The neuroscience behind the mystical experience.
There’s an ever-growing body of scientific research that shows psilocybin, the psychoactive compound in hallucinogenic mushrooms, can provide therapeutic benefits. From helping people recover from smoking addictions to reducing anxiety and depression in patients with chronic illnesses, the psychedelic drug has proven to have profound, transformative effects.
While tripping on mushrooms, people report intense hallucinations, distorted perceptions of reality, and intensified emotions. So, what’s going on in the brain and body under the influence of psilocybin that brings about these fantastical effects?
1. Psilocybin gets broken down into psilocin
According to an AsapSCIENCE video, the first thing that happens after a person takes ‘shrooms is that the psilocybin gets broken down into psilocin, an active chemical that makes its way to the brain.
2. Serotonin reuptake is prevented
Once psilocin reaches the brain, it prevents the reuptake (reabsorption) of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that affects our mood, social behavior, memory, and sexual desire.
Interestingly, psilocin actually has a similar chemical structure to serotonin, which enables it to bind to and stimulate receptors in the brain. This amplified stimulation is what brings upon hallucinations — the brain is led to perceive and experience things without any real stimulus.
3. Sense of time is warped
Mushroom trips can last anywhere from 3 to 8 hours, but since the drug alters sensory perceptions in the brain, a user’s sense of time can be warped to feel like the experience lasts much longer.
4. Feelings of relaxation
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, psilocybin can bring about feelings of relaxation similar to low doses of marijuana. However, it’s important to note that each experience with mushrooms is subjective to the user, so some people may feel relaxed and euphoric while others may feel paranoid and out of control.
5. Brain activity is decreased overall
Interestingly, despite the spike in sensory experiences and hallucinations, a study at Johns Hopkins University found that psilocybin actually decreased activity in the brain, particularly, in areas involved in information transfer, like the thalamus.
"'Knocking out' these key hubs with psilocybin appears to allow information to travel more freely in the brain, probably explaining why people's imaginations become more vivid and animated and the world is experienced as unusual," study author Robin Carhart-Harris told Live Science.
6. Increased heart rate, blood pressure, and rapid changes in body temperature
Taking mushrooms leads to an increase in heart rate, blood, pressure, and body temperature. Interestingly, body temperature can intensely fluctuate on the drug — at some points, a user may be flushed and sweating, but quickly switch to chills and shivering, as reported by the University of Maryland’s Center for Substance Abuse Research.
7. The brain may temporarily rearrange itself
Because the drug inhibits normal brain activity, scientists have suggested that the brain temporarily rearranges itself on mushrooms and immediately creates new biologically stable connections. Ultimately, this could explain why people tripping on mushrooms have a difficult time distinguishing reality from fantasy.
8. The hippocampus and anterior cingulate cortex are activated
These areas of the brain are associated with dreaming.
9. Emotional regions of the brain are activated
Specific areas in the brain which are involved with emotional processing are chemically activated by the drug, which could explain the intensified emotions, expansion of consciousness, and intense spiritual experiences that people who take mushrooms so often report.
10. Feelings of unity with the world and humanity
Similar to LSD, a common effect that mushroom users report is feeling a sense of “oneness” with the world, universe, and other human beings. This can also contribute to the transformative spiritual experiences that some users encounter.
11. The beneficial effects are long-lasting
More and more research is showing that the mystical effects of mushrooms can impact users for months after a psychedelic experience. A recent study published last month (May 2016) found, for the first time, that mushrooms helped lift depression in patients who had treatment-resistant depression — and over half of the study participants continued to show reduced symptoms of their depression three months later.