Clinical Trials With the Sacred Mushroom

I NOW had an ample supply of Amanita muscaria with which to begin serious investigation. A number of problems had to be explored. The first one was the chemical analysis of the mushroom, the question here being the composition of the drugs present within the plant. ,The second problem was to apply the chemicals from the Amanita muscaria to human beings in order to understand its psychic effects. The third problem was to learn to handle the drug in such a way as to minimize or avoid its poisonous action. The chemical studies with the mushroom confirmed what had already been found in the literature and did not turn up any new evidence. The mushroom like all plants is a composite of many chemicals. However, there are three chemicals in the Amanita muscaria that are of interest in their relationship to psychic effects: (1) muscarine, (2) atropine, (3) bufotenin. Muscarine when applied to biological systems shows itself as a chemical whose effects can be divided into a number of phases. The initial effect of muscarine is to stimulate parasympathetic nerve endings, and this is observed in the vomiting and diarrhea usually following Amanita muscaria ingestion. That part of the sympathetic nervous system which is at the head and tail end of the human body is called the parasympathetic nervous system, and in general it is the one that is stimulated by muscarine. It has been noted by observers in Siberia that the shaman who uses the Amanita muscaria is capable of great feats of muscular exertion and endurance. It is believed that a part of this prodigious ability for muscular exertion is achieved by the use of the mushroom and that the particular chemical responsible is muscarine. However, after its initial stimulating effect, muscarine then acts as a poison and paralyzes the very nerves which it has stimulated. In this paralysis lies the cause of death from the accidental use of this mushroom. The atropine present in the Amanita muscaria is commonly known as belladonna and was known to the ancients as the deadly nightshade. Atropine alone first stimulates the central nervous system and then paralyzes it. It causes hallucinations and may lead to convulsions. Curiously enough, atropine is a specific antidote to muscarine; that is, it counteracts the effects of muscarine on nerve-muscle endings which result in the symptoms described above. Therefore, large doses of muscarine can be counteracted by a proper dose of atropine. Here we have one of those magnificent examples of the wonders of nature. In one plant we have a drug, muscarine, which has a given dangerous effect on humans; and the same plant produces atropine, which counteracts that dangerous effect. These two drugs, each with its characteristic powerful action, individually act in the human body to counteract one another. In this fact may lie the reason for the disagreement in the literature as to the poisonous effects of the Amanita muscaria. Some writers say that Amanita muscaria can be eaten with impunity. Other writers say that it is poisonous, and warn the reader to stay away from it. Some writers doubt whether it will kill flies, where others say it will. Could not all this conflicting evidence indicate that in any particular plant it is the balance between the presence of the atropine and the muscarine which determines the effect on the individual? It is known that Amanita muscaria can be eaten with impunity if a number of things are done. In the first place, if the warts and the skin of the caps are removed the mushroom is safe. This would lead one to believe that the toxic principle is present in the warts and in the skin. Secondly, others have stated that the Amanita muscaria can be eaten if it is marinated either in salt or in vinegar, it being believed that this will counteract the toxic principle. It is also reported in the ancient literature that Amanita muscaria when used with milk has its toxic effects minimized. Thus we see that salt, vinegar, or milk do something, according to these traditions, to neutralize the toxic effects. The third drug present in traces in the Amanita muscaria is bufo-tenin. This drug is also a secretion from the sweat glands of the African toad (Bufo-bufotenesis). Now it is curious that an animal like the frog on the one hand and a plant like the mushroom on the other hand should produce one and the same drug. It has been pointed out by Wasson that there is a traditional association of toads and mushrooms, particularly in regard to the Amanita muscaria. This is proven by metaphors and legends built up around the mushroom as well as its many names in different languages, all of which associate the mushroom with toads. Here we have a rather unique wedding of ancient tradition with modern knowledge in that the same drug is indeed present in a certain toad and the mushroom; namely, bufotenin. In medieval times it was believed that one could be poisoned by toads, and there are many references in the literature about such poisoning, but until recent times nobody had any verification or certain knowledge that this toad, the European toad (Bufo vulgaris), was poisonous. Bufotenin has an excitatory action similar to adrenalin. Bufotenin is also known as a drug that has hallucinogenic effects on the human. Dr. Howard Fabing1 has reported on his experiments in which he injected human volunteers with large doses of bufotenin prepared from the frog. In these individuals there were marked hallucinations. Thus we have present in the Amanita muscaria a unique combination of drugs, each of which alone is capable of producing marked hallucinations. However, they are present in this plant like a well-compounded prescription, and since one acts against the other it is difficult to predict the outcome of the effect on the human mind. This, indeed, complicated our study. Our chemical studies of the Amanita muscaria were such that we prepared simple extracts from different parts of the plants; namely, the stalk; the pileus, or cap; and the pileus with and without its covering membrane. Separate extracts were made of the skin and the warts alone. These studies showed that the preponderance of the drugs which I have described are present in the membrane and in the warts. Therefore, in our studies we used preparations made entirely from the skin and the warts. The studies were aimed first at evaluating the poisonous effects of the mushroom. To this end, I and other volunteers took the mushroom by chewing it, according to the method used in Siberia, in order to find out what the effects were. It must be said at the outset that the effects for each individual represented a different constellation of symptoms. But, in general, these are the symptoms noticed by most of the subjects. The first reaction noticed was that the skin would feel hot in some places and cold in other places at the same time. When a subject was observed, it was found that his skin was blotchy, red, and discolored in some areas, and blanched and white in others. For example, one ear might be flaming red, while the other one would be an ivory white at the same time. Some individuals noticed a disturbance of vision primarily in the form of blurring. This probably was an effect due to the atropine. Atropine tends to dilate the pupils if not counteracted by an adequate amount of muscarine. The third effect was rather an objective one in that almost every individual experienced a lowering of the pulse rate, usually from the normal level of seventy or eighty beats per minute to fifty or sixty beats per minute. There was a slight lowering of the temperature in most individuals. Some individuals reported a hypersensitivity to touch, to light, and to sound. Other individuals were not affected by such hypersensitivity at all. Some individuals noticed increased strength and endurance. For example, one subject had made a study of how long he could hold his breath. His previous record time had been one minute and thirty-two seconds. Upon chewing a small piece of Amanita muscaria he found that he was able, with ease, to hold his breath for two minutes and thirty-two seconds as a maximum. Interestingly enough, none of the normal subjects, and thirty-five were studied, experienced any noteworthy psychic effects from the mushroom, either in the form of hallucinations or mental disturbances. There was a reason for this, in that I kept the dosage purposely minimal in all cases. I wanted to study the effects of minute doses of the mushroom. The literature had already supplied us with ample knowledge of the effects of massive doses of Amanita muscaria in the way of poisoning, drunkenness, disorientation, and hallucination. Perhaps the most curious effect of the mushroom, and by this I mean the strongest effect, was the symptoms noticed by the subject on the day following the use of the mushroom. In all cases where a sufficient dose had been given these individuals reported an unusual sensitivity of the gustatory and smell senses. The first thing they no ticed was that there was a perpetual bad taste in their mouths. There was nothing that could be done to get rid of this. Secondly, everything seemed to smell unusually foul. It was as though every smell was offensive. This delayed effect was certainly a very interesting one. None of our subjects reported headaches or any other unpleasant symptoms on the following day, because the dose had been kept within small limits. There was also an urgency to urinate without much issue. As I have stated, of all the normal subjects studied none reported any remarkable effects in the way of excitation or depression of the psyche. There were two exceptions to this generalization. Out of the thirty-seven people studied, two were individuals who were proven by laboratory tests to be sensitives, that is, they could actually demonstrate extrasensory perception. These were Harry Stone and Peter Hurkos. At the time of the first experiment with Harry we had in our possession only a few specimens of Amanita muscaria, and because of its poisonous nature, I was not inclined to be in any hurry about human experimentation. I knew far too little about how to handle it. On August 7, 1955, Harry was giving a demonstration of telepathy for Aldous Huxley. In the middle of the demonstration Harry spontaneously slipped into a deep trance. At the moment I felt that he had ruined my neat little laboratory demonstration. But in the presence of Aldous and myself, he entered into a dramatic sign-language demonstration whose meaning this time was quite clear. The Ra Ho Tep personality insisted on having the golden mushroom brought to him. I could not escape the urgency of this appeal. I had to go and get one of my precious golden mushrooms. I brought it back to the laboratory and placed it in front of the deeply entranced Harry. The Ra Ho Tep personality became ecstatic over it. Then for the first time I saw the secret details of how the mushroom was to be used. Harry applied the mushroom himself on the tongue, and on the top of his head, in ritualistic fashion. Five minutes after he had completed this remarkable demonstration he woke up. He looked at Aldous and myself and weakly asked if I had given him some alcohol. I assured Harry that I had not given him any alcohol, because it was my intention to observe how he would behave if he did not know he had taken the golden mushroom. A few minutes later he began to stagger around as though he were heavily intoxicated with alcohol. The symptoms became alarming. The only thing to do was to counteract the effect of the mushroom by giving him atropine. While I busied myself with drawing some atropine into a syringe, Aldous watched him closely. Harry was smoking a cigarette at this time. Aldous called me urgently and pointed out that the cigarette was burning the skin between Harry’s fingers. Harry was completely unaware of it. I told Aldous that this anesthetic effect was to be expected from an overdose of Amanita muscaria, and that I would soon give him the atropine. But before giving Harry the atropine I asked him how he felt. He mumbled that he felt very, very drunk. Then he looked straight ahead and said that he felt he could see through the wall of the laboratory. He said that everything seemed so clear on the other side of the wall. I asked him what he saw, and he gave me an accurate description. But I also knew that he had prior knowledge of the other side of the wall and this could well be imagination. Therefore I delayed giving him the atropine in order to do one quick test of his seeming clairvoyance. I hastily blindfolded him, urging his co-operation, and placed him before the covered MAT test. I begged him to try to do one test. Aldous and I watched him closely. His hands fumbled over the picture blocks for about a minute. He just couldn’t seem to make his hands follow his will power. I spoke sharply and commanded him to begin the test. He pulled himself together and completed the entire series of matching ten sets of pictures in about three seconds. He literally threw the two sets of picture blocks together. I took the cover away from the blocks, and was amazed to find that he had scored ten correct matches. The statistical odds against getting this score by chance alone were such that he would have had to do this test a million times before such a result would occur once. This was the most remarkable demonstration with the MAT test that he had done up to this date. Now there was no more time to be wasted. I had to stop the drug action. I gave Harry a large dose of atropine. I removed by lavage the remaining particles of the mushroom. The treatment was effective and within fifteen minutes he was normal again. But I must say that he was thoroughly shaken by this experience. It was only then that I revealed to him the entire course of events. He was too stunned to believe me. He questioned me many times in the following days trying to grasp what had happened, and to understand the powerful effect of the mushroom. The other subject who was unusually sensitive to the effects of Amanita muscaria was Peter Hurkos. The first occasion on which he was given the mushroom was October 19, 1956. I administered the mushroom to Peter, and to myself as a control, at 10:00 P.M. We both sat alone in the laboratory in silence, making notes of our own reactions. I, of course, was also making notes of Peter’s reactions. Now Peter is the type of human being who is constitutionally incapable of sitting in one place for more than five minutes. He is that restless. After I had administered this drug to him, I was surprised to find that Peter sat quite peacefully for an hour. I then spoke to him and found out that for the first time since I had begun to study him, which now was a period of six months, he had slipped into a light trance. He was not asleep in any normal way in which I can understand sleep. He was definitely in trance. His eyes were wide open. He seemed to be looking off into the distance but oblivious of everything in his immediate vicinity. He sat in this position for three hours. For a restless man like Peter Hurkos this was indeed phenomenal. At one point during this three-hour trance he wrote a statement on his own observation pad in the Dutch language. In translating these lines later, I found that they were statements which could be called precognition. One of them related to a personal event which was to happen seven months later, according to the date that he wrote down. Without describing this event I can say that this prediction made seven months in advance was quite accurate. When Peter awakened I waited for him to speak to me first. I, myself, had had no noteworthy effects from the Amanita muscaria. I had been quietly observing Peter Hurkos for the past three hours. Peter first looked at me and wonderingly asked what time it was. I told him that it was one o’clock in the morning. “Do you mean to tell me that we have been sitting here since ten?” “Yes,” I answered, “you have been sitting in that spot for three hours without moving.” “How is that possible?” he said. “I have never done that before in my life.” “Peter,” I said, “I don’t know how it’s possible. All I can tell you is that it happened. Tell me, Peter, what did you experience during that time?” Now, for the first time, Peter seemed to be fully aware of his surroundings and what he was doing. “Andrija,” he said, “I have seen things which I don’t believe I could ever describe to you in a million years. I was not here in this room. I don’t know where I was. But I was in some far-off place of indescribable beauty. The colors, the forms are beyond description. The only way I can give you an idea of what I saw is that everything around me here is filthy, dirty, and horrible. It looks so ugly here that I hope you don’t give me that mushroom too many times; I might not want to come back.” “But, Peter,” I said, “this is hard to believe. As far as I could tell, you were just sitting there asleep even though your eyes were wide open.” “Well, I’ll try to describe it as best as I can. In the first place, I don’t know where I was, but I was somewhere outside of myself. A woman came to me. I don’t know who she was because she would never turn her face to me, and it could all be in my imagination. This woman guided me and took me I don’t know where. I don’t know whether I was walking or flying or what. I never had this before so I can’t describe it. We came to a land. I didn’t see trees. I can’t say that, but I did see flowers. I can’t describe them, they were so beautiful. I saw houses; there were many, many houses. The only thing that I can tell you about the houses is that they all looked like cupolas, they were like beehives. They were round and all with beautiful colors. I know that where my mind was is real. Its beauty is beyond description. And this world is so ugly. I’m sorry I came back.” Now this entire episode surprised me greatly. In the first place, Peter is not the kind of person whose imagination would drift in the direction of rhapsodizing beauty. His imagination is such that it would color something he had objectively done in rather glowing terms; or perhaps describe his ordinary human exploits with a bit of braggadocio. I have never heard Peter describe anything for its beauty’s sake and enthuse over it. Peter had come to America six months before, and his power of expression in English was limited. He was still learning the English language. My main impression was that he had mentally experienced a wonderful hallucination. He did not report anything that led me to believe he had been out of his body in the sense in which I have described it earlier. His description of being in a strange land was very much like his usual experience of having an impression by extrasensory perception of a distant scene on earth. If, for example, he sees a distant scene of a city or a house by extrasensory perception, he describes it as though he were there, but in actuality he is describing what he sees in his visionary mind, and there is no true experience of a separation of body and consciousness. I have had the opportunity to repeat this experiment a few more times with Peter Hurkos. I could not do it too many times because his reaction was always the same. He did not want to plunge too deeply into this world of beauty he had discovered because, as he said, it was too unpleasant coming back. I shall report one more experiment done on August 23, 1957. Hurkos had been administered the preparation of the mushroom. He slipped into a semisleep state in about twenty minutes, and this time he began to talk. He said two things which bear repeating. In the first instance, he saw quite clearly what he called “a miracle in the sky.” When asked what the miracle in the sky was, he was not capable of giving it finite description. But these are the words that he used: “There is going to be a miracle in the sky. It is coming. I cannot tell you precisely what it is, except that I see it as an earth-ball. It is in the sky, and everybody in the whole world can see it.” When asked if this meant a planet, he said, “No.” When asked if this meant a comet, he said, “No.” I asked him of all the possibilities I could think of in the way of natural aerial phenomenon. I even asked him if this was going to be a flying saucer. He said, “No,” to this. He stuck by his description that there would be in the sky “an earth-ball,” and that everybody in the world could see it. I must say that to me at this time the description was puzzling. The second thing he stated was that he saw an event which was to occur on September 27, 1957. This statement was very good for experimental purposes because he not only described an event that he saw coming, but he gave it a precise date. He would be right or wrong on the basis of the event’s occurring on a certain date. What he said is as follows: “I see high government officials coming to this laboratory to talk to us. They will come on September 27 of this year. They won’t believe me.” These are the two outstanding things that Peter Hurkos said under the influence of the Amanita muscaria in a semitrance state on August 23, 1957. Now, in reference to the first statement which is very vague, it is difficult to relate it to any specific event. The only event that seems to bear any resemblance to the words that Peter uttered was, of course, the launching of the Russian earth satellite on October 4, 1957. But Peter himself feels that this is not the event in question. It is yet to come, he says. The other event which Peter said would happen was easier to monitor. On September 12, 1957, a military friend of mind phoned from Washington with rather startling news. He said that he had been talking to some colleagues about our research in Maine and two officials had expressed an interest in visiting the laboratory. He told me that one of the men, a busy general, had picked a date to come to Maine. The date was September 27, 1957. My friend was calling now to find out if this date was acceptable to me. I said, of course, that date was all right with me; but how did he come to pick this particular date? He said that the general was going to finish an important mission in the West on September 25 and would be free on the twenty-seventh to come to Maine, and this had dictated his choice of the date. This episode is only interesting in the light of what Peter had said, so I awaited developments. On September 16, my friend again called me from Washington and said that some hitch had developed, and that the projected visit of the general and the colonel had been called off. I asked him the reason for this change of plan. He informed me that there was some compelling security reason unknown to him which made it undesirable for military officials to express an interest in our kind of research, and especially to pay us a formal visit. The military group later cancelled their projected visit entirely. Now this instance illuminates something that I have noticed a number of times in my researches. A sensitive will predict some event as occurring in the near future; the event does not occur, therefore, the sensitive is said to be wrong. In the case which I have just described, Hurkos picked a date and associated it with government officials and a visit to Maine. As far as I knew at the time when he made this statement there was no connection between myself and anybody in the government which would lead me to believe that such a trip was in prospect. However, unknown to Peter and myself, a friend had made arrangements in Washington for such a trip which was planned for September 27. Then other circumstances changed the course of this plan; the event did not come off. It is important to note here that Peter saw an event which certainly was in the making. He did not, however, foresee that the event would not go through as he had interpreted it. He only saw a part of what was happening. It might be added that this sort of case also illustrates the fact that the workings of the human mind are such as to bias the clear cognition of things perceived, either by means of sensory perception or extrasensory perception. It must be emphasized that this degree of extrasensory perception shown by Hurkos cannot be entirely credited to the effects of the mushroom. The mushroom was responsible only for placing him in a light state of trance. I have seen Hurkos demonstrate just as good or better examples of extrasensory perception without the use of the mushroom. That normal human beings do not show any remarkable psychic effects or extrasensory perception from the mushroom is quite clear; but on the basis of my limited observation it seems that sensitives are more responsive to the psychochemical effect of Amanita mus-caria. This effect may be due to a greater sensitivity on the part of sensitives to the chemicals present, or it may be a greater psychological susceptibility to the things that the mushroom is supposed to be able to do. It is my opinion that future research will show that Amanita muscaria has a selective psychic effect on genuine sensitives by increasing their powers of extrasensory perception. This presents a razor-edged problem that can only be cleared up by a great deal of research with many sensitives, and different psychochemical drugs, including controls by means of placebos. In spite of this unresolved question, some problems had been cleared up by the mushroom studies. We could be quite sure that the Amanita muscaria did not have the powerful hallucinogenic effects of the Mexican group of mushrooms as reported by Wasson.2 The effects noted on normal humans who had taken the Amanita muscaria were well-known physiological reactions and not in any way remarkable in regard to psychic effects. The effects noted on Harry Stone and Peter Hurkos are in a class by themselves, and one cannot dissociate the mushroom action from the already present remarkable talent for extrasensory perception. – Excerpted and paraphrased from “The Sacred Mushroom” by Andrija Puharich .