As the stranglehold of fear that has blocked meaningful research into psychedelics for decades begins to loosen, a lot of attention is being focused on using mushrooms in the treatment of depression. This introduces another powerful spirit into the relationship, a spirit that is now understood to help us reorganize how we think. That’s what is going on underneath all the curious sensations and perceptions: the rivers of thought in our brains are rejuvenated, which can be every bit as dramatic as when it happens to a living river. Rejuvenated rivers can be more challenging to navigate, though, which is why it’s best not to ride the rapids without a guide.
In Empty Cauldrons: Navigating Depression Through Magic and Ritual, I write a fair amount about the importance of guides when engaging with any drug. To interact with a drug is to interact with a spirit, and when this is handled poorly it can result in considerable harm. It’s when we build relationships with spirits that we are most likely to benefit. These are substances that alter the chemistry of the brain, which is the organ that we use to govern our perception, thinking, and behavior. The most dangerous drugs to my mind are the ones that alter our brains in subtle ways, like food and air. The fact that some drugs have more pronounced effect, such as alcohol and psylocybin, means that at least there is the possibility we will approach them with some caution. (It would be better if one of our cultural values was to treat all spirits with respect, but we aren’t quite there yet.)
Mushrooms go well with guides. The very idea of engaging a guide comes from advocates for the healing power of these fungi. It’s possible to find guides for hire online, but I won’t link to any in particular because I have not evaluated their competence or character. What a guide typically does is provide context for processing the experience, which begins to taking control over “set and setting,” or mindset and environment during the experience. These are perhaps the most significant factors contributing to the quality and content of the trip.
It is common—but not guaranteed—that one will experience a dissolution of self during a mushroom experience. I think of this as how the mind processes having the neural pathways of the brain rewritten, and while research suggests more and more strongly that this can be beneficial, it can also be terrifying. One’s mental moorings are temporarily erased, which includes the filters our brains use to sort out what we perceive as “reality” from the huge amount of sensory input that is received on a regular basis. Since mindset influences the experience, there is the potential for someone to spiral out of control due to fear or another emotion—especially if one has no guide to provide appropriate support. Guides appear to minimize negative results, but these experiences are going to be disorienting regardless. With the correct set and setting, it can also be incredibly entertaining, deeply profound, or both at once.
What happens once the brain is altered is a mix of sensory hallucinations, which may include altered colors, patterns in blank spaces, motion where one expects there to be none, changes in how time is perceived, voices, and song. I do not recall ever having an hallucination of touch, taste, or smell, but I imagine someone with particularly developed senses could have that experience. To a varying extent, it is possible to take control of perception in a way that doesn’t happen at other times. I don’t know of anyone who can manifest a specific vision on command, but it’s possible to amplify or reduce certain hallucinations, for example. A “bad trip” is really just the mind directing this heightened control into a dark place—often without conscious intent, and driven by fear and ignorance. A competent guide lays the groundwork to minimize this danger, and knows how to redirect the experience if bad feelings rise. I have personally made the conscious choice not to have a bad trip, but that was only possible because I implicitly understood I had this power thanks to experiences of close friends. The right guide is able to step in to set a new course for the tripper, as some of us can do for ourselves.
What is reported in research is that psylocibin can result in a lessening of the symptoms of depression. It’s not a promise of a cure, but it is a promising lead. The scientific method could be our worst enemy when it comes to this kind of research, because it’s based on eliminating variables to allow for accurate measurement of the effects of whatever is being studied. If researchers try to distill the specific chemical that causes a particular sort of neuron to fire in a human brain, they could easily miss out on something important. While science has resulted in a lot of changes in how we understand the universe, it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees. I don’t know what or when or if a treatment for depression based on shrooms will be available, but I am clear that this plant holds much to teach us.
Given the limits of science, it will be interesting to see how this research progresses.