Psychedelic Mushrooms: The Comprehensive Guide (Effects, Research, & History)
Article, Feature, Plant Medicine
Psychedelic mushrooms include many different species of mushrooms, but what they have in common is that they contain the psychedelic compound psilocybin. This is why they are often referred to as psilocybin mushrooms.
The use of psychedelic mushrooms is ancient, with evidence of its use shown by remarkable prehistoric cave paintings. Psychedelic mushrooms have also played an important role in cultures all over the world, particularly in the Americas.
The Western discovery of psilocybin mushrooms sparked scientific interest in them, which continues to this day. We are, after all, in the midst of what is being called a ‘psychedelic renaissance’, with ample research being carried out on psilocybin, the main psychedelic compound in psychedelic mushrooms. The popularity of mushroom retreats has also been increasing as participants seek the therapeutic benefits of a safe, guided psilocybin therapy session
But despite increasing scientific and public interest in psychedelic mushrooms, these fungi still remain illegal in most countries around the world.
This article aims to explore all these aspects of psychedelic mushrooms in more depth. Let’s begin by answering the question: what are psychedelic mushrooms?
What Are Psychedelic “Magic” Mushrooms?
Ingesting psilocybin leads to psychedelic effects because psilocybin converts in the body into psilocin, which is an active compound. Psychedelic mushrooms contain both psilocybin and psilocin, in differing amounts, both in the same species and between different species.
To the untrained eye, psychedelic mushrooms look like any other type of wild mushroom you may find. But, species of psychedelic mushrooms to have unique identifiable features[*].
It’s important to be aware of these features. As the mycologist Paul Stamets highlights in his book Psilocybin Mushrooms of the World (1996), many psychedelic mushrooms have deadly lookalikes. An example of this is how Psilocybe cyanescens (the first image below) has a similar appearance to the deadly mushroom Galerina marginata (as shown in the following image).
There are more than 180 species of psilocybin mushroom, scattered all over the world[*]. The psilocybin mushrooms can be divided into different subgroups, known as genera – these include:
- Psilocybe (117 species)
- Gymnopolis (13 species)
- Copelandia (12 species)
- Panaeolus (7 species)
- Hypholoma (6 species)
- Pluteus (6 species)
- Inocybe (6 species)
- Cynocybe (4 species)
As we can see, most psychedelic mushroom species belong to the Psilocybe genera. This genera also includes the most commonly used psychedelic mushrooms, such as Psilocybe semilanceata (liberty cap mushroom), Psilocybe cyanescens (wavy cap mushroom), Psilocybe azurascens, Psilocybe cubensis (also known as cubes or gold caps), and Psilocybe mexicana.
Some species are stronger than others, in that they contain higher concentrations of psilocybin and psilocin.
Psilocybe azurascens are widely considered to be the most potent species of psychedelic mushroom. It contains an average of 1.78% psilocybin. For comparison, Psilocybe cubensis contains 0.63% psilocybin[*].
The greatest variety of psilocybin mushrooms can be found in Mexico; however, psychedelic mushrooms also grow throughout:
- The Americas (from Alaska to Chile)
- New Zealand
- Southeast Asia.
Both psilocybin and psilocin are psychedelic tryptamines, a group of psychedelic chemicals that also includes DMT, 5-MeO-DMT, and ibogaine. Tryptamines have a distinctive chemical structure (they are structurally similar to the brain chemical serotonin).
But, like the other types of psychedelic chemicals – phenethylamines (e.g. mescaline) and ergolines (e.g. LSD) – psilocybin and psilocin achieve psychedelic effects by stimulating the 5HT2A brain receptors, a type of serotonin receptor.
The History of Psilocybin Mushrooms
Psychedelic mushrooms have a rich cultural history spanning millennia. The earliest evidence of humans using psychedelics involves psilocybin mushrooms. In a cave in the Tassili-N-Ajjer region of the Sahara Desert in Algeria, we find a mural painting of a bee-headed man with mushrooms sprouting out of his body[*]. These mushrooms have been identified as Psilocybe maireri, which are native to the region. The mural painting is 7,000 to 9,000 years old.
Another piece of evidence of early mushroom use is the Selva Pascuala cave mural near Villar del Humo in Spain[*]. This cave painting depicts mushrooms that researchers believe belong to the species Psilocybe hispanica, a mushroom that can be found in that region. This mural painting is 6,000 years old.
We also find evidence of mushroom use in pre-Columbian societies. For example, ‘mushroom stones’ have been discovered in Mexico and Guatemala, dating to 1,000-1,500 BC[*]. Experts consider these signs of ‘mushroom cults’ in Mesoamerica.
We know that the ancient Maya consumed what they referred to as k’aizalaj Okox (identified as Psilocybe cubensis)[*]. The later Aztec people called the psychedelic mushrooms they consumed teonanácatl, a word in the Aztec Nahuatl language meaning “divine mushroom” or “mushroom of the gods”. These mushrooms included Psilocybe mexicana and other species belonging to the Psilocybe genus[*].
The first written account of psychedelic mushroom use comes from the Florentine Codex (1560), a research study of Aztec culture, carried out by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún, a Spanish missionary priest.[*] He noted that the Aztecs would eat mushrooms with honey and drink chocolate throughout the night. The friar described that those under the influence would dance and cry.
Western interest in psychedelic mushrooms was kickstarted by R. Gordon Wasson, a banker who took part in an indigenous mushroom ceremony in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 1955[*]. Wasson described his experiences in an article for Life magazine, published in 1957. Then, in 1958, Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann (who first synthesized LSD), isolated and identified the compounds psilocybin and psilocin from Psilocybe mexicana[*].
Psychedelic mushrooms were used by Westerners in the 1960s, but LSD was the psychedelic drug of choice at the time. LSD was also more commonly used in psychedelic research in the 50s and 60s compared to psychedelic mushrooms and psilocybin. In more recent years, however, a lot of the most groundbreaking psychedelic research has involved psilocybin.
How Psychedelic Mushrooms Are Commonly Used
Psychedelic mushrooms can be used in many different contexts. Let’s explore some of the most common uses of psilocybin mushrooms.
As we have seen already, psychedelic mushrooms have been used in a ceremonial context. The Mayans and Aztecs viewed these mushrooms as sacraments.
Such mushroom use continues until this present day in Mexico in the form of Mazatec shamanism. Mazatec shamans, such as Maria Sabina who guided Wasson’s mushroom journey, ritually use psychedelic mushrooms for healing purposes. The Mazatec people live in the Sierra Mazateca, a mountainous region in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Psychedelic mushroom retreats are another way in which people have mushroom experiences. These are group retreats that usually take place in which psychedelic mushrooms are legal or tolerated by the law. Usually, a high dose of psychedelic mushrooms is taken, with people tripping together and with guides there to offer support.
Personal Spiritual Use
Many people decide to take psychedelic mushrooms on their own, for personal, therapeutic, or spiritual purposes. Someone might wish to have a sober trip sitter with them as a form of support and for grounding if needed.
People also enjoy using psychedelic mushrooms in a recreational context, taking them with friends at home or out in nature. The use of psychedelic mushrooms is also common at music festivals.
One way of taking psychedelic mushrooms that have risen in popularity recently is in the form of microdosing. This involves taking one-tenth of the standard dose of mushrooms, which would be around 0.1-0.5g, although this may vary depending on the species in question. This is also known as a sub-perceptual dose, as psychedelic effects do not occur[*]. At this sort of dosage, people may report slight but noticeable changes in focus, mood, creativity, and cognition.
The Effects of Psilocybin Mushrooms
Psychedelic mushrooms can cause a range of physical, emotional, perceptual, cognitive, and spiritual effects. Let’s take a look at these sorts of effects in turn.
Physical Effects of Psychedelic Mushrooms
- Increased heart rate
- Increased blood pressure
- Appetite loss
- Uncoordinated movements
- Changes in tactile sensations
- Increased feeling of sedation
- Pupil dilation
- Physical euphoria (the feeling of pleasure within and across your body)
Emotional Effects of Psychedelic Mushrooms
- The magnification of emotions (e.g. more intense joy or sadness)
- Rapid or intense swings between emotions
- Strong feelings of gratitude
- A feeling of inner peace or contentment
- Increased empathy
- Anxiety, panic, dread, or terror
Perceptual Effects of Psychedelic Mushrooms
- Color enhancement
- Objects appearing larger or smaller than normal
- Depth perception distortions (objects appearing nearer or further away than normal)
- Visual distortions (e.g. inanimate objects moving and morphing)
- Visual hallucinations (e.g. seeing geometric patterns, images, or visions overlaid on the physical environment)
- Closed-eye visuals (seeing patterns, scenes, or visions with eyes closed)
- Time dilation (minutes and hours seem to last much longer than usual)
- Auditory distortions
- Auditory hallucinations
Cognitive Effects of Psychedelic Mushrooms
- Enhanced creativity
- Increased appreciation of music
- Alteration in your sense of self
- Increased introspection
- Experiences of self-realization
- Rapid thoughts
- Multiple thought streams (more than one thought going on at once)
- Thought loops (repeating the same chain of thoughts)
Spiritual Effects of Psychedelic Mushrooms
- A feeling of interconnectedness, being ‘one’ with humanity, all life, or the universe as a whole
- A feeling of eternity (a moment lasting forever) or a sense of timelessness (time ceasing to exist)
- The feeling of being in an infinite, boundless, or empty space (this is often described as ‘the void’)
- Ineffable experiences (experiences that cannot be accurately described)
- The feeling of gaining access to new and profound knowledge
- The feeling of a divine presence
- A sense of sacredness
- Out-of-body experiences (a sensation of being outside your body)
- Ego death (when your sense of personal identity evaporates)
The Effects of Psychedelic Mushrooms Compared to Other Psychedelics
Psychedelic mushrooms are neither short-lasting or long-lasting: they are somewhere in the middle. A psychedelic mushroom trip will last between 4-6 hours, which is much longer than a DMT experience (10-20 minutes) but much shorter than an ibogaine experience (up to 24 hours).
Since psilocybin and psilocin are tryptamine psychedelics, people report that psychedelic mushrooms produce visuals and visions typical of the tryptamines. For instance, the visual effects of psychedelic mushrooms tend to be closer to DMT and ayahuasca (which contains DMT) compared to LSD (an ergoline psychedelic) and mescaline (a phenethylamine psychedelic).
Are Magic Mushrooms Legal?
Psychedelic mushroom retreats often take place in countries where the mushrooms are legal, in countries like the Netherlands, Jamaica, and Mexico. Psychedelic mushrooms are also legal for possession, sale, transportation, and cultivation in Brazil[*].
In some countries, the possession of psilocybin mushrooms is decriminalized, including in Austria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Italy, Portugal, Spain, and in Denver, Colorado, and Oakland, California in the US[*].
For the large majority of countries, however, psychedelic mushrooms – despite growing naturally – are illegal to possess. In the UK and US, for example, psilocybin mushrooms are highly illegal. In the UK, they are a Class A drug, meaning it is of the most harmful and addictive kind. Likewise, in the US, psychedelic mushrooms are a Schedule I drug, which means they have a high potential for abuse and no recognized medical value.
Despite the Law, Psychedelic Mushrooms Are Widely Considered Safe and May Have Therapeutic Benefits
Research has shown that psilocybin may be safe and effective at treating a range of mental health conditions, such as depression. The lethal dose of psilocybin is so high that, as far as the records show, no one has been able to consume the weight of psychedelic mushrooms necessary to reach such a dose.
In the normal range of doses, psilocybin has no toxicity. It also carries a low abuse risk and does not result in physical dependence[*]. In fact, psilocybin mushrooms often help people give up their addictions, such as smoking or drug addictions.
Research on psilocybin is continuing. So far, the results of psychedelic research have shown that psychedelic mushrooms have the potential to treat a wide range of conditions, with rapid and long-lasting effects.
Article written by Sam Woolfe.