All psychoactive drugs alter thinking processes and result in an alteration of the perception of environmental stimuli; however, the majority of these drugs simply amplify or dampen these processes.
Hallucinogens alter experience in a manner that is no longer familiar, and this results in very different patterns of perception and thinking than those that occur in reality, such as visual hallucinations, auditory hallucinations, altered senses of time and self, and even the development of delusions.
The term magic mushrooms actually refers to well over 100 species of mushrooms that contain the psychoactive drug psilocybin (4-phosphoryloxy-N, N-dimethyltryptamine). Many of these contain other psychoactive substances, although psilocybin is typically deemed to be the major psychoactive substance in the mushroom. Psilocybin is considered to be a Schedule I controlled substance by the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which classifies it as having no medicinal uses and a high potential for the development of abuse and physical or psychological dependence.
Magic mushrooms are typically eaten but can also be brewed in a tea. Individuals eat the mushrooms for their psychoactive effects. These effects will typically begin within one hour of ingesting the drug and may last as long as six hours. The effects of ingesting the mushrooms are documented as resulting in:
- Euphoric and cognitive effects that include very vivid hallucinations (mostly visual but can occur in any sensory modality); vivid perceptions of the environment, such as very acute and intense colors or sounds; alterations in one’s sense of time, such that time moves much slower; depersonalization (the feeling as if one is separated from one’s body); derealization (the feeling as if other things are not real); and significantly slowed and disorganized thinking processes
- Increased heart rate, changes in blood pressure (both hypertension and hypotension), increased reflexes, poor motor coordination, the development of shakiness or tremors, and pupil dilation; nausea, vomiting, headaches, sweating, fever, and/or chills in some cases
- Mood swings that can alternate from positive moods to more negative moods, such as anxiety or depression; anxiety; panic attacks; and even delusion due to alterations in sensory perceptions
- Decreased fear to threatening environmental stimuli
In addition, a number of research studies have indicated that the use of psilocybin results in several interesting changes in normal functioning that include:
- Increased connectivity in the brain, such that areas of the brain that normally do not communicate begin communicating: This, of course, can be considered to be positive or negative depending on the specifics. Dissociative experiences (depersonalization and derealization) as well as rare experiences like synesthesia, where one has a sense of mixed sensory perception, such as hearing color, might be explained by this increase in connectivity. While these perceptions seem real, it is also obvious that they are not real.
- Inhibits information processing by disrupting the activity of the thalamus, an area of the brain that is the relay station for all environmental stimulation except smell: The thalamus basically checks all incoming information (except the sense of smell), categorizes it, and sends it to the appropriate processing center in the brain. Psilocybin appears to disrupt this process, and this can result in a number of the experiences that individuals have while the drug.
- Individuals becoming more open to new experiences and trying new things: For some individuals, the mystical experiences that they have under the influence of psilocybin have the effect of expanding their tendency to be open to new experiences; openness is considered to be a personality variable in some models of personality. This suggests that psilocybin may be useful in helping individuals change aspects of their personality.
All of these findings from the research can be interpreted as positive or potentially negative depending on the outcome. For example, being open to new experiences is also associated with loss of a fear response in many individuals. Depending on the situation, this could be a good or bad thing.
Magic Mushroom Abuse
The use of magic mushrooms on a regular basis is associated with very rapid development of tolerance to psilocybin. Tolerance occurs when individuals need more of a specific substance to get the effects that once occurred at lower doses. However, there is no evidence that individuals who regularly use magic mushrooms can develop physical dependence on them.
Physical dependence occurs when individuals develop both tolerance and withdrawal symptoms to a drug. Withdrawal occurs after the development of tolerance and consists of a series of negative physical and emotional effects from discontinuing a drug or significantly cutting down its dose. Despite the classification of psilocybin by the DEA, there is very little evidence to suggest that psilocybin is a major drug of abuse, and there are no recorded fatalities of overdosing on psilocybin alone. Fatalities associated with psilocybin often include use of other dangerous drugs, such as alcohol.
Even though psilocybin is not considered to be a drug that has a high potential for abuse, it can be abused. Individuals demonstrating psilocybin abuse (a hallucinogen use disorder) will engage in a number of dysfunctional activities associated with use of the drug. These include issues like spending significant amounts of time using the drug or trying to find the drug, using the drug to cope with everyday stressors, using the drug in situations where it is physically dangerous to do so, using the drug repeatedly despite experiencing negative ramifications of use (problems at work, problems in relationships, failing to maintain important commitments, continued use in spite of psychological or physical damage, etc.), along with the development of significant tolerance.
The development of a hallucinogen use disorder represents the development of a severe mental health disorder that requires an individual to undergo intense and targeted treatment. Those suffering from mushroom abuse will not experience the severe physical withdrawal effects that some drugs produce; however, there are number of negative emotional and psychological effects that these individuals may experience as they attempt to recover from their substance use disorder.
Because individuals who develop abusive patterns of behavior as a result of using hallucinogens often have very complicated psychological issues, treatment can be multilayered.
In addition, many individuals use magic mushrooms in conjunction with other drugs of abuse, such as alcohol, and individuals with co-occurring substance use disorders are more difficult to treat than individuals who develop a substance use disorder to one type of drug.
There are several other negative ramifications of chronic psilocybin use that include:
- Panic and/or psychotic reactions from large doses
- The potential to engage in poor judgment while being under the influence of psilocybin
- The inability to decide between what is real and what is not real while under the influence of the drug
- A potential to ingest potentially poisonous mushrooms by mistake
- A very small probability that an individual will develop hallucinogen-induced persistent perception disorder, which consists of repeated flashbacks when the drug has not been taken