Matthew Johnson, an associate professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins and the lead author of the study, was interested in psilocybin because of the success researchers had in using LSD to treat alcoholics in the 1960s. He liked that psilocybin was shorter-acting than LSD and had less societal stigma. It also has few side effects or addictive properties of its own. Studies have already shown that hallucinogens might relieve everything from clinical depression to anxiety among cancer patients. Smoking, meanwhile, is relatively easy to study—not as deadly as, say, heroin and readily detectable with a urine test.
According to Johnson, depression and addiction both involve a narrowing of vision—a tunnel that it takes a profound experience to suck someone out of. Psilocybin mushrooms, he says, can foster something called cross-talk between regions of the brain that don’t normally communicate. Cross-talk, in turn, is associated with novel ways of looking at problems. The hallucinators see the contents of their minds spread out before them, like dusty old knick-knacks brought up from the basement and strewn out in the front yard.
They’re “dealing with stuff they haven’t dealt with in years or decades,” Johnson said. While tripping on psychedelics like mushrooms, “people reflect on their childhood, their parents, their siblings, all their relationships, their love life, their current relationships.” Meanwhile, their minds become a kaleidoscope: “Colors are brighter. The walls might be waving. There might be a halo around things,” he said.
Addiction—to cigarettes, and possibly an array of other substances—consists of much more than physical cravings. It’s social; it’s fun. At best, it’s a ritual, and at worst, a crutch. Psychedelics appear to help people go beyond physical cigarette cravings and examine what’s really making them smoke. “People will recognize this profound self-worth that they’ve dismissed,” he said. “They look at their life and see themselves as a miracle.”
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