*A version of this article is featured in Double Blind Magazine
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Many of the naturally occuring substances classified as “psychedelics” share significant consistency, for example a similar molecular structure, lack of addictive potential, and antagonistic function on the 5-Hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) receptor group. Perhaps due to these similarities, the phenomena of “a psychedelic experience” has broadly analogous (and mostly positive) influence on human consciousness, regardless of the drug of choice. Psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms) and Lysergic-acid-diethylamide (LSD) are the most commonly known and well-studied substances in this class of drugs. Both are naturally produced by different species of fungi - mushrooms of the Psilocybe genus for the former and the Ergot fungus for the latter. Despite both meeting the rather broad definition of psychedelic, they can each produce experiences that are markedly different in ‘ambience’, onset, duration, and visual effect.
Psilocybin mushrooms, known by mycologists (those who study mushrooms) as Psilocybe, are fungi that can be found on every habitable continent. Human cultures both civilized and shamanistic, operating at varied levels of technological advancement have used these mushrooms since even before the existence of civilization. The fungi synthesize many psychoactive compounds, the most prominent of which are psilocybin, psilocin, and baeocystin. These compounds are produced in varied ratios by different species of the Psilocybe genus and this variance has moderate to significant effect on the onset, content, and duration of the experience. As can the “set” (your mindstate going in) and “setting” (your physical environment). The psychoactive compound responsible for the metaphysical effects of these mushrooms is interestingly not psilocybin, but psilocin. After ingestion the liver dephosphorylates (removal of a phosphorus molecule) psilocybin into psilocin, which is able to bind with multiple brain receptors in the 5HT (aka serotonin) group.
When this bond is formed it catalyzes drastic changes in neural chemisty, notably the stimulation of neurogenesis (creation of new brain cells), fostering of a hyperconnected state between brain networks, dampening of the Default Mode Network (DNM), and an excess of serotonin in the synaptic cleft between neurons. This serotonergic excess is thought to be responsible for the feelings of euphoria, love, and connectedness often associated with the mushrooms, while hyperconnectivity between brain networks allows you to “think outside of the box”, erases negative thought pathways, and mitigates fear condition responses. Dampening of the DNM is hypothesized to provide a less ego-influenced perspective, while ego-death experiences can be occasioned by large doses.
*Visualization of brain connections in a subject given psilocybin (right) and placebo (left)
Presently psilocybin is used mainly as a recreational entheogen, and although illegal in most regions is readily available online if you know where to look. Its effects include euphoria, altered thought process & sense of time, sensory enhancement & synesthesia, visual hallucination, spiritual or mystical feelings, ego death experiences, and even out of body experiences. In addition to these acute effects psilocybin has also been shown to provide long term benefit to mental health, effectively treat the symptoms of many psychological conditions, positively alter moral values like empathy, and strengthen connection with nature/the universe as a whole. Most of the above-mentioned effects are exerted on the mind, however psilocybin also bears a few notable physical side effects (at moderate-high dosage) like increased heart rate, cold in extremities, and for some gastrointestinal discomfort. This physical discomfort, along with the more ‘spiritual’, organic, and introspective undertone the experience often carries is one of the key contrasts between psilocybin and LSD.
Lysergic-acid-diethylamide has markedly less historically documented use, as the toxic Ergot fungus from which it is derived only appears in certain regions after an unusually wet growing season. LSD is one of many compounds found in this fungus, and was the 25th one (hence the name LSD-25) to be isolated and synthesized in 1938 by Albert Hoffman, a chemist working for the Swiss company Sandoz pharmaceuticals. He intended it to be used as a respiratory and circulatory stimulant, having no knowledge of its psychoactive properties. It did not show promise in its intended application and was shelved for five years until April 16th, 1943 when Hoffman (for reasons unknown) decided to take a second look at the drug.
While re-synthesizing it he was exposed to the equivalent of a small dose, describing the resulting experience as “a dreamlike state, perceiving an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors”. Three days later on April 19th he intentionally ingested 0.25 milligrams (an extraordinarily large dose) to confirm it was in fact the cause of his earlier experience. His faculties quickly deteriorated and feeling extreme anxiety and discomfort he asked a lab assistant to escort him home by bicycle. This bicycle ride became one of the most iconic events in ‘psychedelic history’ and is now celebrated by psychedelic enthusiasts worldwide.
*Artistic rendition of Albert Hoffman and his cat
After these experiences Hoffman was convinced the drug could be a powerful psychiatric tool. It was introduced by Sandoz as a commercial medication in 1948 and by the mid-1950’s several studies were underway to investigate its effectiveness in treating alcoholism, anxiety, and depression - with astounding success. The CIA even took an interest in it for experimentation with mind-control, part of their top secret MK-ULTRA program. It’s popularity continued to surge during the counterculture movement of the 1960’s but by the end of the decade sentiment sharply reversed. Backlash against its perceived ‘corrosive’ effect on authoritarian values culminated in the 1970 Controlled Substances Act. This act placed LSD (along with Psilocybin) in Schedule I, defined as having a high potential for abuse, and NO medical application - which we now know could not be further from the truth.
LSD profoundly alters perception, mood, and many other cognitive processes through action on the serotonergic system - binding to several 5HT receptors (similar to psilocybin). However unlike psilocybin it also exerts function on the dopaminergic system. These combined actions generate an excess of both serotonin and dopamine, therefore making LSD experiences more ‘extroverted’ and energetic. It can powerfully enhance imagination, stimulate a rapid flow of thoughts/ideas, and induce colorful kaleidoscopic patterns that often synchronize with auditory stimulation.
How do the experiences differ?
While the long term effects occasioned by a psychedelic experience, such as improved mental health and (anecdotal) personal epiphanies are often similar across drug types, the acute effects can vary significantly. A suitable and humorous analogy for these differences, coined a poster on the r/drugs subreddit, can be drawn between the between two films; “The Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars”. Both of these films are fiction (like both afore-mentioned drugs are psychedelics) however give off significantly different ambience. The reddit post relates Psilocybin to The Lord of The Rings, due to its somewhat more mystical, organic, and introspective properties, while analogizing an LSD experience to the sci-fi, visually stimulating and ‘higher-octane’ feel of the star wars films.
For the vast majority of individuals, although exceptions exist, LSD experiences are more extrospective, while mushroom experiences are more inward-focused. An LSD trip often incites desire to socialize, seek exogenous stimulation, and dance with abundant energy. On the other hand mushroom trips generally occupy the user with deep contemplative thought, carrying more of a ‘body load’ that lends to their therapeutic properties. Acid trips are commonly characterized as “fun” “wild” or “crazy” whereas mushrooms more often instill a sense of reverence and spiritual connection. LSD therefore tends to not provide as many answers and solutions to grand metaphysical questions regarding the nature of reality. Instead it allows the user to temporarily disassociate from negative thought/emotion, enjoying a fast-paced and euphoric, but arguably more ‘superficial’ experience. Conversely with mushrooms it’s common to have deeply meaningful and transformational insights on your own psyche illuminated by the philosophical perspective they provide.
There are also notable differences in both the essence and intensity of the visual stimulation provided by each experience. LSD imagery generally tends to be more jagged, fast-moving, and fractal, whereas psilocybin hallucinations are more wavelike, vibrational, and pulsating. Mushroom visuals can be described as more an augmentation of reality, causing the edges of objects to undulate and colors to become vibrant and saturated, while LSD hallucination can feel more immersive, generating strange and vivid visions along with kaleidoscopic patterns.
*Video showing mushroom visuals
In addition to the contrasting content of the experience, the onset, duration, and intensity of the trips are distinctly different. Psilocybin takes approximately 45 minutes for effects to be felt and lasts between 4-6 hours, with these effects peaking around 2 hours into the experience. Psilocybin highs are also often described as ‘coming in waves’ with emotions oscillating between extreme euphoria and bliss to anxiety and trepidation. There is also anecdotal evidence to suggest a mushroom experience and can be potentiated or re-invigorated by ingesting Cannabis late (4-6 hours) into the experience. Alternatively the effects of LSD are felt slightly quicker - between 10 and 40 minutes after ingestion, steadily increase then plateau around 2 hours into the experience, remaining intense until 7-9 hours in. The entire LSD trip can last up to 12 hours, with effects gently declining from approximately 7-9 hours in.
According to data from the Global Drug Survey (a yearly survey on drug use worldwide) mushrooms and LSD are repeatedly rated as the safest of all drugs surveyed, and also consistently trade between occupying the number one spot for value to price ratio. Mushrooms have been rated as slightly ‘safer’ - less likely to induce a negative experience. This can likely be attributed to more widespread education on proper dosage, and the fact that LSD is extraordinarily potent, requiring under 100 micrograms (100 millionths of a gram) for a moderate dose. There also exist substantial variances in the strength of LSD, depending on the method of synthesis and the skills of the chemist synthesizing it. This leads to dosage being harder to accurately measure, and therefore higher risk of a ‘bad trip’ resulting from an unexpectedly large dose.
So which experience is right for me?
If you desire a more organic, mystical, and profoundly introspective experience that can elicit feelings of euphoria, love, and unity, while fostering the dissolution of negative thought pathways and providing meaningful insight, go for mushrooms. If you’re looking for a fun and free-spirited trip, while simultaneously wishing to discharge emotionally and have intricate, vivid visions, but perhaps less spiritual realization, choose LSD. Whichever psychedelic you choose will likely result in a great time, along with lasting psychological benefit, however it is important to pay close attention to your mental state and the environment in which the experience will take place. These substances should be treated with healthy respect and caution, used with a healthy and positive mindset, and in a supportive, familiar setting. If proper preparation of intent, set and setting is done they can be powerful tools for the expansion of consciousness, providing you with objective perspective on social or emotional issues, hours of euphoric bliss, and prolonged benefit to overall mental health.
Jeff - Champignons Magique