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Practical Data from Psilocybin Research
on Dose, Mystical Experience, and Personality
by Fire & Earth Erowid
Nov 2011
Citation:   Erowid F, Erowid E. "Practical Data from Psilocybin Research." Erowid Extracts. Nov 2011;21:4-5.
See also: Psilocybin & Mystical Experience 14-Month Follow-up

Innovative work with psilocybin by the Griffiths research group continues to flourish at Johns Hopkins University. Two new papers published in 2011 follow in the footsteps of a groundbreaking 2006 article, in which the same researchers showed that the primary active chemical in psychedelic mushrooms can induce "mystical-type" experiences in participants given the right preparation and setting.

"[...] it appears that having experience with lower doses facilitates the likelihood of having sustained positive effects after a high dose of psilocybin."
-- Griffiths RR, Johnson MW, Richards WA, et al.
The first of the new papers, "Psilocybin Occasioned Mystical-Type Experiences: Immediate and Persisting Dose-Related Effects", was published in June.1 It presented practical data regarding what doses of psilocybin are most likely to lead to these mystical experiences.

Volunteers were an average of 46 years old, well educated, and reported a relatively active spiritual life, with at least weekly participation in spiritual activities. Four different active doses of psilocybin and an active placebo (methylphenidate, aka Ritalin) were compared during the double-blind study. Each volunteer participated in five eight-hour single-dose sessions spaced roughly one month apart. Half received doses that ascended sequentially and half received a descending sequence. Both monitors and volunteers were unaware of the sequential nature of the dosage, having been told that they would be in mixed order. Furthermore, none of the monitors detected the ascending/descending nature of the study, even after all sessions had been completed.

Volunteers spent the bulk of each session lying on a couch focusing on their inner experience. Monitors completed questionnaires designed to rate participant behavior and mood during each session, while participants completed five questionnaires immediately following each session.

This design allowed the researchers to explore two primary issues: first, if a specific dosage (0, 5, 10, 20, or 30 mg per 70 kg of body weight) was more likely to engender a mystical-type experience; and second, if an ascending or descending dosage schedule affected subject experience of the sessions.

Questionnaire responses showed that higher doses were associated with stronger effects, more anxiety and fear, more stimulation, more distance from reality, and less responsiveness to the monitors. High doses also led to more intense joy/happiness and--with the exception of the highest dose--more peace/harmony.

The researchers nailed down some interesting and practical results that, although known by many informed entheogens users, had not been established in peer-reviewed scientific literature.

Timing: At the two highest doses (20 and 30 mg/70 kg), onset of primary effects was identified at the 30- or 60-minute assessment, and these effects reached a peak somewhere between 90 and 180 minutes.

Blood Pressure: Following the highest dose, 4 out of 18 subjects experienced increases in blood pressure sufficient to warrant additional monitoring but not pharmacological intervention.

These results suggest that a dose closer to 20 mg/70 kg maintains a solid potential for a meaningful and/or mystical-type experience...
Dosage: Measures designed to identify mystical experiences showed that results were dose-dependent. Participants were more likely to have mystical experiences at higher doses. Respectively, 0%, 5.6%, 11.1%, 44.4%, and 55.6% met the criteria for a "complete" mystical experience following 0, 5, 10, 20, and 30 mg/70 kg sessions. A whopping 72.2% of the volunteers had a "complete mystical experience" during one of the two highest dose sessions (20 or 30 mg/70 kg). This narrows down the question of what dose of psilocybin is most likely to produce a mystical experience. Although mushrooms vary substantially in potency, these doses are roughly the equivalent of 2.5-4 g and 4-6 g of dry Psilocybe cubensis for someone weighing 70 kg (154 lbs).2

Well-being: Around 90% of participants reported an increase in their sense of well-being and life satisfaction after either the 20 or 30 mg/70 kg session. And, perhaps most surprisingly, "Of the 90 total sessions, none were rated as having decreased well-being or life satisfaction."

Extreme Fear: Though it did not dramatically affect likelihood of a mystical experience, 39% of the carefully screened and prepared volunteers experienced "extreme ratings of fear, fear of insanity, or feeling trapped" at some point during a session (one at 20 mg/70 kg and six at the highest dose of 30 mg/70 kg). Similar numbers reported delusions or paranoid thinking (one at 20 mg/70 kg and seven at 30 mg/70 kg). A total of 10 out of 18 participants experienced extreme fear or paranoia at the highest dose. Equal numbers (44% each) rated the 20 and 30 mg/70 kg doses as the most personally meaningful.

These results suggest that a dose closer to 20 mg/70 kg maintains a solid potential for a meaningful and/or mystical-type experience while limiting anxiety, paranoia, and physical stress. Indeed the authors warn that "administration of doses higher than about 20 mg/70 kg would be inadvisable" in therapeutic or research settings where there is less screening, psychological preparation, and supervision.

Dosage Order
The study also documented the impact of dosage order on outcome. Volunteers from both the ascending and descending regimens reported positive increases in mood, altruism, behavior, spirituality, and attitudes about life and self, as well as their sense of well-being/life satisfaction. However, those in the ascending-dose group scored higher in these measures than the descending-dose group, both one month after the highest dose session (30 mg/70 kg) and at the 14-month follow-up.

While the experimental design--using pharmaceutical-grade psilocybin in sessions curated by some of the world's top psychedelic guides--is not directly parallel to real-life situations of individuals ingesting psilocybin-containing mushrooms at home, the study findings do appear to support the idea that positive outcomes are more likely to occur if inexperienced users start with lower doses rather than leaping directly into taking a high dose for their first experience. As the authors put it, "Thus, it appears that having experience with lower doses facilitates the likelihood of having sustained positive effects after a high dose of psilocybin."

The Griffiths group at Johns Hopkins has not only shown that psilocybin can occasion mystical experiences in a majority of volunteers; it has now produced useful data about specific dosage ranges and protocols for minimizing risks and maximizing benefits--practical information that could be valuable even to those outside research contexts.

In September, the same group published another paper, in which they described long-term positive personality effects measured with questionnaires following 30 mg/70 kg psilocybin sessions.3 According to the paper, no previous study has ever shown that a discrete experimental event can cause "personality change" in a healthy adult.

Four measures were considered: the Mysticism Scale, the Neuroticism Extroversion Openness Personality Inventory (NEO-PI), the States of Consciousness Questionnaire (SOCQ), and the Aussergewöhnliche Psychische Zustände (APZ). The authors hypothesized that mystical experiences, as measured with the SOCQ, would increase "Openness", one of the factors in the NEO-PI. The "facets" of the Openness (or "Openness to Experience") personality trait are Fantasy (active imagination), Aesthetics (appreciation of art and nature), Feelings (attentiveness to emotional states), Ideas (intellectual curiosity), Values (broad-mindedness), and Actions (inclination to try new things).

Volunteers were screened for levels of Openness prior to the psilocybin sessions. Initial Openness did not predict how likely they were to have a mystical experience during the sessions. However, the researchers found that having a "complete" mystical experience during a high-dose psilocybin session was correlated with positive changes in all facets of Openness except Actions. Increases in Openness persisted through follow-up surveys conducted more than a year after the psilocybin sessions. Those who experienced a "complete" mystical experience maintained higher levels of Openness during the year, while those who did not have a mystical experience maintained Openness levels similar to their initial screening.

The authors note that as people age, they become less "Open" according to these measures (with Openness generally decreasing by one point per decade out of scores of around 65 on the NEO-PI scale). Those who had a mystical experience during this study increased their Openness scores (by more than four points). Assuming that Openness is a desirable trait, this potentially mitigates decades of aging-related decline.

As research with psychedelics and empathogens increases around the world, we look forward to seeing these same measures used to evaluate whether other substances, such as MDMA, might also have long-term effects on Openness and other personality traits.