Can Mushrooms Cause Mystical Experiences?
Questions answered on this page:
- What are mystical experiences?
- Can taking psilocybin cause mystical experiences?
- What is the history of psilocybin usage?
- What are the benefits of taking mushrooms?
While our modern usage of psychedelics can sometimes feel like a cultural relic of the 1960s, they have a long history of consumption in Mesoamerican religious ceremonies and practices. The connection between psychedelics and spiritual or mystical experiences has long held, and that naturally makes today’s psychonauts curious about the history of their practice.
While things like ‘mystical experiences’ can seem hard to quantify or understand through analytical research, the growing body of study being done into mushrooms can’t help but show these effects when they do occur—and the powerful benefits to be had from a mystical experience of your own.
We have a number of articles to discuss today, so let’s dive in!
History of Usage
While psilocybin mushrooms grow naturally across the globe, their major pre-modern usage was amongst the various peoples of Mesoamerica. There, they have a long and storied history of usage in religious ceremonies and mystical experiences. We’ll start by looking at a few studies that describe this historical context, and that also provide a bridge forward to our modern moment where mushrooms are becoming evermore popular.
Authors: F.J. Carod-Artal
Journal of Publication: Neurologia
Date of Publication: January 2015
Summary: This article attempts to provide an anthropological investigation of the history of the usage of hallucinogens and psychedelic substances in the Americas. The author notes the long historical track record of their usage (up to 3500 years in Central Mexico!), and also the heavy importance that hallucinogens more generally played in the mysticism, religious experiences, and divination practices of the Mayan and Aztec peoples. These included Psilocybe cubensis, the magic mushroom that we all know and love today.
- Diversity, biology, and history of psilocybin-containing fungi: Suggestions for research and technological development
Authors: R.C. Van Court, M.S. Wiseman, K.W. Meyer, D.J. Ballhorn, K.R. Amses, J.C.Slot, B.T.M.Dentinger, R.Garibay-Orijelg, and J.K.Uehling
Journal of Publication: Fungal Biology
Date of Publication: April 2022
Summary: The authors of this study helped to contextualize some of the history of psilocybin mushroom consumption, and point to a manuscript from the Mixtec people as the first recording of the usage of these mushrooms. An image of their gods consuming mushrooms points to the central nature of the mushrooms in the mystical and religious experiences of the pre-Columbus people of Mesoamerica. While the Spanish attempted to root out the practice, it has continued into the present day and bears a special significance in the religious history of the Americas.
Authors: David E. Nichols
Journal of Publication: The Journal of Antibiotics
Date of Publication: May 12, 2020
Summary: Our third article bridges the gap between the pre-Columbian history of usage in the Americas to our usage and cultivation of these mushrooms in the present. We likely have a 16th-century Spanish Franciscan friar named Bernardino de Sahagún to thank for the modern interest boom in psychedelics—his anthropological studies in Mexico included the usage of “teonanacatl”, the sacred mushroom of the indigenous peoples. While this wasn’t well received by historians for a long time, there is a direct throughline from this manuscript to Wasson’s seminal 1957 essay “Seeking the Magic Mushroom” that put psilocybin squarely into the zeitgeist.
We have established that psychedelic mushrooms were important for religious rituals, which makes it a little surprise to see the modern usage so heavily tied to mysticism and spiritual experiences. While there was a long history of these practices pre-Columbus, the Spanish tried to put an end to pagan practices and forced these practices underground.
Psilocybin only really re-entered the modern consciousness in the 50s and 60s, which led to a boom in experimentation and research before falling afoul of American drug laws. But with the demonstrable benefits of taking psilocybin, there has been a corresponding relaxing of policy that has led to a flourishing of research in the field over the last twenty years.
Mystical Experiences: A Closer Look
But what exactly is a mystical experience? The inherent subjectivity of such an idea makes it hard to properly discuss unless we’re all on the same page about what it is we’re talking about. To that end, we will be using the definition provided by Alan Watts in a review done in 1968, early into the modern research boom about psychedelics. He describes mystical experiences as “those peculiar states of consciousness in which the individual discovers himself to be one continuous process with God, with the Universe, with the Ground of Being, or whatever name he may use by cultural conditioning or personal preference for the ultimate and eternal reality”.
This feeling of unity and oneness is reported frequently by people taking psilocybin and these experiences can be incredibly powerful. in addition to taking on greater meaning in one’s life in the future. People frequently report taking a high dosage of psilocybin as being one of the more important or meaningful moments in their lives, and that seems to be inherently connected to these powerful spiritual events.
While history may show a record of mushrooms being used in spiritual and mystical purposes, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they’re the catalyst to these mystical experiences. Luckily, the evidentiary track record does that well enough! There are three studies that we’ll be discussing that will help to establish some evidence for the correlation between psilocybin and these mystical experiences, how these experiences could be beneficial for the participant, and potential causal mechanisms for the relationship.
- Psilocybin can occasion mystical-type experiences having substantial and sustained personal meaning and spiritual significance
Authors: R. R. Griffiths, W. A. Richards, U. McCann, and R. Jesse
Journal of Publication: Psychopharmacology
Date of Publication: May 27, 2006
Summary: The first of these studies attempted to provide a more rigorous and quantifiable explanation for how and why people have these mystical experiences, and with what frequency. With a double-blind and multi-staged experimental design, the authors were able to keep both the participants and the monitors in the dark about who was truly receiving the psilocybin. They found a high rate of mystical experiences among those who took psilocybin, and participants consistently reported the experience of taking a high dose of psilocybin as within the top five most spiritually significant moments in their lives. When coupled with the result that 79% of participants found that psilocybin either “moderately” (50%) or “very much” (29%) improved their general satisfaction with life, it’s not surprising that these moments are so important to people, or that they can take on such importance in people’s individual narratives.
- Psilocybin-occasioned mystical-type experience in combination with meditation and other spiritual practices produces enduring positive changes in psychological functioning and in trait measures of prosocial attitudes and behaviors
Authors: Roland R. Griffiths, Matthew W. Johnson, William A. Richards, Brian D. Richards, Robert Jesse, Katherine A. MacLean, Frederick S. Barrett, Mary P. Cosimano, and Maggie A. Klinedinst
Journal of Publication: Psychopharmacology
Date of Publication: October 11, 2017
Summary: This study divided the participants into three groups and provided them with different dosages and levels of counseling and spiritual guidance in several sessions over two months, and then evaluated the change in the participants after six months. They found significant increases in the quality of life metrics they used between the group that had a low dose of psilocybin and the two that had higher doses. The differences in results seemed to be more tied to the dosage strength than to the level of support. Still, they also found that the high dose group who had a lot of support during their sessions ended up performing slightly better on the metrics than the group that only had a moderate amount of support. This suggests that while both the dosage and the setting are important, the dosage tends to matter more for occasioning mystical experiences.
Authors: Frederick S. Barrett and Roland R. Griffiths
Journal of Publication: Current Topics in Behavioural Neuroscience
Date of Publication: August 23, 2019
Summary: One important aspect of our final article is that it serves as a literature review and aggregator, compiling many of the more critical results from other studies in the field and distilling them down. When looking at the results laid out together, the correlations between psilocybin and mystical experiences and between those experiences and overall quality of life metrics become very clear. The authors also attempt to describe the commonalities between the mystical experiences occasioned by psilocybin and those brought on through meditative practices and to establish a hypothesis for a causal mechanism for these experiences.
The long history of usage of psychedelic mushrooms in religious and mystical ceremonies combined with the rigorous experimental design of the studies done in the last 20 years shows the strong correlation between psilocybin and these mystical experiences. The studies that have been done have also shown improvements in the general quality of life and mental health of participants, which suggests that these experiences can have strong therapeutic benefits.
The studies also reaffirmed that the single most important variable in these experiences is dosage, with higher dosages being much more likely to occasion these profound experiences. While set and setting obviously play a significant role in your experiences too and the studies were conducted in such a way as to support these experiences, it doesn’t seem to be as significant as the dosage.
There seems to be a strong correlation between taking psilocybin and having mystical experiences, and it also seems like the mystical experiences are beneficial in myriad ways for the majority of participants. While this is obviously not a guarantee that the same experiences will hold true for everyone, we can safely establish a connection between these ideas through larger sample sizes.
If you’d like to have some mystical experiences of your own, remember that while dosage is the most important factor, the environment that you’re in will strongly impact your experiences as well. A relaxing environment with supportive people around you will really help you to have the best time possible.