Shrooms 101: a beginner's guide to magic mushrooms

Magic mushrooms, psychedelics, psilocybin mushrooms — call them what you want. We all want to talk about them. Buckle up class — it’s going to be a wild trip.

Psilocybin mushrooms — more commonly known as “shrooms” or magic mushrooms — are one of the more popular hallucinogenic (illicit) recreational drugs in Canada. As easy to get your hands on as weed, many people, university students included, often turn to this drug for the spiritual experience. In fact, shrooms have been used since 9000 BC, where in many cultures they are ingested to induce a trance in the hopes of producing visions and communicating with gods.

There are over 200 types of trippy shrooms — the friendlier half contain a chemical called psilocybin, while the other type can contain amanitin. Amanitin is not psychadellic and can be deadly. Last week, a three year old boy in Victoria died from the chemical.

The standard-looking red and white spotted mushrooms, are much stronger and can cause euphoria as well as nausea and dizziness. The psilocybin mushroom is the most common form of shroom and is likely the one you would take if you haven’t gone tripping already.

But how do shrooms affect your brain? How do they induce hallucinations and euphoria?

When you ingest psilocybin, it gets converted into the active ingredient psilocin in your body, which is chemically similar to serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, a chemical messenger, thought to be linked to producing feelings of happiness. Psilocin increases levels of serotonin because it binds to the same receptors in the brain. This is what leads to hallucinations.

Studies suggest that during your trip, the brain temporarily rearranges some of its connections, immediately creating new biologically stable ones. This amplifies intensity of thought and makes it harder to tell reality from fantasy. Some people begin connecting the number two to the colour green. Areas of the brain linked with dreaming are stimulated, making hallucinations and visions much more frequent. Certain emotional regions of the brain are activated, leading to the feeling of expanding consciousness. This makes thinking outside the box much more frequent and easy.

“You start seeing the smallest details, even the ones that aren’t really there,” said Monica, a UBC student. “Everything around you seems so grandiose, powerful and plain awesome.” A common short-term effects of mushrooms are a distorted sense of reality, mixing up senses and an altered sense of time.

Tom, another anonymous UBC student, described his first shroom trip at night on a beach as one of the best days he had at UBC. “We saw so many stars, planets, satellites, and I’m pretty sure we saw the Milky Way.”

But it’s not all sunshine and roses in the Milky Way. People experience plenty of bad trips too.

“The second time I had a really bad trip because I wasn’t in the right environment or mental state. I was really stressed from school,” said Tom.

Shrooms can induce negative affects as well, such as nausea, dizziness, mood swings, anxiety, confusion and paranoia. Many experienced shroom users will often tell first timers to make sure they are in a safe and comfortable environment. A trip can last between about three to eight hours, depending on the dosage. Having a bad trip with an altered sense of time for that long can be really stressful.

However, in a study conducted at Johns Hopkins University, scientists found that 60 per cent of their volunteers described their trip as a “full mystical experience,” as measured by established psychological scales. A third went as far as saying it was the single most spiritual experience in their life.

But the effects of shrooms don’t stop there. Two months later, 79 per cent of subjects reported either a moderate or great increase in their well-being or life satisfaction compared to those given a placebo at the same test session.

“After taking shrooms for the first time, I realized how beautiful everything is," said Tom. The world around us is amazing and I was more inspired artistically. I’m striving to be happier everyday and do more with my life.”

Correction: a previous version of this article stated that Amanita was a chemical. Amanita is a genus of mushroom that contains the chemical amanitin, which is deadly.