In just a single high dose, psilocybin — a hallucinogen and active ingredient in magic mushrooms — produced notable changes for at least one year in the personalities of almost 60 percent of 51 volunteers in a new Johns Hopkins study.
Specifically, participants grew in ‘openness.’ The traits, measured on a widely used and scientifically validated personality inventory, include imagination, aesthetics, feelings, abstract ideas and general broad-mindedness.
These changes were greater than what is typically found in decades of life experiences in healthy adults, the scientists say. In fact, researchers in the field say that personality doesn’t usually change significantly after the age of 30.
“Normally, if anything, openness tends to decrease as people get older,” says study leader Roland R. Griffiths, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Volunteers had two to five eight-hour drug sessions, with at least three weeks separating consecutive sessions. Participants were told they would receive a “moderate or high dose” of psilocybin during one of the sessions, but neither they nor the monitors knew when it would be.
During the sessions, subjects were encouraged to lie on a couch, wear an eye mask to block visual distractions, listen to music through headphones and focus attention on inner experiences.
Personality was assessed at the beginning of the study, one to two months after each drug session and about 14 months after the final session. The scientifically validated personality inventory covers the following broad categories that psychologists consider the makeup of personality: openness, neuroticism, extroversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness. Only openness was found to change during the study.
Griffiths believes the personality changes are probably permanent since they were sustained for over a year by many.
The sessions were closely monitored and participants were considered to be mentally healthy. Almost all of the volunteers considered themselves spiritually active (participating regularly in religious services, prayer or meditation). More than half had postgraduate degrees.
“We don’t know whether the findings can be generalized to the larger population,” Griffiths says.
Griffiths notes that some of the participants reported strong fear or anxiety during part of their daylong psilocybin sessions; however, none reported any lingering negative effects. He warns, though, that if hallucinogens are used in less supervised settings, any anxiety could lead to harmful behaviors.
In the study, personality changes occurred specifically in those participants who had undergone a “mystical experience.” Griffiths defines this as “a sense of interconnectedness with all people and things accompanied by a sense of sacredness and reverence.”
Griffiths believes psilocybin may have therapeutic uses and is currently studying whether it can help cancer patients handle the depression and anxiety that comes with diagnosis, and whether it can help longtime cigarette smokers quit.
“There may be applications for this we can’t even imagine at this point,” he says. “It certainly deserves to be systematically studied.”
The research is published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology.
Source: Johns Hopkins