of anxiety-related issues, including generalized anxiety disorder (GAD.)
The fact that psilocybin can reduce anxiety might seem a little counterintuitive. After all, it doesn’t sedate or numb you to your thoughts and feelings in the same way that conventional anti-anxiety medications can. But what psilocybin can do, is allow us the mental space to step back from the things that cause us to feel anxious, and then reframe how we think about them. Because of the complex effects psilocybin can have on how we perceive threats and how we might reframe them, it’s also been suggested as a treatment for social anxiety disorder.
When researchers explore the application of psilocybin in complex and difficult circumstances, such as end-of-life distress or terminal illness, there are a range of positive effects, including reductions in depression and anxiety. But in these trials, almost two-thirds of participants also reported experiencing greater meaning and better overall satisfaction with their lives. Similar increases in life satisfaction have been reported across multiple studies, including research on psilocybin’s potential to assist in quitting smoking.
Life satisfaction isn’t so much about feeling joy or happiness in the moment. Rather, it’s our ability to look at our lives overall, and feel positive about what we did or are doing. It’s enormously important to our overall ability to feel content, and is a key factor in our subjective well being. Not surprisingly, life satisfaction seems to contribute to our ability to be resilient in the face of difficult or unpleasant circumstances.
Overall mental health
Krebs and Johansen (2013) looked at data from the US National Survey on Drug Use and Health. Their analysis showed that people who had used psychedelics had no greater risk of mental health problems. If anything, they were less likely to have experienced severe psychological distress. The researchers also found that people who had used psilocybin were less likely to experience panic attacks or be prescribed psychiatric medication.
Roland Griffiths and his team observed similar results in their 2011 study. Healthy volunteers described high-dose psilocybin experiences as being highly personal and spiritually significant. Their mood, attitudes, and behavior all improved. Many of the trial participants reported better relationships with family and others. They took better care of themselves physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Over a year later, When Griffiths followed up with these people, these improvements persisted.
Anything that helps with the factors we've already discussed will potentially enhance relationships. E.g., if you feel more connected and stop avoiding complex thoughts & feelings, as Rosalind Watts' depression research found, this will almost certainly be positive for your relationships with others.
But there is also reason to suspect that psilocybin may help in less subtle ways. Research looking at the behavior of men who had any lifetime use of LSD or psilocybin found they were 50% less likely to have committed violence against their partners. This is consistent with research that shows people who have used psychedelics are generally less likely to commit violent crimes. The researchers suggest this could be because psychedelic use can improve emotional regulation.
Emotional regulation is our ability to choose our response to an emotional situation or re-frame how we feel about something. Examples of emotional regulation include not yelling at someone when you’re angry (even though, in the moment, you want to), but also thinking through the situation and realizing that maybe you’re not that angry. Whether it’s a friendship, getting along with others in the workplace, or an intense romantic situation, all relationships benefit from this formidable life skill.
Changing your mind, one day at a time
We can see that psilocybin and magic mushrooms can have profound impacts on how we think and feel, in ways that can radically improve our lives. Sometimes, these changes have happened almost accidentally, with people discovering that they have better emotional regulation after using magic mushrooms, even though that’s not what they intended.
But much of the research we’ve looked at also shows that the best and most consistent improvements come from deliberate and mindful use, supported by good preparation and integration practices. Most of you haven’t participated in psychedelic research, and may never use synthetic psilocybin in a clinical setting. Luckily, for most people, this isn’t necessary. To make the most of your psilocybin mushroom experiences, approach them with care, get advice from people with experience, and cultivate a thoughtful attitude about what you’re going through. This can sound daunting. But there are whole communities of people out there who’ve been exactly where you are right now. You won't have to spend long reaching out before one of them offers to help.
A note on safety and legality: While psilocybin mushrooms have been decriminalized in some places, they are generally illegal, and we don’t advocate breaking the law. If you are going to use magic mushrooms, please follow safety guidelines.
Are you committed to changing your mind, but aren't sure where to start? Our Microdosing Coaching program is a great way to begin your journey of psychedelic self-discovery. Click here to learn why.
About the Author
Samuel Douglas, Ph.D. is a writer, philosopher, and drug law reform activist. Drawing on his academic background and lived experience, Samuel writes about current events in psychedelics and what they might mean for therapy, society, and the ordinary person just trying to make sense of it all. In 2021, he founded Psychedelic Overground, a business dedicated to providing psychedelic content and copywriting services that are authentic, accurate, and ethical. When not writing, teaching, or volunteering with the Australian Psychedelic Society, Samuel likes to garden and spoil his cat.