In this study, just one strong dose of psilocybin, a hallucinogenic drug found in some mushrooms, was found to spur positive changes in an individual’s personality that lasted for more than a year:
Mystical Experiences Occasioned by the Hallucinogen Psilocybin Lead to Increases in the Personality Domain of Openness, Journal of Psychopharmacology, November 2011
‘Magic Mushrooms’ May Permanently Alter Personality, LiveScience, 29 September 2011
The characteristic they found most changed was “openness.” They defined openness as:
Openness includes a relatively broad range of intercorrelated traits covering aesthetic appreciation and sensitivity, fantasy and imagination, awareness of feelings in self and others, and intellectual engagement. People with high levels of Openness are “permeable to new ideas and experiences” and “motivated to enlarge their experience into novel territory.” Openness is strongly associated with creativity, and some of its facets (Ideas, Values) are correlated with general fluid intelligence and cognitive ability.
Empathy, art, creativity, imagination, curiosity. These aspects of personality were enhanced, for quite a long time afterwards.
But it wasn’t the drug that changed the personality. It was the experience of the drug, and how one coped with or interpreted that experience.
The root of the change seems to be not the drug itself, [lead author Katherine] MacLean told LiveScience, but the mystical experiences that psilocybin often triggers. These profound, transcendent feelings feel no less real to people for being chemically induced, she said.
Here’s another quote from a related study covered by LiveScience:
LSD is not a creativity tool, nor does it unlock creativity. Rather, it makes accessible parts of the individual not normally available.
“LSD can give people a different perspective than the one they usually have,” Sewell said. “What they do with that is up to them. It is not a ‘creativity pill.’ The best analogy is travel. It can broaden the mind … or not. It depends where you go and what you do there.“
The photos that accompanied that last study are something else. An artist was given LSD and had access to crayons and pencils. The subject of his art was the doctor who administered the drug. He drew and described his sensations as the drug effects waxed and waned. I’ve only included a few pictures, the site has several more, along with comment.
Source: (Slideshow: Scientists Analyze Drawings by an Acid-Tripping Artist), LiveScience, March 2011. (The original studies were conducted in the 1950s and 1960s when LSD was still legal and when our government was still spending money on LSD research. That came to an end in 1970 when Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act.)
It’s not all goodness. Hallucinogenics can also cause a bad trip – high anxiety, paranoia, depression – effects, I suppose, that could also linger after the drug leaves the body. And there’s the down time. How do you live your life when you’re tripping? How do you study, earn a living, take care of children, cook, clean? Look at these pictures. You surely can’t drive.
I wonder … if it’s not the drug, but the experience of the drug, could some of these effects, the positive effects – empathy, openness, creativity – be produced without it? Maybe through meditation or prayer?
If I had a terminal disease or was experiencing some other distraught mental state, I would give psilocybin or LSD a try, if I could access it. In 2007, the Lancet published a study which classified 20 substances based on harm (physical, dependence, social). It found that heroin, cocaine, alcohol, benzodiazepines, methamphetamine, and tobacco have a high or a very high risk of harm or abuse potential, while cannabis, LSD, and Ecstasy were all lower, less harmful in fact than the two legal drugs alcohol and tobacco. LSD and psilocybin are already being considered for end-of-life care: Magic Mushrooms Can Ease Anxiety of Late-Stage Cancer
Here’s a woman, Pam, who took part in a psilocybin study. She had terminal cancer when she took it:
Some of what she said:
“[Negative emotions] started to dissipate and I started to look at it differently and I think that’s the beauty of having, being able to, expand your consciousness, change the way you’re feeling about things.
I don’t think the drug is the cause of these things. I think it’s the catalyst to release your own thoughts and feelings from someplace that you’ve bound them very tightly.
I began to realize that all this negative fear and the guilt was such a hindrance to the actual positive part of making the most of, and enjoying, the healthy time that I’m having, however long it may be, that I was basically not utilizing it to the best and enjoying my life because I was so afraid of what wasn’t there yet.
There was a tremendous feeling of relief, and of happiness, and of hope … that it was something I could deal with.
I can’t discount the fact that a state of mind, the amount of rest you get, and your emotional condition, just fortifies your own defenses and that it boosts your own physical ability to fight the disease.
I would like to see this become part of the mainstream treatment of stage IV cancer.”
It looks like Michael Pollan wrote about this recently:
The Trip Treatment: Research Into Psychedelics, Shut Down For Decades, Is Now Yielding Exciting Results, The New Yorker, February 2015.