Dying humans are taking mushrooms to study our fear of the unknown
People are afraid of death. But certain drugs lift that fear, and for the past 10 years, that part about them has been studied in the lab.
Matthew W. Johnson is a researcher at Johns Hopkins Medical School who has the interesting job of giving magic mushrooms to dying people. In one recent study, with FDA approval and university funding, Johnson had 51 cancer patients take mushrooms. Eighty percent of them said it helped them feel more optimistic and less scared of death.
Johnson isn't sure why. It has something to do with the "mystical experiences" shrooms give you. You may have felt these on a college camping trip — pine trees singing to you, mosquitoes dancing with you, flowers doing wry impressions of you. These "mystical experiences," daffy as they sound, seem to help folks quit smoking, be more open and maybe even stay out of prison, as Johnson's other scientific papers have found.
Why? What? How? Wanting to understand more deeply how some drugs reduce your fear of dying, Johnson and his team are following up with the Johns Hopkins Death and Dying Survey (follow this link to take it). It asks whether drugs have changed your views on statements like "death is a grim experience" or "death is natural."
Johnson wouldn't share with me the kinds of responses he's gotten so far, beyond saying that they've gotten a broad array. But participants in the previous studies did drastically change their views of death, saying that the mushrooms revealed to them something they hadn't ever seen before.
We asked a few trippers why drugs killed their fear of death. The stories often made little sense. "I'm an atheist. But on a bunch of different drugs, I've hallucinated god," says John, 38. "I tell all my friends that I know I was just tripping and it wasn't real. But a small part of me wonders if maybe it was real. Maybe there's a god. Maybe there is something after you die. And that 'maybe' makes me a little less scared to die."
Seems like drugs do what the only the Buddha and the hot dog vendor can normally do: make you one with everything. "It gives you a feeling of oneness with the universe," Mariela, 19, says. "Like everything is as it's supposed to be," even death.
The feelings on mushrooms, Johnson tells me, "appear indistinct, oftentimes from religious experiences." And so giving people mushrooms allows scientists like Johnson to study a state of mind that looks very close to the religious state of mind. "It doesn't speak to the validity or invalidity of that other dimension," Johnson says. "This research couldn't ever demonstrate if god exists or not, but we can assess people's beliefs about things like that, and whether psilocybin has an impact on that."
This is important because religious people are, on average, happier than atheists. And, not coincidentally, people who eat mushrooms are, studies suggest, happier than people who don't. "Things in the world that seem like a bottomless pit, with psychedelics, you see the bottom," says James, 18.
Something about this doesn't make sense. After all, hundreds of thousands of people have done mushrooms and, afterward, when they think about death, they shit their pants just as fully. Why? Why doesn't anxiety about death shrink for everyone?
One key seems to be the old self-fulfilling prophesy. Your hippie friends tell you, "Take 2C-B and become One With the Universe." You take it, feel buzzy, interpret the buzziness as, "I'm One With the Universe!" And you carry that forward into your sober life, thinking, "When I die, I'll still be One With the Universe!" Comforting thoughts, whether or not they're true.
Who cares about this, besides hippies? Insurance companies should care, because patients who are ok with dying don't pursue every last costly medical intervention — like a heart transplant for a 96-year-old. Smart insurance companies would financially benefit from funding retreats where old folks get fucked up on shrooms before deciding whether to try the next round of chemo. It'd be like a Death Panel, but set to Pink Floyd music.
Research into the connection between drugs and the fear of death continues formally around the world. In California, they're studying MDMA — a.k.a. Ecstasy or molly — on terminally ill folks. In Switzerland, they gave LSD to dying cancer patients. Both these drugs show promise at calming the anxiety around death, too.
And, this summer, hundreds of thousands of hippies and party kids will conduct their own personal, uncontrolled scientific experiments in national forests, at jam band music festivals and on rafting trips. And it might not just make the trip better; it might forever change their views of death and dying.