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What happens when you mix meditation with magic mushrooms?

New research has found that the chemical in magic mushrooms combined with meditation can improve social functioning.

In recent years psilocybin has become the focus of a new wave of research. Neuroimaging and behavioral studies show that psilocybin-assisted therapy may help to ease mood disorders like depression and anxiety, and enhance forgiveness, acceptance and gratitude. In the past, even Harvard University had a Psilocybin Project, where famed researchers Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (more commonly known as spiritual teacher Ram Dass) conducted experiments (sometimes on themselves) to test its effects.

Now, in a new study from the University of Zurich published in NeuroImage, scientists explore whether combining meditation with psilocybin—the chemical in magic mushrooms—may impact brain function and alter self-consciousness even after the high is gone.

Understanding the Effects of Mushrooms

In the University of Zurich study, 38 experienced adult meditators were randomly assigned to either a psilocybin or placebo control group. They then participated in a five-day, silent group meditation retreat. On day four, each received either a dose of psilocybin or a placebo (lactose).

Before and after the retreat, members of both groups completed questionnaires about their experiences and perceptions, and underwent an fMRI brain scan. During the scan they were asked to perform three different types of meditation with their eyes closed–resting state, focused attention and open awareness. Each type of meditation was practiced for seven minutes. Four months later they filled out a survey about changes in their attitudes, moods, behavior, and social experiences.

After the retreat, mushroom-assisted meditators reported less self-consciousness and more illusions and hallucinations than the control group. What’s more, their brains showed alterations in the functioning of the default mode network—a group of interacting brain regions linked toself-awareness and rumination—during open awareness meditation. This makes sense, given prior researchshowing that psilocybin and meditation can affect the brain in similar ways, and one of those ways is to create a feeling that a person’s self-conscious awareness is dissolving.

What is even more remarkable is that experienced meditators in the psilocybin group reported better social functioning four months later.

Of course, neither meditation nor hallucinogen use are one-size-fits-all, and not everyone will experience benefits. The authors of the study caution that the use of mind-altering drugs in people who are either unprepared or with medical histories may do more harm than good.


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