“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
The ‘cavern’ William Blake speaks of is the brain, fine-tuned to perceive an infinitesimal range of the electromagnetic spectrum corresponding to visible light and audible sound. Blake had the insight to understand that a multitude of external and internal events are filtered before ever reaching the conscious mind. In his book The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley describes his experiences under the influence of mescaline, and explores the idea that hallucinogenic drugs remove some of these filters, allowing us to perceive things we would not normally perceive.
Research into the effects of hallucinogenic drugs stopped for several decades when the recreational use of substances like LSD became widespread in the 1960s. (The U.S. military, however, covertly conducted such experiments during the 1950s and 60s on unwitting soldiers, sometimes with drastic results.)
Research into hallucinogens has now it has resumed: Roland Griffiths, of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and his colleauges, have just published the results of a scientific study into the effects another hallucinogenic drug, psilocybin. The the study is the first of its kind in over 40 years.
In the study, 36 middle-aged American participants, who had never taken any form of hallucinogenic drug before, were given large doses of psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient of the halluginogenic (‘magic’) mushrooms. The experiment had a rigorous double-blind design. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups; one group was given psilocybin, the other methylphenidate (Ritalin), and neither the participants nor the experimenters knew who had been given what. This eliminated the possibilty that anything experienced by the participants was caused by their expectations.
Immediately after the effects of the drug had worn off, participants completed questionnaires about their experiences under the influence of the drug. Many of them reported feeling deeply joyful, experiencing a unity with their surroundings and transcendence of time and space – in other words, they had ‘mystical’ experiences. Although some of the participants became anxious or scared while under the influence of the drug, many of them rated their experience as one of the most meaningful in their lives. In interviews conducted two months after the study, many of them reported that the experience had changed their lives for the better.
Griffiths and his team, who were astonished by the participants’ reports, say the drug might be beneficial in helping drug addicts kick their habits, in alleviating the anxiety and depression of terminally ill patients, and perhaps provide neuroscientists with more understanding of what happens in the brain during religious experiences. Psilocybin belongs to a class of drugs that includes mescaline, peyote, dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).
Panaeolus sphinctrinus, Psilocybe cubensis and Psilocybe caerulescens, the mushroom species which produce psilocybin, are but a few of many so-called entheogens. The term ‘entheogen’, meaning ‘realizing the divinity within’, describes more fully the complex effects of these compunds than do terms such as hallucinogen, psychedelic or psyomimetic.
Psilocybin is a 5-HT2 receptor agonist (it produces its effects by mimicking the actions of serotonin). The drug has an onset time of about half an hour, and its effects, which commonly include visual and auditory hallucinations, euphoria and synaesthesia, last for 5-6 hours.
It is believed that our ancestors first used such substances over a million years ago, and it has even been suggested that their use was instrumental in the evolution of consciousness and religion. Because the mushroom species which produce psilocybin are known to grow on cow dung, their use probably increased when humans first came into contact with cattle, for agricultural and other purposes.
The first descriptions of hallucinogenic mushrooms date back to 9,000 BCE. Entheogens have been used by Mesoamerican shamanic tribes during religious rituals for thousands of years, and the earliest records of the use of mushrooms date back to the Aztecs, who called them teonanacatl (‘God’s flesh’). An observer at the coronation of Montezuma II wrote that “they gave the strangers mountain mushrooms to eat, on which they became inebriated, and with this they entered into the dance”.
The Aztecs considered these mushrooms to be sacred and used them only in there holiest cereomonies. The Conquistadors were repelled by the Aztecs’ use of the fungi, and tried to suppress it. The use of mushrooms by the Aztecs is well documented by Spanish clergy:
The native people would pick these little mushrooms; some were small and yellow, and some were black [with] small round heads and slender stems. They were sometimes mixed and eaten with honey or with chocolate, and when they were eaten they would make one see many things which would make them much afraid, or even laugh. Some would dance or weep, others would merely sit and dream. Some had visions of death, or of falling in battle. Some believed that they were being eaten by a wild animal and others believed that they would become very wealthy. All forms of good or evil could become a reality under the influence of the fungus which the natives referred to as teonanácatl, teo implies divine, and nacatl, means meat or mushroom, hence the term ‘flesh of the gods’…When the effects of the inebriation of the mushrooms were past and all had returned to normal, the Indians would then consult with each other in regards as to what they each had experienced while under the influence of the mushrooms…The mushrooms might make one lose his senses or give one pleasure. Some would predict the future or see a thousand or more serpents or jaguars and some believed that their arms or their legs were being cannibalized by worms or spiders. The use of the mushrooms could ward off evil or cast charms and spells to insure success, and they were thought to cure all kinds of diseases.