As psychedelics are being embraced as a potential treatment for mental health conditions, new research suggests that mind-altering substances like 'magic' mushrooms leave people feeling positive and socially connected hours after the high wears off.
The study by Yale University, surveying 1,200 Brits and Americans at six music festivals, provided evidence to support lab-based research that psychedelic drugs can boost wellbeing.
Between 2015 and 2017, teams of researchers set up "Play Games for Science" booths in busy areas at their selected festivals between 10 AM and 1 PM, encouraging people to come and speak to them. Participants spent 15 minutes filling out surveys on their use of psychoactive substances, as well as age, gender, level of religiousness, political orientation and level of education.
Each person was asked whether they'd had a transformative experience at the festival defined as "an experience that changes you so profoundly that you come out of the experience radically different than you were before the experience" and, if so, whether they enjoyed it.
Most of the participants were moderately liberal 30-year-olds who had attended four-year colleges. Some 80% of them drank alcohol at the festival, 50% used cannabis, and 26.6% used psychedelics. (Only 12.3% of festival goers reported taking zero substances.) Researchers only approached people who weren't noticeably drunk, and they put a question into their survey that functioned as a sobriety check, ruling out participants that were too drunk to answer correctly.
The researchers, led by neuroscientist Molly Crockett, found that the results were strongest in people who'd taken the drugs in the last 24 hours, though most seemed to be experiencing an "after glow" hours after the effects of the drugs should have worn off. They found people who'd taken psychedelics were more likely to feel positive, and some even experienced a shift in their moral values.
Crockett's team could not verify which drug each person was taking, how much of it, and whether it was mixed with other substances. But even their general findings were useful, echoing results in previous controlled laboratory studies that found psychedelics make us feel socially connected.
Crucially, they wanted to understand whether participants' expectations affected their 'high'. People taking psychedelics may have wanted or intended to have a transformative experience, Crockett told Insider, and the fact that attending an event might be a transformative experience even without psychedelics.
"We found that psychedelic use is associated with transformative experience over and above expecting and desiring such experiences," Crockett told Insider.
The study did not look at negative reactions beyond asking participants if their transformative experience had been positive or negative.
In the 1950s and 60s, psychedelic properties such as psilocybin (magic mushrooms) and lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) were the subject of many scientific studies, but they fell out of favor as the drugs became associated with debauchery and hedonism.
Recently there's been a resurgence of scientific interest in the benefits of psilocybin. In 2018, researchers at John Hopkins, America's oldest research university,urged the federal government to legalize psilocybin.
Last year Johns Hopkins launched a center solely dedicated to psychedelics research. This came after a number of studies which looked at the effect psychedelics had on depression, anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder.
"Something with more immediate effects has a huge benefit as a tool in the therapeutic toolbox," Matthew Johnson, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, who authored his own psilocybin study, previously told Insider.
However, most research on the possible medical benefits of psychedelics takes place in a sterile lab environment, Crockett told Insider. It means scientists still don't have enough evidence to confirm if people will react to psychedelics in the real world the same way they would in a lab.
That's why Crockett led a group of researchers in visiting a bunch of music festivals, where psychedelics are often used to augment the musical experience, to find out what effect psychedelics might have in a natural setting.
"There is still a lot we don't understand about how psychedelics affect the brain and mind," Crockett told Insider. We need more research on how psychedelics "can be used to reduce suffering and enhance wellbeing, and how to minimize risks and potential negative effects associated with their use."
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