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Psilocybe: A mushroom of mysticism and imagination

Substance for Sunday: The historic place and role of the psychedelic

The old commercial became a meme. “This is your brain,” said actor John Roselius, holding an egg. “This is drugs,” he added, pointing to a hot cast iron. “This is your brain on drugs,” he said when the overcooked egg was done sizzling. The American Egg Board filed a complaint, suggesting that the campaign created an unfavorable image of eggs in the mind of the American consumer. It was 1987, near the pinnacle of Nancy Reagan’s media blitz to unsell illegal drugs.

30 years earlier, banker R. Gordon Wasson was fulfilling his duties as Vice President for Public Relations at J.P. Morgan. An amateur mycologist during his time off, Wasson was once repulsed by mushrooms. It was his Russian wife, it seems, who inoculated him with her own cultural passion for all things fungi. Wasson would later divide world cultures around their relationship to mushrooms, declaring Greeks, Celts, Scandinavians and Anglo-Saxons as “mycophobes” who viewed wild mushrooms with suspicion at best.

Slavically liberated from his Anglo-Saxon fear of fungus, Wasson would spend the next 30 years investigating with his wife the “strange role of toadstools in the early cultural history of Europe and Asia.” He mused, “The great Russians, we find, are mighty mycophiles.”

What appeared as demonic toadstools to Wasson were a source of immense curiosity and culinary delight to his wife, who collected them on their honeymoon, ignoring her husband’s horror. The young Wasson never dreamed he’d later become the first white man in recorded history to ingest a hallucinogenic psilocybe.

Etymologically, the origin of the word “toadstool” may mean exactly what it looks like. However, Old English for “toad” could also refer to a very unpleasant or loathsome man. By the 1530s, the word “stool” grew to include the act (or substance) of defecation, as a verb or noun, expanded from previously exclusive reference to a seat, from the Old Norse “stoll.” In fact, prototypes of the word “stool” began usage mainly referring to thrones of royalty.

Coincidentally or not, psilocybe belong to a group of fungi called coprophilous – literally, “dung loving.” Whatever its original meaning, “toadstool” was generally uttered in a derogatory way, to highlight mushrooms' poison and danger. But up until the late 1950s, psilocybin-containing mushrooms of the genus psilocybe were neither controversial nor demonized in the US – they were almost completely unknown. Wasson’s description of himself and Allan Richardson, his travel companion, as the first white men to encounter and consume them has never been disproven.

“Though the early Spanish writers wrote about the divine mushrooms four centuries ago,” Wasson penned, “no anthropologist and no mycologist had been sufficiently interested to pursue the problem until our own generation.”

We know the ceremony occurred on the night of June 29 and the early morning of the 30th, in the year 1955, somewhere in a Mexican Indian village “so remote from the world that most of the people still speak no Spanish.” In his story, later published in Time Magazine, Wasson altered the names of the people and places he encountered to “preserve their privacy.”

However, according to environmental journalist Michael Pollan's book How to Change Your Mind : The New Science of Psychedelics, "Wasson was halfhearted in his desire to protect" his sources, and revealed his shaman's location and identity in his book, Russia, Mushrooms and History. The woman was María Sabina. After exposure, she was harassed by Mexican police and her community suffered greatly. After Timothy Leary made a trip to the no-longer-secret town of Cuernavaca, Mexico, a flood of irreverent stoners and sleazy hippies followed his footsteps and ultimately profaned all the Indians held sacred.

After his experience in 1960, Leary said he “learned more about psychology in the five hours after taking these mushrooms than in the preceding 15 years of studying and doing research in psychology.” He then went back to Harvard to start the Harvard Psilocybin Project, until a later encounter with LSD derailed not only Leary’s own studies but the entire focus of American culture, which suddenly shifted away from mushrooms and towards the more potent and glamorous lysergic acid. But five years earlier, during Wasson’s psilocybe initiation, the man believed he had discovered a substance of enormous promise.

Wasson recalled how “The Indians mingled Christian and pre-Christian elements in their religious practices in a way disconcerting for Christians but natural for them,” in a fusion often referred to as syncretism. “The mushrooms are sacred and never the butt of the vulgar jocularity that is often the way of white men with alcohol,” Wasson wrote. Although he and Richardson were “determined to resist any effects,” Wasson dropped that pretense when he “saw a mythological beast drawing a regal chariot.”

Then, the walls of the house dissolved around him and his spirit flew out of his body and hung, “suspended in mid-air viewing landscapes of mountains, with camel caravans advancing slowly across the slopes, the mountains rising tier above tier to the very heavens.” Later, when Wasson repeated the experiment, his spirit again hung “poised in space, a disembodied eye, invisible, incorporeal, seeing but not seen.”

“The visions that we saw must have come from within us, obviously. But they did not recall anything that we had seen with our own eyes. Somewhere within us there must lie a repository where these visions sleep until they are called forth,” he speculated.

During this initiation, Wasson saw “lines and colors being so sharp that they seemed more real to me than anything I had ever seen with my own eyes,” leading him to conclude he was finally “seeing plain, whereas ordinary vision gives us an imperfect view.” He would later invoke Plato’s allegory of the cave to emphasize the point. He described “a fission of the spirit,” like schizophrenia but with his “rational side continuing to reason and to observe the sensations that the other side is enjoying,” as though attached “by an elastic cord to the vagrant senses.”

After this first experiment, Wasson gave the mushrooms to his wife and 18-year-old daughter. Instead of a grand landscape, his Moscow-born, London-educated wife saw “a ball in the Palace of Versailles where figures in period costumes danced to a Mozart minuet.” For whatever reason, Wasson made no comment on what (if anything) his daughter saw or experienced.

Though a mystery to Wasson, we now know that psilocybin and psilocin are the primary active substances found in psilocybe. Psilocin rapidly degrades when exposed to the elements, which is why psilocybin is the chemical used in studies. However, psilocybin only exerts its effect after being metabolized into psilocin. It is this delicate psilocin, then, and not the robust psilocybin, that forms the essence of psilocybe as a tryptamine alkaloid.

Psilocin is structurally similar enough to serotonin to bind to its receptor, where much (though not all) of its effect is exerted. Of the several human serotonin receptors, psilocin has an affinity for 5-HT2A, an area also acted on by many antipsychotic medications. Wasson’s mention of schizophrenia seems to have been prophetic, as the 5-HT2A serotonin receptor was later implicated in the disease. Although psilocin also acts on dopamine, it seems to be a less profound action than flagship dopaminergics like nicotine, amphetamine and heroin. LSD also seems to have a stronger influence on dopamine, despite sharing a similar serotonergic action with psilocybe.

In 2015, Tim Ferriss, a Silicon Valley investor and author of "The 4-Hour Workweek," told CNN Business that many successful entrepreneurs dabble in psychedelics. Unlike dopaminergic drugs of abuse, serotonin-mimicking psychedelics seem to draw users’ interest into less self-centered, addictive pathways. Those on the billionaire level, Ferriss reported, dabble in serotonergic psychedelics regularly, “almost without exception.”

In the same report, an anonymous employee identified by CNN as working in one of Silicon Valley’s “biggest companies” said he made a wise career change while high on mushrooms. Stories like these are now common enough that the phenomenon was represented in HBO’s Silicon Valley. Although hallucinogens like psilocybe remain popular in the real Silicon Valley, entrepreneurs usually postpone these experiences for when they are not actively coding, pitching or developing. No one wants to freak out and start hallucinating in a room full of people they don’t know and, the consensus holds, you may mess up your job if you attempt to do it high.

But that sometimes depends on the job. Rock band Muse famously recorded much of their second album, the award-winning Origin of Symmetry, under the influence of psilocybe. Described by NME Reviews as containing "darker visions of Cobain and Kafka," the album was lauded as "sexy," "populist" and containing one of the greatest cover versions of all time with Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse's Feeling Good. While under psilocin's effects, lead vocalist Matt Bellamy reportedly ran into a Salvador Dali painting and found himself temporarily "merged" with it. The band has reportedly scaled back its use in recent years.

Daniel Kottke, who dropped acid with Steve Jobs at Reed College, told CNN that Jobs skipped cannabis because it lacked the proper effects on his creativity. Jobs’ preference for psilocybe and, more famously, LSD, stemmed from his value-appraisal of what these substances actually offered, as if Jobs’ use of the drugs was an act of employment and he disapproved marijuana's resume. Nevertheless, hallucinogens have long been considered drugs of rest and recreation, designed to be consumed when the work day (or high school) is over.

Although nicotine and caffeine cause toxicity in lower doses than psilocybin, they do not interfere with typical employment. Unless you're a member of Muse, psilocybe may not be good for the middle of the workday. In studies, those under the effect of psilocin showed a decrease in areas of the brain associated with planning and decision making, areas which soon returned to normal as the drug wore off. “Productive,” stimulant drugs like amphetamine, nicotine and caffeine do not seem to create a great depth of introspection, which may be part of their advantage and appeal. Indeed, drugs of productivity may often be used as an antidote to introspection, a way of turning one’s vision more fixedly external.

Findings published by Oxford University have demonstrated that psilocybin boosts emotional but not cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy involves “having more complete and accurate knowledge about the contents of another person’s mind, including how the person feels,” according to Hodges and Myers in the Encyclopedia of Social Psychology.

So, while mushrooms may make the user more open to their own feelings, they may not heighten his ability to read a room or play poker. This cognitive empathy is most required in the workplace, especially to understand the needs of clients, consumers or subscribers. But emotional empathy, or the tendency to actually feel the same, is undesirable for many workers. Who would want a surgeon to operate on them feeling an enormous sense of pain and horror?

Also crucial to the typical, Western notion of productivity is the idea of time, an awareness that psilocybe intoxication “utterly destroys,” according Wasson. But when used off the proverbial clock, psilocybe seems to have promise in fostering creative insight. Although it cannot boost one’s creativity directly, studies suggest it may act as a powertool in the creative’s toolkit, capable of causing good or harm in direct proportion to the knowledge and intentions of the toolmaster.

Taken to its logical extreme, the idea of psilocybe as a creative tool resulted in Terence McKenna’s stoned ape hypothesis, often mistakenly referred to as the stone ape theory. The hypothesis emerged in the 90s as a way of explaining how human brain size abruptly doubled about 200,000 years ago.

Ethnobotanist, psychonaut and American mystic, McKenna suggested that early man first encountered psilocybe as rainforest receded into grassland. These “stoned apes,” McKenna said, were better able to see, hunt and overcome fear. In 2018, Michael Pollan told Joe Rogan he doesn’t buy it.

"I didn't find it persuasive and, in fact, if you press Terrence McKenna, he didn't find it entirely persuasive,” Pollan said. “It's an interesting speculation, it's kind of a mind game. I can see how psychedelics would influence the mind and create new ideas and might contribute to language, but how does it get into the genes? I see psychedelics as having had a profound effect at the level of cultural evolution.”

It is only at this cultural level, Pollan contended, that innovation in language, religion, and other complex forms of cooperation might have been assisted by psilocybe. Pollan compared psychedelics to radiation, saying, "in the cultural realm, psychedelics are like radiation, they're mutagens, they create change, variation, and that advances cultural evolution...all those wild ideas, 99 percent of them are stupid and useless, I'll bet. But that 1 percent can change the world." Pollan himself has a complicated personal record on the issue. On one hand, he has grown and consumed psilocybe, but went on to warn against full legalization, to the fury of many of his readers.

Just as Pollan suggested that caffeine led to the rise of industrial capitalism, Terence McKenna cast psilocybe in an even more foundational role – forming the origin of modern human cognition, value systems and even language itself. Like Pollan’s, McKenna’s hypothesis is unprovable, but speaks to the core of Laterally’s mission of bringing order to the chaos of creativity. Stoned apes may not be the most likely theory, but none else are as exciting.

The state of creative inspiration, in all its forms, is difficult to define with any single parameter. Like a Hindu god with many arms and heads, a successful creative state flows from a confluence of multiple instruments working harmoniously, aligned and tuned into an orchestral effort. If one simple thing could be said about the birth of ingenuity and imagination, we could suggest that it occurs – primarily, at least — in the brain.

This question of origin brings to mind Wasson’s own queries, as he wrote them in Time Magazine, “Are the visions a subconscious transmutation of things read and seen and imagined, so transmuted that when they are conjured forth from the depths we no longer recognize them? Or do the mushrooms stir greater depths still, depths that are truly the Unknown?”