StoriesPart of Intoxicating Histories

Tripping for spiritualism and science

Humans are naturally curious creatures. So whether we’re after a quasi-religious experience or simply relieving boredom, it’s no wonder we’ve been seeking drug-induced highs for many centuries. But now scientists are discovering how these very same drugs could have therapeutic uses for mental health conditions.

Words by Stevyn Colgan

  • Serial
Photograph of a pretend sheet of LSD tabs with a butterfly motif, against a colourful abstract background.
LSD, Thomas SG Farnetti. Source: Wellcome Collection. CC BY.

In my former career as a police officer, I met a lot of people for whom the desire for intoxication had become a dangerous addiction. And as a writer I’ve worked with a great many creative people who admit to having indulged in various addictive and non-addictive intoxicants.

In both careers I’ve been involved in any number of spirited discussions about why some intoxicants – such as cannabis, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) and so-called ‘magic mushrooms’ – are illegal while others, like cigarettes and alcohol, are not.

One professional musician told me that some of her best material had sprung from occasions when eating mushrooms had made her “experience the world in a different way”. In contrast, the late comedian and poet Sean Hughes told me that taking just one tablet of LSD had had such a negative effect on him that he had resolved never to take anything ever again.

But why even try it in the first place?

There isn’t the societal pressure to try most drugs like there is with alcohol. But there are many other reasons why people do. Boredom. Depression. Peer pressure. Stress. Low self-esteem. To enhance performance. To help with losing weight. It may even be a case of genetic predisposition, if there is a family history of intoxicant use. But running through all of these reasons, and more, is natural curiosity. We like to experience new things, especially if they are pleasurable.

The 20th-century American writer (and addict) William S Burroughs believed that if you wanted people to take drugs, all you had to do was make them available and human nature would do the rest: “In Iran, until recently, they sold opium in shops legally, and they had 3 million addicts in a population of 15 million. I don't believe that all those people were escaping from ‘complexes’ or anything of the sort. They were simply exposed to it.”

Stone Age stoners

It appears that even in the Stone Age there were stoners.

An archaeological site in Texas has revealed that native Americans were using mescaline, a drug derived from the peyote cactus, over 5,500 years ago. Meanwhile, prehistoric murals in Algeria that date back to 9000–7000 BCE appear to show humans using magic mushrooms. And researchers excavating a burial pit on Palawan Island in the Philippines have found reddish stains on 13,000-year-old human teeth. The stains are thought to be the result of chewing leaves from the betel plant, a habit that locals still indulge in today.

There are hundreds of plants, and a few animals, that produce natural highs if we eat them or extracts from them. Many can cause hallucinogenic effects. Magic mushrooms, particularly of the psilocybe family, contain a substance called psilocybin, which is converted by the liver into the drug psilocin, which, like LSD, mescaline and dimethyltryptamine (DMT), can alter a person’s perception. It can distort their sense of time, lead to spiritual experiences and hallucinations, and create a sense of euphoria.

Photograph of a ceramic sculpture of a warrior, kneeling on left knee, bearing square shield on left arm and massive club in right hand. Wears elaborate helmet with crosswise crest, crescentic blade and two mushroom knobs.

Created in Peru between 200–500 CE, this sculpture of a warrior features mushrooms on the helmet.

However, it can also induce nausea, panic attacks and paranoia (these were some of the effects suffered by Sean Hughes on LSD). Psilocybin has a low toxicity and therefore a low potential for harm. However, like drunkenness and other forms of intoxication, a person under the influence can cause harm to themselves and others, albeit accidentally. This is the main reason why possession of psilocybin-containing mushrooms has been outlawed in most countries.

It’s a similar story for peyote. It is not illegal to own a peyote cactus in the UK, but it is illegal to use any part of the plant as a drug. In other countries it is illegal to own or cultivate them (although the plant is exempt from legislation in the USA if it is being used as part of a traditional Native American ceremony).

Spiritualism and getting stoned

DMT is the active ingredient in yagé, a traditional South American drink obtained from boiling the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) along with leaves from various other plants that contain DMT, including chacruna (Psychotria viridis), chaliponga (Diplopterys cabrerana) and amyruca (Psychotria carthagenensis). The fact that people use yagé in healing ceremonies in the belief that it can connect them with the afterlife led Edward Morell Holmes (1843–1930), an English botanist, to pass on knowledge of it to leading ‘scientific spiritualists’ to experiment with.

These included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the Sherlock Holmes series, who was a member of the Society for Psychical Research and published ‘The History of Spiritualism’ in 1926. Whether Conan Doyle and his fellows ever tested the reported “clairvoyant and telepathic effects” of the drug is unknown, but it does go to show that experimentation and curiosity, often associated with youth, are not solely the preserve of the young.

Peyote, yagé and magic mushrooms all contain hallucinogens that are naturally occurring, whereas LSD is manufactured. And while LSD produces similar effects to its natural cousins, there are some notable differences, most obviously the duration of each ‘trip’. A psilocybin trip usually lasts between four to six hours, peyote can last for up to 12 hours, but an LSD trip can go on for up to 20 hours.

Many naturally occurring drugs have been used in traditional medicine for centuries and possibly with some justification. Yagé, for example, acts as a purgative, and the vomiting and diarrhoea it induces can lead to the expulsion of worms and other parasites. And there is an increasing amount of scientific evidence to suggest that hallucinogens have the potential to treat a range of psychological issues, including addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. The aforementioned William S Burroughs experimented with yagé in the 1950s in the hope that it could cure his addiction to opiates. 

A higher state of consciousness

In a 2014 study by Imperial College, volunteers were given an intravenous dose of psilocybin while their brain activity was monitored by MRI. What it revealed is that the intoxicated brain acts in much the same way as it does when a person is dreaming; emotions are heightened, imagination is unfettered and people suffer a slight loss of identity, which is maybe why the drug can help with anxiety.

Then, in 2017, a team from the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex announced that they had found evidence that LSD, ketamine and psilocybin allow the user to reach a higher state of consciousness. By this they meant more diverse neural activity in the brain. People who are awake have more diverse neural activity than those who are asleep and what this study showed was that brain-signal diversity, while under the influence of the drugs, was higher than that of someone who is simply awake. Like LSD, ketamine is a synthesised drug. It is used as a tranquiliser and an anaesthetic but can cause hallucinatory effects in small doses.

From the 2000s, there has been renewed interest in researching the effects of psychedelic substances in controlled environments such as this Johns Hopkins University psilocybin session room.

“During the psychedelic state, the electrical activity of the brain is less predictable and less ‘integrated’ than during normal conscious wakefulness,” explained project leader Professor Anil Seth. “Since this measure has already shown its value as a measure of ‘conscious level’, we can say that the psychedelic state appears as a higher ‘level’ of consciousness than normal, but only with respect to this specific mathematical measure.”

Commenting on the research, Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial College, said: “Rigorous research into psychedelics is gaining increasing attention, not least because of the therapeutic potential that these drugs may have when used sensibly and under medical supervision. People often say they experience insight under these drugs – and when this occurs in a therapeutic context, it can predict positive outcomes. The present findings may help us understand how this can happen.”

Maybe our mushroom-chomping and yagé-drinking ancestors were on to something after all.

About the author

Photograph of Stevyn Colgan

Stevyn Colgan


Stevyn Colgan is an author whose debut novel, 'A Murder to Die For', was shortlisted for the Penguin Books’ Dead Good Readers’ Awards. For more than a decade he was one of the ‘elves’ that research and write the TV series 'QI', and he was part of the writing team that won the Rose d’Or for BBC Radio 4’s 'The Museum of Curiosity'. In his previous career he was a police officer in London for 30 years.