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Monday, 21 January 2013

Psilocybin in the Media: Myths and Misconceptions

“All mushrooms are edible, but some only once.”- Croatian proverb
With its flaming red cap and enchanting snowy white spots, is there any more compelling emblem of psychedelia than the toadstool Amanita muscaria, the ‘Siberian magic mushroom’? For baby boomers growing up in the ‘60s, the magic mushroom was at least as iconic a symbol of the evolution of consciousness as the ubiquitous LSD, or acid. And yet ordinary people both then and now also associate the Amanita mushroom with something just as potent: many consider it deadly poisonous. This schism represents the public confusion that still surrounds the safety, effects, usage and even species of psychoactive mushrooms: after all, Amanitas are a small subset of magic mushroom in comparison to the more widespread Psilocybe genus, which we’ll be discussing here.
Part One in our series on Psychedelics in the Media will focus on one of the oldest, most popular, most misunderstood psychedelics: psilocybin-containing mushrooms. While many people imagine the showy Amanita when they hear the phrase “magic mushroom”, the effects of “shrooms” most people are familiar with tend to fit those generated by the indole alkaloid psilocybin: these effects usually include closed eye visuals, often of vivid and colorful geometric patterns and iconic scenes; feelings of euphoria and hilarity; increased emotional openness and creativity; and sometimes enhanced appreciation for one’s life. The positive effects of psilocybin on temperament and personality often last long after the trip itself has ended (Goodman 2011, Griffiths et al 2006). In recent years, several clinical studies have come out pointing to the possible therapeutic benefits of psilocybin in mitigating or even preventing the symptoms of cluster headache (Sewell et al 2006, Semere et al 2006, Jaslow 2012); treating obsessive-compulsive disorder (Delgado et al n. d.); opiate/alcohol addiction; and depression and anxiety that are unresponsive to cognitive therapies (Griffiths et al 2006, Jaslow 2012).

Film culture is one of extremes: often, factual accuracies in representation are sacrificed for the sake of comedy, dramatic tension, or artistic license. This is especially evident in areas over which cultural prejudices cast a shadow, such as the use of psychedelics. In fact, narrative film may actually have some catching up to do in comparison to news media: over the past ten years or so, the bulk of news stories relating to psilocybin-containing mushrooms have actually been positive coverage of the fungi’s medical and psychiatric potential (Jaslow 2012). However, good news rarely makes an exciting story for a movie. Filmgoers are more likely to encounter magic mushroom use as a plot device, either for comedic or dramatic effect.
Take the eponymous 2007 UK film Shrooms, a film that does not so much include inaccuracies about mushroom use as build its plot around them.

What does the average filmgoer take from a trailer like this? On an emotional level, this trailer is clearly less than positive regarding the psilocybin experience; in fact, Shrooms portrays the use of psilocybin as a potentially terrifying and even life-threatening experience, even for people who appear to have taken all the proper precautions like the characters in the film. But is Shrooms an accurate portrayal of how people use psilocybin mushrooms and what their effects can be? The answer is actually multilayered, and is probably best answered by looking at each element of the psilocybin experience and how it is portrayed in separate contemporary films.
Context of Use: First of all, who’s using magic mushrooms? Is it this guy?

Many people who have no or limited contact with the psychedelic community often imagine psychedelics as the domain of “stoners” such as the character played by Jack Black in Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny, with few life ambitions beyond partying and getting “high”, a label under which a variety of unique psychedelic effects are often lumped. Psychedelic use is one of many activities, along with drinking alcohol and having sex, that has become associated with so-called teen rites of passage in Western society; as a result, psilocybin mushrooms and other psychedelics are frequently portrayed in film as either the province of teens and young adults, or of adults who have failed to really grow out of a teenage rebellion, as in Tenacious D.
Equally as important are the given reasons why characters might use psilocybin mushrooms. In real life these reasons are often quite varied: people have ingested psilocybin mushrooms for recreation (Well Trust Youth 2012), psychotherapy (UK Daily Mail 2006, Jaslow 2012), for medical reasons such as alleviating the symptoms of cluster headache (Semere 2006), and even to induce mystical experiences (in a controlled study) (Griffiths et al 2006). In contrast, the motivations for psilocybin use in movies are frequently never explained; however, when they are, it’s usually for recreation.
Set and setting: What is set and setting when applied to the psychedelic experience? Basically, it means grounding oneself in a safe physical environment and positive state of mind prior to using a psychedelic such as psilocybin. Creating a supportive set and setting is a crucial part of safe psilocybin use, and thus the way movies portray this aspect of the psilocybin experience is equally important. Which movies get this right and wrong? Let’s take a more in-depth look at the above clip from Tenacious D and the Pick of Destiny.
For most people, ingesting a mushroom gathered wild from the woods would be unthinkably reckless. For one thing, there is the strong possibility of ingesting a poisonous species such as those in the genus Galerina (which, while similar in appearance to psilocybin mushrooms, are toxic) (Enjalbert 2004). In this case, Jack Black’s character encounters unintended consequences when his surroundings transform into a stereotypical, candy-coated psychedelic wonderland. More unrealistic is Black’s positive reaction to this change: while his character is more or less charmed by the experience, in real life most people who consumed a psychedelic unawares would be alarmed to have their reality unexpectedly altered in this way. The saving grace of this scene, perhaps, is that Black’s environment does not agree with his carefree attitude: during the course of his trip, he variously gets caught in surf and falls out of a tree with painful results, underscoring the dangers of tripping in an uncontrolled setting.
In films that portray known psilocybin use, one that stands out for its mixed set and setting is Borderland, a 2010 film about a group of American university students who travel to Mexico for spring break and become embroiled with a cult. In this early scene, four out of five of them take psilocybin mushrooms shortly before attending a carnival in the city:

Overall, this scene is perhaps a more realistic portrayal of some of the ambivalences surrounding psilocybin use: we see a mixed group of friends, some of whom have prior experience with psilocybin use, coaching the newbie, Ed, who is worried about having a negative, possibly violent reaction to “hallucinogens”. However, Borderland still suffers some of the same “safe-setting” problems as Tenacious D: the friends take the mushrooms with Cannabis, a combination that has been reported to heighten the effects of psilocybin (Espiard 2005). Especially for someone who has never taken psilocybin before, like the character Ed, it is unwise to combine mushrooms with a potentiator like Cannabis.
Furthermore, the setting they choose for their psilocybin use is a bright, noisy carnival. Researchers into the psychotherapeutic potential of psychedelics are careful to design test environments for volunteers that are quiet, predictable and stable, specifically to head off the possibility of negative anxiety or fear responses (Griffiths et al 2006). A carnival is a hectic, unpredictable environment, the exact opposite of the ideal safe, stable setting in which to experience psychedelics, and would be a poor choice of venue in which to use psilocybin in real life. Also, later on in the scene, the group allows one of the characters to go off by himself. Although they do protest somewhat—reminding him that he’s “tripping”—in the end they still let him go. Considering that not only is he still in the grip of an altered state of consciousness, but is also stuck in an unfamiliar setting (a new city in a foreign country), this is a reckless decision that has catastrophic consequences in the film.
The UK film Shrooms falls down in its depiction of set and setting on both counts: firstly, the characters choose a secluded woodland setting in which to take their psilocybin mushrooms, in order to be closer to nature. The problem with this is that, in a group of six people, all of them are taking the mushrooms. The risk inherent in ingesting a mind-altering substance in the middle of nowhere with no sober sitters around to get help in case of an emergency should go without saying. The psychological support a couple of sober sitters could provide to a group this large would also be crucial to mitigating any emotional crises.
In further contrast to the practices of safe psychedelic usage, the supposedly experienced psychonaut, Jake, tells the other characters a ghost story the night before they plan to ingest the mushrooms: the upshot is that there is an abandoned orphanage near the campsite that was once run by a sadistic monk, upon whom the inmates got revenge by tricking him into ingesting a soup of psychoactive “death’s head” mushrooms which turned him into a homicidal maniac. Jake lards up the tale with rumors that people have gone missing and been murdered in those woods up to the present day, presumably by the monk’s ghost. Not only is this story a gross misrepresentation of the effects of any psychedelic mushroom— or even of any poisonous one, which will cause death through liver failure before leading to madness  (Enjalbert 2002) — but it is a bad story with which to prime people who are about to ingest a psychedelic, one that would increase the potential for one of the characters to have a negative emotional response. (Indeed, this does occur later in the movie, when the characters believe the aforementioned vengeful ghost is stalking them).
For anyone familiar with psilocybin mushrooms, taking them in the context depicted in Shrooms would be like rock climbing without carabiners. The clinical studies involving psilocybin have equipped study participants with a calm, safe environment, sober sitters to reassure them in cases of fear or anxiety responses, and an appropriately measured dose to minimize the chances of an adverse emotional response, which is more likely at doses of 20 to 30 mg of psilocybin as opposed to lower doses of 5 to 10 mg (Griffiths et al 2006).
Effects:  For viewers who have never ingested psilocybin mushrooms, the effects can be hard, bordering on impossible, to imagine. However, the multisensory medium of film might come closer than any other to displaying some of psilocybin’s audiovisual effects, as well as hint at some of the psychosomatic layers to the experience. As the character Jake aptly lays out in Shrooms, the effects of psilocybin mushrooms can include “boundless energy, visual hallucinations, uncontrollable laughter, and profound wisdom”, otherwise known as noesis, or acquiring knowledge without knowing its source. So, which movies portray a version of these effects accurately?
As you might expect, the films on our short list perform on a curve with regards to accuracy. While the psilocybin (and any psychedelic) experience is of course highly subjective, it does bear certain hallmarks, such as the aforementioned noesis and flights of ideas; closed and sometimes open eye visuals that are often colorful, geometric or organic in content; a pronounced body buzz, and sometimes ataxia (difficulty with coordinated movement) (Duffy 2008; Well Trust Youth 2012).
Ironically, in light of its focus, Shrooms does the worst job in terms of accurately portraying psilocybin’s effects: the characters walk around normally and even run during the mushroom trip, despite the alkaloid’s aforementioned effect on motor function; there is little if any allusion to psilocybin’s visual effects, other than a slight haloing around the edges of objects; and for the most part, the characters speak normally about everyday things, despite psilocybin’s documented tendency to sway conversation in the direction of the metaphysical. The only accurate effect portrayed in Shrooms is the paranoia that the characters experience later in the movie, as psilocybin use has been shown to occasionally cause temporary paranoid delusions and sometimes anxiety at higher doses taken in an inappropriate setting (Griffiths et al 2006).
Furthermore, one character, Tara, experiences a seizure after consuming a fictional psychoactive mushroom known as a “death’s head” mushroom in the film, possibly in a reference to the well-known poisonous “death cap” Amanita phalloides. This is medically inaccurate, as there have been no documented cases of psilocybin mushrooms causing seizures in adults, although they may induce them in children (Duffy 2008).
In the effects department, both Borderland and Tenacious D are somewhat more accurate: in Jack Black’s trip scene, he extemporizes musical lyrics, which is quite in keeping with the verbal creativity and nonsensical hilarity which can often exemplify the psilocybin experience. However, Black’s character also completely loses touch with reality, and while this is possible with high doses of psilocybin, the person so affected is also not likely to be physically able to climb trees (as Black’s character does) during that time. Borderland also includes interesting metaphysical conversations between the characters about subjects such as life and death, religion, and personal identity, as well as a subtle visual light show that might be expected from the low dose of psilocybin they presumably take in the film.

Another film that deserves mention here is the excellent Knocked Up, directed by Judd Apatow. Though not primarily a drug movie, Knocked Up features an intriguing scene in which two friends, Ben (Seth Rogen) and Pete (Paul Rudd) take psilocybin mushrooms together while vacationing in Las Vegas to get away from their respective romantic complications. While under the influence of the psychedelic, they have an in-depth conversation about their respective relationships.
What is highlighted here is psilocybin’s ability to enable some people to open up about emotions and discuss them honestly, come to a deeper understanding of themselves, and thus create a more positive attitude about life and personal circumstances (Goodman 2011). 
Each of the films above portray psilocybin mushrooms, the people who use them, and psilocybin’s effects in a specific way calculated to generate dramatic effect or move the plot along in some way. However, in the process each of these films presents a discourse about psilocybin and its usage that unavoidably affects users’ perception of the substance and its context of use, either positively or negatively. The two main discourses I’ll examine here are the impressions these films create about the people who choose to ingest psilocybin mushrooms, and the impressions created about the purpose for which someone might use psilocybin.
In the general public perception, people who take psilocybin mushrooms are still often imagined as the young — college students as in Shrooms, or slightly younger — and often irresponsible. This image is reflected in Jack Black’s character from Tenacious D. His mushroom experience is essentially only skin deep, a trivial flight into a colorful wonderland that’s all about the visuals and hilarity of the psilocybin experience, with none of the deeper sense of noesis or personal knowledge that is often an equal or greater portion of the experience (Goodman 2011). While Borderland also starts off in this recreational mode, it quickly turns to the characters discussing deeper issues of metaphysics, personal identity and the future, resulting in a somewhat more nuanced take on the effects and use of psilocybin.
More complicated is the psilocybin scene presented in Knocked Up, which is subtle enough that a viewer almost has to have prior knowledge of psilocybin’s effects to realize that the two characters Ben and Pete have ingested mushrooms. The premise of Knocked Up also presents an embedded discourse about the ways our society tacitly accepts the use of certain chemical substances while condemning others: in the early part of the movie, Ben meets Allison (Katherine Heigl) in a bar, and the two of them end up becoming alcohol-intoxicated and having unprotected sex, which results in Allison getting pregnant. In contrast to the complications created by the characters’ alcohol usage, Ben’s later use of mushrooms in the film is portrayed positively, as it actually enables him and his friend to talk honestly about their emotions and the challenges they face in maintaining their relationships.
The other common distortion in films that include psilocybin use is the narratives’ tendency to veer between two extremes of their effects, in a fashion that elides the reality of how and why most people use mushrooms. In film, the effects of psilocybin mushrooms are often represented in a wholly comic light (as in Tenacious D), or as an overwhelming and potentially dangerous experience, as in Shrooms. The issue with the first impression is that it trivializes the psilocybin experience and strips it of any meaning, in contradiction to psilocybin’s real potential to initiate emotional healing, insight, and greater positivity in those who experience it (Goodman 2011, Griffith et al 2006). The second impression may do more damage, as it makes viewers wonder why anyone would want to have such a terrifying experience in the first place, and makes the activity itself seem dangerous and unwise.
Neither of these extreme portrayals gets at the heart of the psilocybin experience and the way most experienced psychonauts approach the use of mushrooms. There is no denying that the mental states induced by psilocybin can be psychologically intense and challenging, and require management through the help of sober sitters and a safe context for psilocybin’s mindful use. However, with the right precautions in place, psilocybin can allow people to access profoundly meaningful states of being, greater self-knowledge and emotional awareness, and even true mystical experiences (Griffiths et al 2006). And yes, psilocybin can also be fun and inspire states of hilarity and playful creativity. What is most important (and so often missing in film) is that the psilocybin experience ends neither in laughter or fear but rather— as the word “psychedelic” implies— with the discovery of the soul.