Of all psychedelic substances, psilocybin is the most commonly used and discussed. Given though psilocybin (also known as magic mushrooms) grows freely throughout the world, it makes sense that nearly as many people consume psilocybin mushrooms as cannabis according to a US Department of Health and Human Services study in 2009 .
Cannabis has experienced a flourishing of inquiry into the scientific benefits of the plant. This has naturally changed the perspective that many people have on the substance and psilocybin is experiencing a similar resurgence in popularity.
The academic world is finding many scientifically-backed benefits of psilocybin and popular figures and media are making these substances more mainstream.
If you read until the end, we will break down the benefits (including spiritual and introspective) and how to get started with magic mushrooms safely and legally.
Psilocybin and Magic Mushrooms: What’s the Difference?
The chemical compound which creates hallucinations and other benefits is psilocybin. This naturally occurring substance is what creates the psychedelic trip, but it isn’t the whole mushroom. Psilocybin is just a small percentage of the entire mushroom.
Magic mushrooms refer to the species of mushrooms that have psilocybin in them (usually percentages range from 1.78% down to 0.16% ). Only a small percentage is psilocybin, which is an important distinction.
A Brief History of Psilocybin
Until the 20th century, humans did not have the distinction between psilocybin and magic mushrooms. For thousands of years humans have been consuming psychedelic mushrooms in order to alter their reality.
The earliest evidence of psilocybin consumption dates back to cave drawings in Algeria 9000 to 7000 BCE (11,000 years ago!) . The depiction of geometrical designs, mushroom-like objects, and other parallels make archeologists certain they were experimenting with psilocybin.
The same is true in mesoamerica (modern day Mexico all the way to South America). The Aztecs called mushrooms “God’s flesh” and used it in religious ceremonies.
While there is conflicting evidence, famed researcher Terence McKenna developed the “Stoned-Ape theory” positing that humans may have developed higher cognition and consciousness by using psilocybin mushrooms hundreds of thousands of years ago . Whatever the truth, psilocybin has been used for a long, long time.
Psilocybin Mushrooms: Science Based Benefits
Our ancestors who gathered wild mushrooms from the forest didn’t have much scientific data to go off, but they did have mind-expanding experiences they could pass on to their friends and loved ones.
We now have a variety of tools to see exactly what psilocybin mushrooms do for our brain and the results are pretty stunning.
Consistently, old research and new suggests psilocybin is a great treatment for anxiety, treatment-resistant depression , addiction , and end of life care .
Those are the directly applicable practical benefits of psilocybin, but there are many other benefits in the way users perceive the world, which are highly valuable. For example, studies by Roland Griffiths showed that psilocybin was an entheogen, which is a substance that creates mystical experiences or a connection to a higher power .
In the study, 61% of the subjects reported a “complete mystical experience” after the psilocybin experience. After two months, 79% of the participants reported greater life satisfaction and well-being . In the video below, Griffiths discusses how psilocybin can end suffering:
Rewiring the Brain with Psilocybin
Part of the main benefit of psilocybin are the long-term effects. In one 2016 example by Roland Griffiths, patients were recorded to have significant benefits 12 months after their initial psilocybin experience .
This may be because psilocybin (along with other psychedelics like DMT) interacts with the serotonin system and specifically 5-HT-2A receptors, which are important for memory, learning, and neuroplasticity according to psychedelics researcher Dr. Carhart-Harris .
The research from Carhart-Harris typically focuses on fMRI and other brain imaging techniques, which show that psychedelics help “reset” certain regions of the brain; one in particular called the Default Mode Network (DMN) .
Healing Depression with Magic Mushrooms
Of all the psilocybin research, depression and specifically treatment-resistant depression (where traditional pharmaceutical options have not worked) has received the most attention and money. Those suffering from depression are often debilitated by the problem and magic mushrooms are showing great promise.
Both Roland Griffiths and Carhart-Harris have conducted early studies treating depression with psilocybin . Given the FDA is interested in solid science, the results of these studies caused them to classify psilocybin as having Phase II Status for this purpose .
Brain-imaging studies can help us identify why magic mushrooms are so valuable for treating depression. According to an fMRI, the default mode network (DMN) is quieted during psilocybin experiences and this is precisely the overactive region that can cause some forms of depression. The brain scans suggest reduced activity in the amygdala (fear oriented center) as well .
Psilocybin in End of Life Care
Without falling too deeply into the rabbit hole of morality, the people society should have the most compassion for are those towards the end of life with late-stage cancer or some other terminal illness. They are suffering and they are near death.
A 2011 pilot study found that patients with terminal illness who took psilocybin saw significant reductions in their anxiety . More compelling were large studies done by Roland Griffiths recently published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology to great fanfare among the medical community .
The fact that these substances are illegal, schedule 1 drugs is saddening given the number of benefits clearly on display. While end of life care is most important in a research setting, the same mechanisms that help terminally ill to come to terms with death can also help healthy adults.
Set and Setting
Much of the value in psilocybin mushrooms (and especially according to the scientific literature) revolves around having a safe and comfortable setting, which allows one to explore introspectively. Some people are introduced to magic mushrooms at music festivals or party situations and there is nothing wrong with having “a good time” with the substances, but this isn’t usually the most impactful psychological setting for such an experience.
The studies are clear that “set and setting” make a big difference with all psychedelic drugs. According to a Feb 2018 study in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, Dr. Carhart-Harris clearly identifies this with the title “Psychedelics and the essential importance of context” where he proceeds to “inform on good practice… provide a roadmap for optimising treatment models… help tackle unhelpful stigma still surrounding these compounds…” 
Spiritual Value of Psilocybin
Unlike most pharmaceutical drugs and substances, psilocybin and other entheogens have a unique ability to stimulate spiritual or mystical experiences. The term “entheogen” means “the God within” and it pays homage to this idea that these substances allow users to tap into something greater whatever that is.
To be clear, these mystical experiences are not only possible through psychedelics. Meditation and breathwork can be just as valuable in creating these states of consciousness . However, the evidence is pretty clear that there is considerable spiritual value in using psilocybin.
In 1962, before psilocybin and other psychedelics were under pressure from the U.S. government, Dr. Pahnke at the Harvard Divinity School ran experiments to ascertain the spiritual value. Under the supervision of famed psychedelic figure Timothy Leary, Pahnke found that almost all of the graduates reported profound religious experiences .
This was an early scientific foray into the experience that anyone who has used psilocybin already feels. The later studies done by Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine showed that 61% of participants reported “complete mystical experiences” and greatly increased life satisfaction as a result.
What Are the Psilocybin Side Effects?
This might seem like a classical case of “too good to be true”, but maybe not…
According to a 2006 study, acute toxicity of psilocybin is low especially when compared to the legal status. In a chart of all drug compounds commonly used, scientists recognized psilocybin as highly safe on par with LSD. In fact, they are considered the most safe of the batch, far safer and less addictive than either caffeine, ephedra, or nicotine (all legal compounds).
Some people do experience dysphoria (the scientific term for a “bad trip”), however. Even in a safe setting, it’s possible to have this risk. Griffiths’ experiment at Johns Hopkins had 36% of individuals claim an “experience of fear”, but none of them claimed it had a negative long-term effect.
Some people have panic or anxious reactions especially when combined with other substances like alcohol. It is valuable to heed warnings about psilocybin use and the setting in which you use them so as to avoid the risks associated with magic mushrooms.
How to Grow Psychedelic Mushrooms
We must provide the usual disclaimer that psilocybin mushrooms are currently still considered illegal (schedule 1) in the United States. Possession of these can create legal problems so we are not suggesting anyone buy or grow their own magic mushrooms at home.
Unlike LSD or DMT which require biochemical reactions and synthesis on some level, psilocybin does not. Not only can we find many strains in the wild, but there are relatively simple testing kits for growing psychedelic mushrooms yourself.
If you want to learn how to grow magic mushrooms, a good book is the Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide published in 1976 by Terence and Dennis McKenna and others under the pseudonyms O.T. Oss and O.N. Oeric. Selling over 100,000 copies by 1981, the book quickly became one of the popular tools to combat the legal restrictions on psychedelic use.
Psilocybin Mushrooms in the Wild
Although psilocybin mushrooms do grow in the wild, harvesting your own can be potentially dangerous. Mushroom variations are often hard to spot for the untrained eye. Also, psilocybin content varies greatly depending on the strain. It is best to buy or grow them rather than picking them naturally unless you are very well qualified to do so.
The following is a list of the maximum reported psilocybin concentrations (as a percentage of weight) in 12 common species:
Is Psilocybin Right for You?
No matter the scientific value, psilocybin is not right for everyone. We are all unique and magic mushrooms can be incredibly beneficial for one person while less so for another. For those eager to receive a specific effect from psychedelics, it might be disappointing to read other experiences as it is incredibly unique.
Those who are interested in improving themselves through self-awareness and introspection can see many benefits from the altered perspective. Psilocybin has the ability (especially at high doses) to create “ego dissolution” whereby the typical definitions of ourselves start to fall away. This can be scary for some, but educational for others.
The long-term effects of psilocybin can be profound. Unlike other substances where we must take them consistently to get an effect, psilocybin has long lasting and beneficial effects on our mode of being. In the right setting, magic mushrooms can be a superior healing tool.
- References (Click to Expand)
- Bone, Eugenia. Mycophilia: Revelations From the Weird World of Mushrooms. Pg 258.
- Stamets, Paul. Psilocybin Mushrooms of the World: An Identification Guide. Pg 39.
- McKenna, Terence. Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge. Pg. 56 – 60.