Two new scientific studies show how magic mushrooms operate in the brain—and it’s not how you might think
Magic mushrooms (psilocybin) are one of mankind’s favorite drugs—they’ve been in use continually from the first time cave people found them growing in animal feces and munched on them before being blasted into hyperspace to discover the roots of all language and culture, to the time your cousin chewed a bunch at a Dave Matthews Band concert and totally thought Dave was talking directly to him from the stage.
But how, exactly, do they work? How does a little bit of fungus open you up physically and emotionally before turning your shitty apartment into a circa-1991 Deep Forest video?
According to two new studies released this week, psilocybin mushrooms apparently work by decreasing activity in key areas of the brain, rather than increasing it. Blood flow decreases to the medical prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and posterior cingulate cortex (PCC). Overactivity in the mPFC is associated with depression, one reason why psilocybin can sometimes be associated with antidepressant effects; the function of the PCC isn’t fully known, but is often associated with consciousness and identity.
Researchers suggest that what may actually be happening with psychedelics is decreased blood flow to the areas of the brain that constrain our sensory experience of the world and our sense of identity—poetically speaking, allowing the brain to relax its grip on ordering reality and open up to a broader spectrum.
Via Science Daily:
Professor David Nutt, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London, the senior author of both studies, said: “Psychedelics are thought of as ‘mind-expanding’ drugs so it has commonly been assumed that they work by increasing brain activity, but surprisingly, we found that psilocybin actually caused activity to decrease in areas that have the densest connections with other areas. These hubs constrain our experience of the world and keep it orderly. We now know that deactivating these regions leads to a state in which the world is experienced as strange.”
The intensity of the effects reported by the participants, including visions of geometric patterns, unusual bodily sensations and altered sense of space and time, correlated with a decrease in oxygenation and blood flow in certain parts of the brain.
Which would certainly lend credence to the oft-used maxim that psychedelics, specifically psilocybin, can open the “doors of perception”—as William Blake originally said in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (probably not talking about psilocybin, although you never know, since the mushrooms grow wild all over the UK—it was Aldous Huxley who later appropriated the quote in discussing LSD), “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
(Previously on Ultraculture: “Can Psilocybin Mushrooms Cure PTSD—and Even Grow Brain Cells?“