While psychological studies continue to suggest that “magic” mushrooms help alleviate depression, another out of Imperial College London believes the fungi may also have political value. The study, conducted by Robin Carhart-Harris, the school’s head of psychedelic research, found that shrooms left those with treatment-resistant depression with feelings of “decreased authoritarian political views” and that “psilocybin therapy may persistently decrease authoritarian attitudes post-treatment.”
Although he’s quick to assert “further research is required to test the robustness of this relationship,” mostly because of the study’s small sample size, the intuitive answer for mushroom lovers (like, you know, me) is, “Duh!” Especially given psilocybin’s well-researched effects on one’s openness and personality.
I first spotted this research on an Antifa Instagram celebrating the results. This got me thinking about the vocal neo-conservative political voices populating the media today, especially the Alt-Right. What would happen if they all did shrooms? Beyond that, if Trump is our “homegrown authoritarian,” then how might mushrooms affect all those people who voted for him? Could they become empathetic enough to begin undoing their racist and xenophobic thinking? Could their depressed, gun-loving digital isolation be treated with a few potent mushroom caps?
On that count, history isn’t a great guide (not like shrooms at least). There are no accounts that I could find about prominent Western political leaders and the use of psilocybin. And when I ask Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a professor at NYU and author of the upcoming Strongmen: How They Rise, Why They Succeed and How They Fall, she responds that she didn’t think so, and offers instead “evidence of squads of Italian fascists using cocaine and other stimulants on their head-bashing expeditions in Ethiopia and in World War II.”
As for Nazis, I tried to dig up interesting anecdotes about German soldiers tripping on shrooms and deserting Hitler’s regime, but had no such luck. Again, all I found were reports of German soldiers fueling themselves with coke and meth and Hitler’s opioid addiction.
I did find one account of hallucinogenic mushroom use during battle — among the Zulus during their battle against the British Empire in the late 1870s, but they were unsuccessful and subsequently colonized. (Many indigenous cultures have consumed hallucinogenic mushrooms in regular ceremonies, particularly the Aztecs, but Western colonial powers have long understood mushrooms as poisonous and thus avoided them).
So with the Imperial College study in mind, I spoke to a quartet of experts about what they make of its findings and the potential political utility of mushrooms in the U.S and beyond. Their bona fides:
- Andy Letcher is the author of Shroom: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom and the program coordinator for masters degrees in both ecology and spirituality at Schumacher College in the U.K.
- Amit Elan is a yogi, shamanic plant medicine student and co-founder of the Altered Conference, an interdisciplinary, multi-day summit in Berlin “exploring psychedelics and altered states of consciousness.”
- Dr. George Greer is the co-founder and president of the Heffter Research Institute, a nonprofit research center in New Mexico that studies hallucinogens and their ability to alleviate suffering and improve the human conditioning. He’s also the author of the largest study ever published about therapeutic uses of MDMA.
- Shell is a healthcare professional and personal trainer in Bloomington, Indiana, who has tried more than 60 “psychedelic compounds.” Basically, the dude loves to trip.
Elan: I believe in the use of psilocybin mushrooms and other plant medicines, such as Ayahuasca, under responsible conditions, preferably under the guidance of a professional shaman or therapist. I believe these plant medicines give us the ability to get clarity on the whole makeup of our identity, including breaking down our habits and belief systems into little pieces to examine.
At times, magic mushrooms can feel like your body’s homecoming, creating a sense of warmth, safeness and comfortability within your own being. This experience can be humbling by discovering that you’re a tiny insignificant little nothing. It also can be a slap in the face or a wakeup call. It gives you space to get reflective and become aware of some of the dumb shit you do, especially stuff that’s harmful for others. Finally, it can help create empathy for the experience of another’s suffering, creating a little more space in one’s heart for the experience of others.
Moreover, psychedelic states can suddenly make the need for hierarchy, oppression, competitive power and control seem ridiculous, inefficient and counterproductive. So while I know this sounds like a total simplification, I do think at an individual level, these plants can guide people to living in ways that are more equitable, communal and supported.
Letcher: What this new research shows is more subtle than a rejection of authoritarianism. Most simply, it’s suggesting psychedelics soften our edges. They allow us to empathize with others more. It shows that people are more likely to be more community-minded at the end of a psychedelic experience — and to be less individualistic and self-centered.
In general, my feeling is that cultural expectations about what psychedelics are supposed to do to us play a much greater role in shaping attitudes than the substances themselves. It’s the old adage that used to go around in the 1960s about set and setting: Set was the mindset you went into a trip with. The setting was the environment in which you tripped. So if you take a bag of mushrooms and go down the pub on New Year’s Eve, you’re going to have a very different kind of experience than if you take them in a ritual setting somewhere — or in a therapeutic context, in a hospital for example.
Another example I always give is that there were plenty of British people who took psilocybin mushrooms accidentally in the 18th and 19th centuries. They didn’t think they were tripping; they thought they’d been poisoned. As a result, their experiences were of being poisoned.
In today’s society, the political value of psilocybin mushrooms is their ability to awaken a sense of nature relatedness in the person who eats them. In my research, people who take psilocybin mushrooms always advise people to eat them outdoors and away from people because they open up this profound connection to the natural world, to the vegetable and plant kingdoms.
That’s why psychedelic use is incredibly important right now: We’re facing this extraordinary ecological crisis, the crisis of climate change in particular. Here is something that, if used in the correct context — and in a way in which people will be encouraged to notice the natural world — is a profound tool that can unleash one’s ecological awareness. Many cultures consider mushrooms a way of communicating with plant spirits in this way.
Greer: There have been studies of psilocybin mushrooms and their effect on “normal people” — not people who are seeking treatment for their depression or any other condition — and they show that their overall sense of well-being and functioning did improve. Here at the Heffter Research Institute, we’ve shown psilocybin mushrooms effectively impact patients dealing with cancer, emotional distress, anxiety and depression.
We do, however, advocate against people taking mushrooms on their own. Primarily for the reason that there’s a small percentage of people who have mental illness in themselves or their families that can worsen with psilocybin. Specifically, that’s people with a history of psychosis, schizophrenia or mania.
During the session, too, a lot of people need the help of a trained therapist — there can be extreme anxiety and paranoia. The therapist then can help them through that. Without a therapist’s support, they can have some post-traumatic symptoms afterwards.
One important factor in making pure psilocybin accessible to people is the federal government. Unfortunately, the National Institutes of Health haven’t directly funded any research for psilocybin yet, and they’ve turned down proposals that were highly ranked in their peer-review process. That said, both psilocybin and MDMA are going to hopefully enter the final FDA research phases to be approved for medical use within a few years. This is for nonprofit drug development, which is extremely rare and almost never happens — a very encouraging turn of events.
Shell: As for society being “better” for using psychedelics, that’s debatable. I’d say certain populations stand to benefit immensely from them while others could find them a great detriment. In most cases, psychedelic usage of mushrooms only acts as an amplifier that magnifies what’s already going on in your mind.
Psychedelics are unique because unlike other compounds that provide an escape from reality, they instead bring you closer to your reality. If you have the potential for expanding your understanding, it can be great. But if you’re deeply rooted in your beliefs, it could also further affirm those notions. Basically, if they’re fascists to begin with, I think they’re more likely to produce a new breed of super-fascists instead of undoing their fascist thinking. Not to mention, the rise of extremism and fascist tendencies in America is very much a byproduct of our culture of exceptionalism and pride in our hegemonic power.
That’s a lot for one mushroom to fix.