September 30, 2011
Along with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, this study was
funded by the Council on Spiritual Practices, Heffter Research
Institute and the Betsy Gordon Foundation.
Other Hopkins authors of the research include Matthew W. Johnson,
Ph.D, and Katherine A. MacLean, Ph.D.
A single high dose of the hallucinogen
psilocybin, the active ingredient in so-called "magic mushrooms,"
was enough to bring about a measurable positive personality change
lasting at least a year in nearly 60 percent of the 51 participants
in a new study, according to the Johns Hopkins researchers who
Johns Hopkins University studied the spiritual effects of
psilocybin in particular.
That is, they did not use mushrooms
specifically (in fact, each individual mushroom piece can vary
wildly in psilocybin and psilocin content.
The study involved 36 college-educated adults (average age of 46)
who had never tried psilocybin nor had a history of drug use, and
who had religious or spiritual interests. The participants were
closely observed for eight-hour intervals in a laboratory while
under the influence of psilocybin mushrooms.
One-third of the participants reported that the experience was the
single most spiritually significant moment of their lives and more
than two-thirds reported it was among the top five most spiritually
Two months after the study, 79% of the
participants reported increased well-being or satisfaction; friends,
relatives, and associates confirmed this.
There are approximately 190 species of psilocybin mushrooms and
there is strong archaeological evidence for the use of
mushrooms in ancient times.
From the late 1950s to the early 1970s, research was carried out
exploring the use of hallucinogens to treat the existential anxiety,
despair and isolation often associated with advanced-stage cancer.
Those studies described critically ill individuals undergoing
psychospiritual epiphanies, often with powerful and sustained
improvement in mood and anxiety as well as diminished need for
narcotic pain medication.
The current study found lasting change was evident in the part of
the personality known as openness, which includes traits related to,
Changes in these traits, measured on a widely used
and scientifically validated personality inventory, were larger in
magnitude than changes typically observed in healthy adults over
decades of life experiences, the scientists say.
Researchers in the
field say that after the age of 30, personality doesn't usually
"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.
The study participants completed two to five eight-hour drug
sessions, with consecutive sessions separated by at least three
Participants were informed they would receive a "moderate or
high dose" of psilocybin during one of their drug sessions, but
neither they nor the session monitors knew when.
During each session, participants were encouraged to lie down on a
couch, use an eye mask to block external visual distraction, wear
headphones through which music was played and focus their attention
on their inner experiences.
Personality was assessed at screening, one to two months after each
drug session and approximately 14 months after the last drug
session. Griffiths says he believes the personality changes found in
this study are likely permanent since they were sustained for over a
year by many.
Nearly all of the participants in the new study considered
themselves spiritually active (participating regularly in religious
services, prayer or meditation). More than half had postgraduate
The sessions with the otherwise illegal hallucinogen were
closely monitored and volunteers were considered to be
"We don't know whether the findings can be generalized to the larger
population," Griffiths says.
Griffiths says lasting personality change is rarely looked at as a
function of a single discrete experience in the laboratory.
study, the change occurred specifically in those volunteers who had
undergone a "mystical experience," as validated on a questionnaire
developed by early hallucinogen researchers and refined by Griffiths
for use at Hopkins.
He defines "mystical experience" as among other
"a sense of interconnectedness with all people and things
accompanied by a sense of sacredness and reverence."
Personality was measured on a widely used and scientifically
validated personality inventory, which covers openness and the other
four broad domains that psychologists consider the makeup of
Only openness changed during the course of the
Griffiths says he believes psilocybin may have therapeutic uses.
is currently studying whether the hallucinogen has a use in helping
cancer patients handle the depression and anxiety that comes along
with a diagnosis, and whether it can help longtime cigarette smokers
overcome their addiction.
"There may be applications for this we can't even imagine at this
point," he says. "It certainly deserves to be systematically