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A Scientific Look at Your Brain on Shrooms

We take a trip through the scientific literature to learn how psilocybin mushrooms can help (or harm) your mind.

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In the May 7 Denver municipal election, voters face a mind-bending decision: whether to decriminalize hallucinogenic mushrooms. Advocates of the Denver Psilocybin Mushroom Decriminalization Initiative believe the drug could help adults manage psychological stress, addiction, and suicidal ideation. Are they right? Take a trip through the scientific literature to find out.

Mind Meld

Where: Prefrontal cortex, amygdala, hippocampus, basal ganglia
Brain Activity: Before a trip begins (they last about six hours), the liver transforms psychedelic psilocybin molecules into the chemical compound “psilocin,” which stimulates happy-making serotonin receptors.
Brace Yourself: After half an hour or so, you might start to feel giddy.
Possible Effects: After eating shrooms, participants in a 2012 Switzerland study were more likely to choose cheerful images over sad ones, leading researchers to suggest psilocybin could treat depression if combined with therapy.

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Chaos Begets Creativity

Where: The brain’s neural pathways
Brain Activity: Like high school cliques, each brain cortex (a zone with a specialized function, like memory or emotion) normally interacts only with itself. Shrooms, though, forge new communication channels that allow, for example, the sight and auditory cortices to chat.
Brace Yourself: Some cosmic adventurers report “synesthesia” (the confusion of senses). So don’t panic if you see sounds or hear colors.
Possible Effects: Totems of art sing the praises of mushrooms. Actress Susan Sarandon, for one, says she’s had profound experiences while on the drug.

Caution Ahead

Where: Lateral ventricles, parts of the temporal and frontal lobes
Brain Activity: Brain scans of schizophrenia patients often show differences in the above spots, which may help explain the adverse effects that have been reported when these individuals try shrooms.
Brace Yourself: Some scientists fear psilocybin could trigger schizophrenic episodes in those predisposed to the disorder.
Possible Effects: It’s best that people with schizophrenia don’t partake until more research is done. And for everyone else, just a reminder: Shrooms are still illegal and haven’t been studied enough to know for sure if they’re safe long-term. If you’re set on experimenting, experts say to do it in a safe location (ideally with a sober friend), even if you have a clean bill of health.

Leggo Thy Ego

Where: Default-mode network (ventral medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate/retrosplenial cortex, hippocampal formation, inferior parietal lobule, lateral temporal cortex, dorsal medial prefrontal cortex)
Brain Activity: This part of the brain—the me-centered locus of daydreaming and self-reflection—goes idle.
Brace Yourself: Your ego may peace out. With your sense of self gone, expect to feel transcendent and connected with the world.
Possible Effects: Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that a shroom-induced mystical experience can soothe some cancer patients’ anxiety, depression, and fear of death.

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