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Magic Mushrooms: A Mental Health Cure?

What do you think of when you hear the words “magic mushrooms”? It’s likely that you may be picturing long-haired hippies, experimental rock bands or cross-legged gurus preaching about peace and love. Our view of psychedelic drugs like LSD and magic mushrooms is still largely shaped by events of the 1960s. In these ten years, they went from defining the art, music and politics of a generation, to being outlawed amid terrifying headlines about “bad trips” and damaged minds.

It could all have been very different. Years before the Summer of Love, doctors had been testing these drugs in trials of “psychedelic therapy” which showed remarkable promise in the treatment of mental health conditions like alcoholism, anxiety and depression. They appeared to be on the verge of a breakthrough that would revolutionise the field of psychiatry. But that all came to an abrupt halt when psychedelic drugs were criminalised at the end of the 1960s.

Half a century later, modern neuroscience and psychology are now picking up where these earlier trials left off. While we still have a lot to learn about the safest way to harness the power of mind-altering drugs, could this fresh look at psychedelics in medicine finally lead us to a cure for mental illness?

Watch my short video to find out more…

From ancient healing ceremonies to Santa Claus

Surprising as it sounds, the idea of using psychedelic substances for medicinal purposes has a very long history.

Natives of North and Central America were using magic mushrooms over 2,000 years ago and the ritual of consuming mind-altering fungi to honour the gods has continued in some communities to the present day. People living in some of the small villages in Mexico’s central highlands describe the three species of hallucinogenic mushrooms which grow nearby as ‘medicina’, believing that they help to cure gout and fever.

Parts of Africa and European countries including Greece and Finland were also reportedly early adopters of psychedelics. In fact, there’s even a credible theory that the origin story of Santa Claus may actually derive from a psychedelic mushroom-eating shaman in Finland. Yes, really! (When you think about it, I suppose there issomething a little bit trippy about the idea of a benevolent old man racing around the world in one night with the assistance of some flying reindeer…)

When psychedelics went mainstream (briefly)

Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann was conducting experiments with the ergot fungus when he first synthesised a new drug called lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD for short. This was in the late 1930s. It wasn’t until a few years later that he discovered the drug’s powerful effects by chance when he accidentally ingested some and then took what turned out to be a surreal and traumatic bike ride home from his lab.

Clinical trials followed and, by the late 1950s, thousands of scientific papers had been published exploring the medicinal properties of LSD and other psychedelics. More than 40,000 patients were prescribed LSD alongside psychotherapy to treat mental health issues like anxiety and depression. One such person was the film star Cary Grant. He took LSD more than 100 times and credited it with saving his life.

So, what went wrong?

One theory is that usage of these powerful new drugs started to spiral out of control when clinical psychologists like Timothy Leary, who had been permitted to administer them in a controlled setting, began taking them recreationally with their famous friends – people who included counter-culture poets, artists, authors and musicians.

Popular culture in the 1960s became increasingly psychedelic, with pop groups singing about taking LSD and getting high, and writers and artists celebrating these ‘mind-expanding’ drugs in increasingly high-profile and colourful ways. More young people started taking drugs and a sense of panic ensued about the damage this might be doing to their minds, and to society. Western governments largely came to the same conclusion – the best way to regulate psychedelics was to ban them.

While this may all sound very plausible, there is another more complex and intriguing version of events…

A cartoon of two individuals relaxing atop a mushroom surrounded by smiley faces, flowers and fairies.

The CIA’s secret mind control experiments

Back in the 1950s, while medical researchers and psychiatrists were getting increasingly excited about LSD’s medical potential, the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had some other ideas about how it could be used.

Within a few years of Albert Hoffman’s discovery, the CIA ordered vast quantities of LSD from his Swiss lab and began illegally testing the drug on thousands of unwitting subjects, and even (possibly) a whole French town. People administered with drugs were subjected to experiments in brainwashing and psychological torture, as part of a top-secret campaign to assess the potential for psychedelic drugs to be used as a weapon of war.

Details of the CIA’s Project MKUltra, which ran for 20 years, were made public in 1975 following a commission by President Gerald Ford and have since become a staple of popular culture – from Stranger Things to Call of Duty to The Good Shepherd.

The CIA’s covert experiments were carried out under the guise of research at universities, hospitals, prisons and pharmaceutical companies. Among the unwitting subjects were One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest author Ken Kesey and the poet Allen Ginsberg.

After being introduced to psychedelics through these CIA experiments, both Kesey and Ginsberg would go on to become outspoken advocates of drugs as leading figures of the counterculture in the 1960s.

Renowned New York Times journalist Stephen Kinzer spent years investigating Project MKUltra. As he wryly observes:

“[The] CIA brought LSD to America unwittingly. And actually, it's a tremendous irony that the drug that the CIA hoped would be its key to controlling humanity actually wound up fuelling a generational rebellion that was dedicated to destroying everything that the CIA held dear and defended.”

The psychedelic renaissance

When President Richard Nixon declared war on drugs with the Controlled Substances Act of 1971, it didn’t just put a stop to recreational drug use – it also brought all medical trials to an abrupt halt. Labs faced a catch-22 situation: these drugs were banned because they had ‘no accepted medical use’, but researchers were prevented from studying their potential for medical use because they were banned. Other governments soon followed suit.

In his book How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan cites 2006 as the year that things started to change, and the “modern renaissance of psychedelic research” began. Fittingly, a 100th birthday party held for LSD pioneer Albert Hofmann in Geneva that year proved to be a key turning point, with the celebration morphing into a conference for researchers from the US and Switzerland to share their findings. That same year, the Journal of Psychopharmacology published the results of a robust clinical study on the psychological effects of psilocybin mushrooms.

Since then, doctors and scientists have been able to pick up where they left off. In some cases (notably Bill Richards) it has literally been the same people resuming the research they had been forced to abandon decades earlier. And now, thanks to advances in neuroscience and psychology, they are gaining huge insights into how these drugs work.

Decriminalisation and recent research

This year alone has seen parts of Canada and Australia passing legislation to decriminalise psychedelics for medical use, building on similar recent developments in the United States, Israel and Switzerland. And the results of recent trials paint a cautiously optimistic picture.

A 2022 UK study led by King’s College London and Maudsley NHS Trust found that psilocybin improved the symptoms of severe depression for up to 12 weeks when combined with therapy.

Speaking to BBC News, the University of Edinburgh’s head of psychiatry Professor Andrew McIntosh said the trial provided "the strongest evidence so far to suggest that further, larger and longer randomised trials of psychedelics are justified."

"Psilocybin may [one day] provide a potential alternative to antidepressants that have been prescribed for decades," he added.

There is still some way to go before psychedelics can be embraced as a mainstream treatment. Researchers who carried out the promising King’s College London study noted that the short-term effects of psilocybin could be frightening for some. Others have noted the current absence of evidence that these drugs can have a positive impact over the long-term.

But, with follow-up trials in progress, we may now finally be on track to achieve the mental health breakthrough that researchers were working towards 60 years ago.

And finally... can psychedelics make you more creative?

One enduring legacy from the 1960s is the idea that psychedelic drugs like LSD and magic mushrooms boost creativity.

As well as their association with some of the most famous music, art and literature of the decade, it is also possible to trace a link between hallucinogenic drugs and the revolution in computing that followed. Steve Jobs admitted to having experimented with LSD in his youth, and Bill Gates is rumoured to have done the same.

Perhaps influenced by this, there was a recent trend in Silicon Valley for young professionals to ‘microdose’ with small amounts of LSD in the belief that it would help them become more creative and focused.

However, rather than Jobs’ youthful experimentation with the drug, it may be more telling to look instead to what he did afterwards. As his college friend and early Apple employee Daniel Kottke revealed in a 2015 interview:

“Once Apple started, Steve was really focused with all of his energy on making Apple successful. And he didn't need psychedelics for that."

Academics point out that, with our understanding of psychedelics still at a relatively early stage, there is little robust evidence that using LSD in small quantities to boost concentration and creativity is effective or outweighs the risks.

A group of Cambridge University academics looked into the microdosing trend and concluded with a recommendation backed by much stronger scientific evidence:

“[It is] important that more research is done on the safety and efficacy of microdosing. In the meantime, physical exercise, education, social interaction, mindfulness and good quality sleep have all been shown to improve cognitive performance and overall well-being.”

Recommended links and further reading


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