Some Comments On Effects Of Mushrooms From The Category Phantastica

Extensive animal research efforts during the 1950s furnished evidence that both psilocybin and psilocin are alkaloids of negligible acute toxicity. Specifically, the dosage of psilocybin that caused death in 50% of the experimental mice (LD 50) was determined to be 280 mg/kg body weight. By comparison, noticeable effects in humans generally occur at dosages as low as 0.02 mg/kg.

Animal tests showed that, on average, psilocybin was a substance only half as toxic as mescaline, and at the same time, turned out to be 50 times more potent as a psychoactive substance. For example, up to 2 g of mescaline were being administered with no dangerous side effects, while the usual dose of psilocybin ranged from 3 to 30 mg as part of psychological testing and psychotherapy sessions.

As is the case with other psychotropic substances, human beings most likely have a more sensitive reaction in response to psilocybin than mice do. Still, the range of safety in controlled experiments comes to several hundred times the amount of the active dosage. The same goes for the consumption of mushroom material, since psilocybin concentrations in mushrooms can vary up to a factor of 10. Consequently, J. Ott speculated that adults would need to eat their own body weight in fresh mushrooms, in order to finally reach the dosage limit of lethal toxicity. Despite the hundreds of thousands of voluntary self-experiments taking place every year in the U.S. alone, no fatalities caused by magic mushrooms have ever occurred there. Small children, however, have abnormal reactions to psilocybin, such as loss of consciousness, cramps and danger of death.

It was in the fall of 1960, that a child from Milwaukee, Oregon, picked several mushrooms from grassy soil below a cluster of conifers. Having eaten the mushrooms, the child experienced cramps and a high fever. Similar to a condition described as "status epilepticus ", the symptoms were treated by medications, with limited success. The child died within three days.

The mushroom sample involved in this incident was identified as Psilocybe baeocystis. P. Stamets, however, contested this finding, claiming the species had been misidentified. He referred to a publication about the incident that included a picture of the mushrooms, which, according to Stamets, shows a sample of Psilocybe cyanescens. This species is wellknown as exceptionally potent, due to high levels of psilocybin and psilocin. Still, we cannot determine whether toxic concentrations of alkaloids were the cause of death, or whether ingestion of the alkaloids triggered a latent case of epilepsy in the form of an acute episode that could not be treated or controlled. If a similar incident happened nowadays, fatal outcomes could be easily prevented, since the last three decades of progress in pharmaceutical research included the discovery of new drugs capable of aborting convulsive episodes.

Due to publicity generated by the unfortunate accident in 1960, two alkaloids (baeocystin and norbaeocystin) first isolated from Psilocybe baeocystis, at times acquired reputations of being extremely poisonous as well as strongly psychoactive. Both claims, however, are wrong and unsubstantiated. Specifically, both baeocystin and norbaeocystin are present in other mushroom species, such as Psilocybe semilanceata, and at generally higher levels compared to the alkaloid content of Psilocybe baeocystis.

Biochemical research efforts accelerated and large numbers of studies were conducted, primarily with LSD. These investigators sought to discover the receptor binding sites for hallucinogenic compounds in the brain and to understand the mechanisms underlying the genesis of psychedelic visions. Today, we still lack a sound theoretical framework able to explain the relationship between chemical compounds and the manifestation of their psychoactivity. Even though basic research is certainly important, its methods, unfortunately, are often a function of a rather one-sided pharmacological approach to investigating the effects of psilocybin, LSD and mescaline - an approach that is, in fact, too narrow to address the remarkably unusual nature of these substances and their effects.

Misunderstandings between pharmacologists and toxicologists on the one hand and psychiatrists and psychologists on the other can often be traced all the way back to the 1950's, creating a legacy of disputes and arguments that have yet to be resolved. S. Grof undertook the tedious task of analyzing 5,000 experimental LSD protocols in an effort to isolate "absolute" symptoms that are reported or occur all of the time. His results were negative. According to Grof, hallucinogenic substances are non-specific triggers causing a sequence of altered states of consciousness, which do not fit the syndrome labeled "toxic psychosis". Rather, it is the individual's personality, along with the experimental setting that significantly shape the nature of the psychedelic experience. This view is shared by a majority of experts with considerable experience in conducting psychedelics-assisted psychotherapy. Even "real" somatic symptoms, such as nausea or vomiting, can often be controlled through psychological intervention techniques administered by trained professionals.

A Plethora of Names

The broad range of possible experiences inspired the use of labels other than "hallucinogens", with widely differing semantic connotations: entheogens, psychedelics, illusionogens, psycholytics, psychomimetics, psychodysleptica, psychoemetics and others.

"Phantastica" (Lewin) is the oldest label ever used to describe this class of substances. This term successfully evokes dream-like, fanciful aspects of the experience, as well as the potential for euphoric and dysphoric emotional overtones. More recent terminology often says more about semantic biases of those who use the labels than about any factual, objective characteristics of the alkaloids they refer to. Accordingly, official antidrug propaganda since the 1960's has disparaged "psychedelics" as excessively glamorous and too positive a label, as the term was popular among Timothy Leary's fans and supporters.

When used in low doses or for the first time, these substances are most likely to bring about a kind of magical transformation of surroundings, with a heightened ability to perceive subtle differences along the color spectrum -effects an individual often takes in with a great sense of wonder and awe. Based on these types of experiences, the label "psychoesthetica" has been used as well.

During the 1950's, those experiments of a purely pharmacological nature revealed that, within a specific low dosage range, the effects of psilocybin and LSD were largely similar, except for the shorter duration of the psilocybin experience. That is why there are numerous comparisons in the literature of 10 mg of psilocybin with 100 ug of LSD as equivalent dosages.

There are several authors, however, who focus on the more visionary and metaphysical nature of the psilocybin experience compared to other hallucinogenic substances. A. Hofmann conducted self-experiments with both substances and found the altered state of consciousness induced by psilocybin to be both deeper and somewhat gloomier than those produced by LSD.

Other investigators have portrayed psilocybin as "friendlier" - a substance that is not as fierce as LSD in exposing possible traumas hidden within the subconscious mind (see Chapter 3.2). Such differences in comparative evaluations of psilocybin and LSD are likely linked to a variety of factors, such as dosage differences, research protocols less than comprehensive and exhaustive in scope, as well as personality and environmental variables.

LSD "Flashbacks"

R. Fischer conducted a series of experiments designed to study the effects of psilocybin compared to LSD and mescaline. The results confirmed what had already been common knowledge among those who used the mushrooms in various contexts around the world: "flashbacks" are quite rare, and very mild, if they occur at all, nor do abnormal symptoms persist once the effects of the alkaloid have worn off. Widespread reports of LSD-induced "flashbacks" spawned biochemical theories which falsely postulate that LSD is stored inside the body and can be released at a later time to induce short periods of visions and other "psychotic" manifestations. Such conjecture about the body's "storage capacity" persisted despite prior evidence to the contrary that established LSD as a substance rapidly metabolized and eliminated from the body.

The assumption of a prolonged storage period following ingestion of LSD had already been debunked by LSD-assisted psychotherapy during the 1960's. According to M. Hausner, who worked in the former Czechoslovakia, several patients who went through a series of LSD sessions did experience "flashbacks" in between sessions. However, the therapeutic administration of hallucinogens was continued in these cases and those flashback episodes that did occur were far less spectacular than expected based on some of the more dramatic descriptions of the phenomenon. Within the context of M. Hausner's studies, flashback episodes turned out to be merely temporary manifestations of issues that had reached the conscious mind. Moreover, flashbacks disappeared as therapy progressed with continued administrations and did not recur after conclusion of the therapy program. These observations are at odds with the biochemical theory which predicted that repeated administrations would increase storage of the substance inside the body, causing increasingly powerful flashback episodes.

Considering the highly variable nature of psilocybin's effects as illustrated by examples of unintentional and carefully controlled experimentation described in this book alone, some striking parallels with Grofs findings on the effects of LSD virtually suggest themselves. Grof noted the emergence of, in that order, abstract, aesthetic, psychodynamic, perinatal and transpersonal types of experiences during hallucinogenic sessions. With repeated administrations of relatively low doses, participants typically progressed through these stages one by one, eventually attaining and lingering at the transpersonal level of analysis.

The accounts of psychoactive mushroom experiences included in this book are by necessity limited to only one to three trials over time.

Thus, detailed analyses comparing the effects of LSD and psilocybin must await results from future research efforts, assuming researchers will be able to conduct these types of studies.

By contrast, relatively high doses of LSD as well as psilocybin typically "bypass" the initial phases of experience, propelling the individual directly into the realm of transpersonal consciousness. The natural scientist's first experiment with Psilocybe bohemica or the incidents of accidental intoxication with Psilocybe cubensis in Africa both illustrate these kinds of transpersonal experiences.

Aside from psilocybin's psychotherapeutic applications as detailed in Chapter 9, there are other interesting phenomena and potential uses for psilocybin as well as those mushrooms whose active ingredients can be analyzed and measured accurately.

The investigation of frequent symptoms such as compulsive laughter, yawning and the flow of tears without dysphoria may reveal interesting neurophysiological mechanisms, provided we can isolate and separate the influence of psychological factors in the manifestation of these symptoms.

Psilocybin as a Research Tool for Study and Diagnosis of Brain Damage

The benefits of diagnosing brain-damaged patients with psilocybin were investigated in the former Czechoslovakia during the 1960s. Psilocybin was the alkaloid of choice for these studies, due to its minimal toxicity and because participants were not expected to develop additional chronic dysfunctions as a result of ingesting psilocybin. Visual hallucinations were found to be almost completely suppressed in patients suffering from lesions to parts of the central nervous system known to mediate visual-sensory functions.

On the other hand, the discovery that psilocybin tended to potentiate a variety of neurological processes effectively turned the alkaloid into a diagnostic tool used to reveal latent paralyses and other subtle types of damage to the central nervous system. While LSD could also have been used for this purpose, researchers preferred psilocybin, because dosage measurement was comparatively simpler, its effects were short-term and patients experienced less fatigue with psilocybin than with LSD.

In one exceptionally remarkable case, one of the participants, while under the influence of the substance, clearly saw a brain tumor inside her skull - a tumor that was not discovered until an examination that followed the session.

R. Fischer (see Figure 61) conducted a series of controlled experiments involving the presentation of words and sentences composed of incomplete letters, with increasingly larger portions of the letters covered in several stages, from the top down. In the end, only the stumps of the letters remained in the display, which was no longer readable. Under the influence of psilocybin, however, the ability to "re-synthesize" these characters was observed quite frequently: Participants were able to read a significantly larger number of words, with some reportedly able to see the partial letters, complete and uncut, in a display that showed little more than a white background area.

These observations are powerful evidence confirming that the effects of mushroom ingredients are certainly not just "psychotic" in nature, a notion preferred by those pharmacologists partial to terminology such as "toxic psychosis", with all its connotations as evoked by the "fool's mushroom" label. Psilocybin and its relatives apparently act as catalysts that initiate new information processing mechanisms and patterns of coordination between the different interactive areas of the brain. As such, the substances create the context needed for integrating emotional and rational processes in new ways. Under the most favorable of circumstances, such states of mind are experienced not only as a profound, impressive expansion of one's consciousness, but may also be reflected in short-term improvements of performance. I believe, however, that these temporary gains in skills are rarely attained by casual or recreational users of psilocybin-containing mushrooms, because set and setting are often less than ideal, and alkaloid content tends to be highly variable. Most researchers, including A. Hofmann, strongly advised against usage of hallucinogens by youngsters, even in controlled experimental settings. Adolescence is a time of upheaval, a developmental stage when youngsters struggle with themselves and their surroundings, searching for a purpose and a firm direction in life: Numerous conflicts arise in the process and need to be dealt with and integrated. Besides inducing altered perceptual states, hallucinogenic substances, including psilocybin are bound to release a stream of new emotions and conflicts. Such experiences often serve to confuse teenaged users and to compound existing areas of conflict, threatening to disturb the youngster's equilibrium, which is rather fragile tc begin with.

Quite likely, the search for a means to escape reality plays an important role in this situation. In fact, the escapist aspect of LSD portrayed against a backdrop of political upheaval fuelled a reactionary zeal among those determined to control the substance during the 1960's. As a consequence of these restrictive legislative measures, the unbiased, scientific evaluation of hallucinogenic substances remains an all but impossible task. These examples from the LSD research literature suggest that controlled human subjects research is possible without risking damage or injury to the participants, while gaining a wealth of new insights beyond psychotherapy applications.

Comprehensive investigations of these substances have long ago proven beyond doubt that psilocybin, mescaline and LSD are not physically addictive, nor do they cause withdrawal symptoms of any kind. Repeated self-experimentation over long periods of time is rare; most long-term users eventually reduce frequency of use due to the nature of these substances that initiate powerful transpersonal processes and facilitate the emergence of personal conflicts. Besides, habitual daily users quickly develop tolerance to the point of being unable to experience any psychoactive effects at all. That is why clinical trials are spaced to allow for intervals of at least one week between repeated applications.

Ecstasy is More than Entertainment

Renowned pharmacologist R. Siegel described hallucinogenic mushroom consumption in California as merely "experimental use". According to his definition, almost all users of psychoactive mushrooms have anywhere from at least one up to 10 experiences, with several weeks or months in between repetitions. Or consider R. G. Wasson's poetic answer to a question from his banker friends who wanted to know why he did not eat the mushrooms every day:

"There are many who never experienced ecstasy and who may think this is entertaining. But ecstasy is not a form of entertainment:

trembles. What kind of person would think nothing of submitting to a sense ofpure, absolute awe or of floating through that doorway into the presence of the divine? Those who have never known ecstasy first-hand, distort the word each time they use it. We must comprehend anew the entire, frightening meaning inherent in this word.

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