Psychedelics like psilocybin have been used for centuries in religious and spiritual ceremonies. But what happens when we take away the magic mushrooms?
In 1957, when Wall Street banker R. Gordon Wasson publicized in Life Magazine about his and photographer Allan Richardson's experience as "the first white men ever to consume the divine mushroom," he could not predict the revolt they would cause and the dialogue it would trigger within it. After being exposed to holy mushrooms by Mazatec curandera (healer) María Sabina, Wasson set up for a portion to be mailed over Albert Hofmann—noted father of LSD—who isolated its effective molecule: psilocybin.
After being introduced to the sacred mushrooms by Mazatec curandera (healer) María Sabina, Wasson arranged to have a sample sent to Albert Hofmann—the famed father of LSD. Hofmann was able to isolate its active molecule: psilocybin.
"We told María Sabina that we had isolated the spirit of the mushrooms and that it was now in these little pills," Hofmann said in an unpublished interview. "When we left, María Sabina told us that these tablets really contained the spirit of the mushrooms." Hofmann announced in a never-published interview that they had managed to capture the soul of mushrooms and store it inside these small pills. When we parted, María Sabina assured us that those tablets truly held the entity of fungi within them.
Notwithstanding her approval, dispute persists over the variations, if any, between laboratory-made psilocybin and mushrooms themselves which archeological findings demonstrate have been religiously used for eons. These two domains - modern as well as ancient healing - pivot around a similar particle but clash when it comes to considering what is relinquished when components of fungi or breed like cannabis and ayahuasca are selected out and reproduced for clinical research.
Psychedelic mushrooms contain three main alkaloids that produce mind-altering effects: psilocybin, the primary psychoactive ingredient; psilocin, a metabolite that is activated after psilocybin is ingested; and baeocystin, which occurs in low concentrations in the mushrooms that we typically eat.
Only psilocybin in its isolated form has shown promise for treatment-resistant depression, end-of-life distress, and nicotine addiction according to modern science. There is only anecdotal evidence from underground use and spiritual practice when it comes the effects of shrooms themselves . However, some researchers such as Sidarta Ribeiro , Director of the Brain Institute at Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte , have suggested that the compounds in psychedelic mushrooms may work together much like the varying chemical components of cannabis to create an entourage effect. They theorize that healing power might be diminished when psilocybin is taken on its own .
“The underground is full of very interesting stories,” says Charles Grob, professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, “but these are not rigorously conducted studies, which we need in order to fully understand the value of these medicines and for our health system to accept their potential application.”
The current system for researching treatments requires that they gain approval from the FDA, DEA, and state-based regulatory bodies. This is because accurate dosage and consistency can only be guaranteed with isolated psilocybin, not mushrooms. While Grob doesn't believe it's impossible to test organic mushrooms, doing so would require researchers to navigate a system that's designed to study and approve isolated compounds rather than whole plants.
This speaks to a larger challenge among psychedelic scientists, who are required to control and measure every aspect of their trials. As a result, psychedelics are not studied in the way they’re taken in the real world, where hallucinogenic fungi and plants are steeped in traditions that shape how they’re understood and experienced.
Mushrooms in Mazatec traditions are not seen as just another ingredient in a dish, but rather as beings with their own subjectivity and intentionality. This is in stark contrast to the modern view of pills as nothing more than lifeless objects used to treat various ailments. However, it's important to remember that these plants play different roles in different cultures. We should therefore strive to find legitimacy within our own practices.
In that light, it might be more about which is different, but looking critically at how they could be better. And that shift begins by not confusing plants and fungi with the products that come from them.
In such a case, maybe it is not so much about which one is more advantageous but rather considering carefully how they can contrast. We must prevent the confusion of plants and fungi with their resultant products.