Normally, if openness changes at all as adults age, it tends to decrease.
Fifty-one psychologically healthy volunteers underwent two to five
experimental sessions that lasted eight hours. At one of these sessions,
they were given a moderate to high dose of psilocybin, though neither
the subjects nor their monitors knew which session this would be.
During each session, participants were encouraged to lie down on a
couch, use an eye mask to block external visual distraction, wear
headphones through which music was played, and focus their attention on
their inner experiences. Two monitors were present at the subjects' side
throughout the sessions.
Personality was assessed at the study's start, one to two months
after each session and approximately 14 months after the last session.
No change was found in four of the five major personality traits:
agreeableness, conscientiousness, extroversion, and neuroticism. But
significant increases in openness were found in 60 percent of the participants
and persisted through the end of the 14-month study.
This isn't the first study to show that psilocybin can cause positive personality changes. A 2006 study
also found positive changes in attitude, mood, and behavior among adults
who had taken psilocybin under controlled settings. But that study was
more interested in a scientific analysis of mystical experiences.
Psilocybin-containing mushrooms, often called magic mushrooms, have a
long history of use in the religious ceremonies of natives of Central
and South America that goes back to pre-Columbian times. The current
study was specifically designed to monitor personality changes.
The researchers express several cautions about their findings. Nearly
all the study subjects considered themselves spiritually active and
over half had postgraduate degrees. It's not clear that similar results
would be obtained for the general public. And some study participants
reported strong fear or anxiety during their psilocybin sessions, though
none reported any lingering harmful effects. This suggests that
psilocybin may not be an ideal therapeutic agent. But considering its
ability to create personality changes once thought impossible, the
researchers think it certainly deserves further study.
The researchers also warn not to try this at home. Recreational
psilocybin use doesn't always have a happy ending. And possession of
psilocybin or psilocybin-containing mushrooms is illegal in the U.S. and
could lead to jail time.
An article on the Johns Hopkins study was published online September 28, 2011, by the Journal of Psychopharmacology and will also appear in a future print edition of the journal.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.
This article also appears on TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com, an Atlantic partner site.