If you are a God-loving American catholic schoolgirl, it must be that nothing seems better than heading into an Irish forest with a group of friends to ingest some highly potent hallucinogenic mushrooms. Or at least, that’s one of those ideas that seem good until you start having seizures, visions, premonitions, and your friends keep wandering off and getting their limbs mangled while you keep waking up disoriented and covered in blood. But of course, that won’t happen to you, right? That’s what all the kids say.
The infamous psychologist Timothy Leary celebrated hallucinogens. For him ‘magic mushrooms’ were a natural supplement to any investigation into the self. (For those interested, you can check out his ‘classic’ literature here, and don’t forget the hard-to-find but worth-while album here). Though Timothy Leary’s Tune in, Turn on, Drop out crusade was highly criticized (and he eventually left Harvard to pontificate elsewhere), psychological and neuroscientific research has seen a recent surge of interest in those little mescal buttons.
Research into the effects of psilocybin is providing insight into how this drug affects the brain, producing its characteristic hallucinations and other-worldly perceptions. For instance, a well-publicized recent research article reports in detail the changes in brain activation while ‘under the influence’ of hallucinogens. In this study, the researchers used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to observe the brain while participants were—ahem-- ‘tripping’. The participants were not given a specific task, instructed instead to simply ‘relax’. The results showed that, rather than sporadically exciting a diversity of brain areas (as the subjective experience of a drug trip might suggest), or throwing subjects into violent black-out states (as silly slasher films like to imply), the drug actually reduced activity in the hubs that coordinate activity across important brain regions—regions that other research has implicated in maintaining consciousness and creating feelings of the self.
Because of the ability of this drug to deactivate these ‘hub’ centers, the authors suggest that mushrooms may be useful in helping people with depression overcome their rigid, negative thoughts by loosening the maladaptive connections that the hubs maintain. Whether or not this is the case remains to be determined, but it is certainly clear that we will hear lots more about the neuroscience of drug trips in the near future—though we doubt that they’ll explain why some catholic schoolgirls tend to walk around strange Irish forests with hatchets.
More on Shrooms (2007) here
Carhart-Harris, R.L., Erritzoe, D., Williams, T., Stone, J.M., Reed, L.J., Colasanti, A., Tyacke, R.J., Leech, R., Malizia, A.L., Murphy, K., Hobden, P., Evans, J., Feilding, A., Wise, R.G., & Nutt, D.J. (2012). Neural correlates of the psychedelic state as determined by fMRI studies with psilocybin. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(6), 2138-2143.
MacDonald, P. & Walpole, R. (Producers), Breathnach, P. (Director). (2007). Shrooms [Motion picture]. Ireland: Vertigo Films(UK).