Psychedelic mushrooms are possibly the most ancient hallucinogens known to humankind with their use reportedly dating as far back as 10,000 BC and spanning from the Middle East to Greece, Siberia, and Central Americas.
Some ethnobotanists, most famously Terrance Mckenna have theorized that psychedelic mushrooms likely contributed to the evolution of human consciousness. A close study of how magic mushrooms work in the brain offers fascinating insights that can potentially explain the attraction of humans to these compounds for thousands of years. Simply put, our brains are wired to consume psilocybin! Here is how...
Psychedelic mushrooms scientifically knowns as Psilocybe Cubensis come in over 180 different varieties, all of which contain the active ingredients of psilocybin and psilocin. Psilocybin is found in significant quantity in all psychedelic mushrooms while psilocin is found naturally occurring in much smaller quantities.
Psilocybin is the main active ingredient in all magic mushrooms with variable potencies across the different species. Once ingested, psilocybin is converted to psilocin in the body for absorption.
Psilocin is an analog of N, N-dimethyltryptamine, more commonly known as DMT. DMT is a naturally occurring compound in all living forms, including humans, plants, animals, and fungi. While science does not still fully understand the role of DMT in the body, a significant number of psychedelic substances contain DMT leading scientists to theorize that the compound induces the brain into hallucinatory states. Dr. Rick Strassman famously named DMT "the spirit molecule" in his groundbreaking book stemming from decades of researching the compound.
The Psilocin molecule is essentially the DMT compound with an extra molecule. The molecular structure of psilocin is the most likely explanation for the visionary effects of psychedelic mushrooms.
Psilocin And Serotonine Receptors
Psilocin is absorbed into the brain through the 5-H2TA serotonin receptors. Serotonin is a monoamine neurotransmitter that amongst its many functions is most commonly associated with mood regulation and reward systems in the brain, serotonin is also known as "the happy hormone".
The proper functioning of the brain is dependent on maintaining the delicate balance of various neurotransmitters responsible for mood, cognition, memory, learning, and the modulation of pain and pleasure. Various activities and compounds can increase or decrease the amount of these neurotransmitters in the brain which can pose mild to severe disruptions to normal cognitive and emotional processing. The delicate balance of these compounds is managed by various neurotransmitter receptors that are designed to bind and communicate with a specific compound. For example, opioid molecules can not bind to serotonin receptors and serotonin molecules can not bind with dopamine receptors. They function much like pieces of puzzles with only the right structure fitting together.
The reason why psilocin binds with 5-HT2A receptors is the incredibly similar molecular structure of psilocin to serotonin. This function is responsible for the widely reported mood-enhancing qualities of psychedelic mushrooms as well as its role in enhancing creativity and problem solving which can explain the potential historic role of psychedelic mushrooms in advancing human consciousness.
Psilocin And The Default Mode Network
The Default Mode Network (DMN) is a group of brain regions that demonstrate low activity when we are engaged and focused with a task or stimuli and a higher level of activity when we are awake but not engaged in any specific mental activity. The DMN is active when we are daydreaming, contemplating the past and the future, or imagining another person's perspective. An overly active DMN is often characterized as "the monkey mind" and is often characterized by high anxiety and/or depression.
The DMN operates as a hub for various cognitive activities from focused tasks to healthy introspection. While psilocin leaves the executive functions of the brain mostly intact, it blocks certain connectors hubs in the brain disrupting the standard flow of information which we experience as thoughts and emotions. As these standard neural pathways are disrupted, new and expanded cross-communication begins to unfold in regions of the brain that normally do not communicate.
The image on the left (a) demonstrates brain activity when connectors hubs are in-tact and the image on the right (b) demonstrates brain activity when connector hubs have been disrupted by psilocin.
The decreased DMN activity can potentially explain both the reports of lowered states of anxiety and depression, likely influenced by less "mind-chatter" activity, as well as enhanced creativity and problem-solving likely facilitated by the significantly enhanced neural activity.
As research into psychedelics and particularly psilocybin advances, our understanding of the underling mechanisms that contribute to the visionary, therapeutic, and creative qualities of magic mushrooms will inevitably evolve and enhance.