• Lana Watts

The History of Psilocybin: From Ancient Healing to Silicon Valley

The story of psilocybin, more commonly known as magic mushrooms, is a long and controversial one. Because of Hollywood, Disney films and word of mouth, psychedelic mushrooms have been given a serious reputation. Are they drugs? Are they medicine? Are they safe? Are they keys to heaven or hell?

Let's put the rumours aside and investigate what we know to date.

It has been suggested that because psilocybin mushrooms most commonly grew in the droppings of cattle, and these animals have been revered and followed by humans and religions for thousands of years, it's unlikely that our ancestors disregarded these mushrooms and ignored experiencing their mind bending effects.

These strange beings have been speculated to predate the human race.

Mushroom species outnumber plant species ten to one. And their mycelium spreads far and wide under the earth to connect with, communicate to, and integrate a fractal web across many life forms.

The first wave: psilocybin and the ancient world

Mushrooms were used in Mexico by the Aztecs, the Mayans, Mazatecs and even older cultures too. Psilocybin cubensis mushrooms grow in cow dung and will show up pretty much in any pasture in the tropics where there is cattle. They have been in proximity to human civilisations and nomadic cattle-breeding tribes for many hundreds of thousands of years. There's also evidence of their use in Europe, South America, Africa and Asia.

Because most of the classical psychedelics require human intervention, psilocybin mushrooms were probably the first psychedelic to be discovered, and were widely distributed in the tropics and subtropical climates.

It’s likely that the first wave of experiences eating these mushrooms would have made the individual think they had been poisoned. But after a while, the phenomena would likely have been seen as divine, otherworldly, and quite possibly an experience with death and rebirth. A resurrection of the psyche.

When the Spanish conquistadors spread through present-day Mexico, exploring new lands, they encountered many indigenous groups practicing peculiar rituals. The 16th century Aztec statue of Xochipilli was found in Southern Mexico with engravings of sacred psychoactive plants, like tobacco, Morning Glory, along with several other flowers, in addition to the Psilocybe aztecorum mushroom.

16th century Aztec statue of Xochipilli with engraved psychedelic flora and mushrooms.

Maya archaeologist Stephen F. De Borhegyi believed that hallucinogenic mushroom rituals were central to Mayan religions. The mushroom stones of the Guatemalan Highlands date to at least 1000 B.C. and are believed to have been used to honour and grind the dried mushrooms before use.

Preclassical Mushroom Stones from Guatemala

There are some that believe that these mushrooms or the ergot fungus that grew on barley, were used in the Eleusinian Mysteries' fabled Kykeon brew. The exact recipe has never been found, and the last remaining hints of the Eleusinian Mystery school was demolished by King Alaric of the Goths who brought a Christian invasion to destroy the old sites.

This invasion was the beginning of a long reign of the new religion in town, forbidding the use of plant sacraments.

The second wave: psilocybin and the sixties

In 1956, R. Gordon Wasson, an amateur mycologist and banker to J.P. Morgan made his way to Sierra Mazateca in southern Mexico to visit a curandera (healer) named Maria Sabina.

In this shamanic village, Sabina was known for healing her community with powerful mushroom rituals.

She agreed to welcome Wasson into one of the rituals in good faith that he could take pictures, but none were allowed to be published. This was to maintain the sacred space of those being healed, and to protect the village from outsiders knowing too much of their rituals. Wasson agreed and proceeded to take private pictures of Maria Sabina, calling in the mushroom spirits for healing.

Wasson shared these photographs with Life magazine, and on May 13 1957, Life published Watson's photographs, and the story of the mushroom rituals swept through the Western world.

Flocks of Americans began to flood this small town in search of the most mind expanding experience they could find.

Sabina was reported as saying it doesn't work in this way. The spirits of the mushrooms help to heal humanity from illness instead of introducing them to God. But by this point, the Western world was hypnotized by the claims being made about these mushrooms. And shortly thereafter, the university studies began, but not without pushback.

Psychology professor Timothy Leary headed up the original psilocybin studies at Harvard University.

In 1960, Leary had traveled to Mexico for his first psilocybin experience. The experience dramatically changed his thinking and the course of his life. On returning from Mexico, he and fellow professor Richard Alpert (Ram Dass) formed the Harvard Psilocybin Project.

By 1962, the experiments had generated controversy over their scientific merit and safety, despite LSD and psilocybin being legal at the time.

The project was shut down in 1962 before the study was completed. Under pressure, Harvard fired Leary in 1963, saying he was not living up to his teaching duties. Richard Alpert was also fired the same year for giving psychedelics to undergraduates.

Prior to the project’s dissolution, Leary and Alpert had demonstrated that psilocybin used in conjunction with psychotherapy reduced recidivism in prison inmates from 60% to 20%.

The third wave: what the science is showing us today

40 years after these studies and after the prohibition of psychedelics finally loosened, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences at Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Roland Griffiths took up psilocybin research once more in 2000.

Griffiths had taken a meditation practice up and was interested in shifts in states of consciousness. He was initially skeptical about the idea that psilocybin could produce deeply, spiritually significant mystical type experiences, but ultimately, the data spoke very clearly.

Of all the psychedelics to focus on, Griffiths found psilocybin the best to work with in a clinical setting. It certainly didn't have the cultural baggage of LSD. Psilocybin’s duration of action also is comparatively short at 4-6 hours, compared to LSD and mescalines 10-12 hours. DMT on the other hand, is very short acting (in the order of minutes), and although it can be extended with the use of an MAO inhibitor, this addition makes the pharmacology more complex and difficult to receive approval from the FDA.

In a sense, psilocybin can be rightly described as orally active DMT. Because DMT is not normally orally active. Even though the molecules are very similar, the mind expanding experiences aren't as similar as it would seem.

Each psychedelic molecule, called the tryptamine, is structured in a very specific way to trigger specific neurotransmitters in the brain, causing every psychedelic plant to elicit different effects. And it all depends upon the neurotransmitters that the substances play on.

Serotonin mimicking is the hallmark of psychedelica. Serotonin allows human consciousness to assemble the consensus reality that we typically inhabit. And that even affords us our sense of self and identity. Psilocybin mushrooms break down the rigid perceptions of normal waking consciousness.

Psilocybin and the default mode network

The effect of psilocybin on a part of the brain known as the default mode network, is comparable to what one sees in the brains of long term meditators. This network is activated in conditions of anxiety and depression, and since psilocybin quietens it this is thought to account for its antidepressant effects.

The fact that brain imaging is now showing similar results between the benefits of psilocybin and meditation has not only confirmed what Tim Leary and Richard Alpert were looking for in the original Harvard studies, it seems to lend to the healing properties of ancient shamanic tribes as well.

Some point to an implied conclusion one could draw: that human illness lies in our beliefs about ourselves and how we fit into the world around us.

Because scientific technology has advanced considerably since the 1960s Harvard studies, psilocybin effects on the brain are far more understood today. With the destabilization of the default mode network in the brain, causing inter-neural communication to change dramatically, we have a glimpse at what functions of the brain hold trauma in the body.

Visualization of the brain connections in a person on psilocybin (right) and in someone given a placebo (left).

Most physiological illness that has been conditioned into us is seen as unhealthy communication between brain regions. When someone has the opportunity to view their life, their beliefs, their world and the interactions between them all in a new and unbiased perspective, as psychedelics often do, it seems that the innate intelligence of the human being can identify the communication error and bring neurochemical processes back into balance.

Whereas most pharmaceutical meds address symptoms only, and most of the time merely mask them, psilocybin is being seen to address the source of these symptoms, causing a lasting rippling effect into all areas of life.

Meanwhile, to arrive at the mind bending and life changing experiences that they afford, people have been left to secretive methods to get their hands on them, keeping this age old sacrament and its shamanic use alive in the underground.

Mushrooms are recolonizing the world right now, one basement at a time.

Microdosing psychedelic plants has been popularized mostly by Dr. James Fadiman, who after 40 years of experience has called this sub perceptible dose a 'problem solving amount', whereas moderate doses are effective for therapy, and in high doses for spirituality. And because of this, the phenomena has recently found itself in unsuspecting places like the workplace in Silicon Valley, and other analytical occupations.

Magic mushrooms and releasing trauma

We know that the probability of having salient experiences increases as a function of dose. But the probability of having difficult experiences also increases. Very often, it's those deeply uncomfortable experiences that provide a window of opportunity through which people can investigate and go through, to open into larger experiences. So very often, experiences that people will subsequently describe as having been difficult are among the most interesting and meaningful.

Trauma is typically deeply uncomfortable at the moment of adoption, as it's an experience that is too intense or complex to process all at once. So the memory is stored in the neurology and the tissues of the body, awaiting a moment to resurface and continue being processed, so it can finally be surrendered and let go of.

It is thought that this is likely why moderate to large doses are most therapeutically beneficial. They destabilize the habitual processes of the brain, which likely serve as a distraction and suppressant of trauma and unwanted aspects of the psyche.

But once this neural habituation is destabilized, the natural healing intelligence of the human being goes into house cleaning mode and old wounds are addressed.

As science barrels into the future, with new technologies to study ancient methodologies for healing and spiritual transformation, are we finally on the verge of understanding these psychedelic substances and their unique effects on human consciousness and neurochemistry?

Psilocybin is the oldest classical psychedelic with widespread shamanic use.

Perhaps we are in the midst of a revival of the old Eleusinian style mysteries, and perhaps these mysteries are finally being decoded and widespread.

A large scale medicine heavily suppressed, demonized and misunderstood. Finally back into the hands of those who intend to heal the world's ills and voyage into the unknown.

Researchers have now worked tirelessly for decades to debunk institutionally engrained myths, get these drugs off schedule one and legally provide psychedelic assisted psychotherapy.

The first FDA approval could come as soon as 2022.