Sept. 29, 2011 — Psilocybin, the drug in “magic mushrooms,” helps many people become more open, creative, and curious after they take a single high dose, a new study shows.
Ordinarily, researchers say, after age 30 personality is a pretty fixed part of who we are.
When people do change their stripes, it’s usually in the wake of significant life events that cause emotional upheaval, like marriage, divorce, or getting fired from a job.
Researchers say the new study, which is published in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, is one the first to show that a drug, when used in an experimental setting, can alter personality long term.
Specifically, the study found that psilocybin affects a dimension of personality called openness. Openness relates to the ability to see and appreciate beauty, to imagine, to be aware of our own and other people’s feelings, and to be curious and creative.
“Personality, after the age of 25, is relatively stable, and if anything happens, openness decreases across decades, just very slightly, but generally people become more rigid and less creative,” says researcher Roland R. Griffiths, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore. “And this is showing an anti-aging affect if you will, on openness.”
Psilocybin and Personality
The study followed 52 healthy adults who volunteered to try psilocybin as part of ongoing studies at Johns Hopkins.
Most were well-educated and spiritually active, and they ranged in age from 24 to 64.
People who participated in the study received counseling about what to expect before they took the drug, and they were closely monitored throughout their sessions, which lasted for eight hours.
They were also given standardized doses of psilocybin, something that’s not possible to do when people take mushrooms recreationally.
Thirty of the volunteers, or 57%, reported having transcendent, mystical experiences while taking the drug. The specifics of each experiences differed, but they shared common themes of interconnectedness to all people and things, feeling peace and joy, a sense of sacredness, and of stepping outside normal time and space.
Many of the people who took part in the study also had significant and harrowing bouts of anxiety and fear. When caught up in that anxiety, researchers say, people can engage in risky and dangerous behavior, and for that reason they advise people not to use magic mushrooms on their own.
Psychological tests showed that people who had a mystical experience also had measurable increases in openness, which is one of five key domains of personality. The other four are neuroticism, extroversion, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Those did not change significantly.
Continued testing shows that the personality improvements have lasted for at least a year, and Griffiths says he believes they will turn out to be permanent.
“It has something to do with the nature of these profound experiences,” he says.
“These occur in the natural population. There are people who have mystical experiences and transforming moments where their lives are changed forever more,” Griffiths tells WebMD. “And it appears to me that we have a biological model now, and a set of conditions, in which we can occasion these experiences at pretty high frequency, and so we now can study these things.”
Psychiatrists say the study means that psychedelic drugs could one day be powerful therapeutic tools.
“What’s so fascinating is that he’s demonstrating that what might be a one-time only experience may reliably induce these very powerful spiritual-level states, and they do appear to have sustained impact on people and personality,” says Charles S. Grob, MD, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Medicine.
Grob has studied the effects of psilocybin on anxiety in cancer patients, but he was not involved in the current research.
“That’s very, very unusual in psychiatry. We don’t necessarily expect to see changes in these domains with our treatment.”
But other experts who study personality said that while the study was interesting, it wasn’t the first time a drug has been shown to alter how people think, feel, and act.
“The cleanest example was from 2009, in a double-blind placebo-control study, the authors found that SSRIs [a type of antidepressant] decreased neuroticism and that this decrease was the reason for the success of the psychopharmacological therapy,” says Brent W. Roberts, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in an email.
“There are many other studies in the literature much like this one using medications to affect personality trait change,” Roberts says. “Like this study, they tend not to include a control group,” which limits their ability to prove that the drugs are causing the changes, he says.