Age is just a number – Psilocybin and the road to change

There are some things you can’t change. Your age, for example. Sure, some people can (attempt to) hide it, but how old you are is an inescapable fact of life.

There are some things you can change, however. External factors, like your lifestyle or your diet, can be adjusted. But these rarely have large effects on who you are as a person, especially as you get older.

Personal development is challenging, no matter how old you are. But there’s no doubt that age can take its toll. Years of the same routine can ingrain toxic habits and thought patterns deeper and deeper, making them incredibly hard to reverse. But evidence from modern science is showing us that there is no age limit on the road to change.


In 2006, researchers at Johns Hopkins University were looking for participants for a groundbreaking new study. Psilocybin, the key ingredient in magic mushrooms and truffles, had been thrust into the scientific spotlight. With clearing from the ethical council, the researchers had permission to investigate how psilocybin would affect hallucinogen-naive individuals. As psilocybin has been a backbone of spiritual practices in many indigenous cultures, the researchers thought they could finally elucidate the ethereal; does psilocybin facilitate mystical experiences?

Unsurprisingly, there was a huge amount of interest. 136 volunteers were whittled down to 54, with 36 of these ultimately deemed suitable to participate. After months of screening and check-ups, the volunteers would finally sit in a comfortable room, with suitable music, and be taken through a psilocybin trip. Trained clinicians were present, acting as guides to help the volunteers through a potentially bumpy ride.

If you didn’t know, psilocybin has a cascading effect on the outer layer of the brain (the cortex). It acts on the one of the main neurotransmitter systems – the serotonergic system. Much like a key fits a lock, serotonin molecules bind to their respective receptors in this system. This molecular binding unlocks processes involving learning, memory and cognition. Due to psilocybin having the same chemical shape as serotonin, it can be thought of as a master key, able to open the doors of perception.

Since the 1960’s, magic mushrooms and LSD (another serotonergic psychedelic) have been iconic symbols of the counterculture movement. Rather than being used for introspection, self-reflection and personal growth, they have been misconceived as party drugs, which led to their stigmatisation (and criminalised status) in 1971. However, as said before, these plants have been regarded as sacred, and used in spiritual practices for millennia. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University wanted to highlight the mushrooms sacred healing properties.

The average age of participant in the study was 46. Typically, the ability to cultivate new traits and to engage in personal growth is stunted by the age of 30. Your personality stabilises, with core traits stagnating from then on.

Many of the participants showed ingrained personality changes following the mushroom session. Amazingly, these changes persisted until at least 14 months after the trip itself, when a follow-up test was conducted. Nearly all of the participants ranked the trip as one of the top five most spiritually significant experiences in their life, with some ranking it as the most. This meant that for some volunteers, the time spent on psilocybin in a room of clinical psychologists was more spiritually significant than the birth of their own child.


Life is a complex phenomena. You never know what it will throw at you, and you never know how you’ll react. These volunteers undoubtedly had no idea that this study would change their life, and ultimately change who they are. 62 years old at the time, Maria Estevez participated in the study to gain some spiritual and personal insights. She released a book about her experiences, and had this to say about her encounters with psilocybin:

“Driving home from Baltimore after my mandatory follow-up the next day, I became aware of a blaze of inspiration and communication too strong to be dismissed. One message was, “Once the door is opened, it will never again be completely closed.” I was delighted with every aspect of this revelation and the personal transformation it promised.”

It’s a rarity to see such a dramatic shift in both personality and outlook on life. Psilocybin has the capacity to do this, however, through one specific means – neuroplasticity.

As we grow and develop, our brains are inherently malleable. Fundamentally, there is a process (dubbed Hebbian learning) that allows useful connections between brain cells to strengthen, and useless ones to weaken. This can be achieved through the coordination of specific neural pathways signalling together. In short: what fires together, wires together.

The brain is in its most plastic state at a very young age. Every new experience we have as a child influences these neuronal connections, ultimately moulding our minds. We are subjected to many experiences, and, as a result, are a product of them.

But when our brains reach a certain level of maturity, this plastic state fades. Experiences are no longer as groundbreaking as they once were, which is one of the reasons why personalities tend to stagnate. Habits become ingrained, and thought patterns remain rigid.

Psilocybin, however, can induce a completely different brain state. Under the influence of psilocybin, new doors are opened. Researchers in Italy and London visualised how neuronal pathways form that allow brain regions to communicate in a way that has never been seen in waking consciousness.

Essentially, psilocybin can catapult your mind back to a child-like state. It is in this state that experiences carry so much gravity. Your ability to learn about yourself and grow is immensely amplified, as well as the capacity to change. To be in this state, to look at the world with child-like wonder again is, to say the least, eye-opening.

It’s no wonder, then, that so many are awe-struck by the journey that psilocybin takes them on. Nick Fernandez, who participated in a psilocybin study due to his severe anxiety, said it “was the single most transformative experience of my life”.


Ever since the the original study conducted by Johns Hopkins university in 2006, there has been an explosion of interest into psilocybin’s benefits. People that have undertaken these clinically guided trips have become more connected to others, more spiritually aware, and more compassionate and kind. These personality changes have been seen in participants well into their 60’s. On top of this, it’s being tipped as a miracle cure for treatment-resistant depression and PTSD, anxiety, existential distress in cancer patients, and substance addiction (to name just a few).

What must be stressed is the diversity of volunteers that are in these experiments. Some are old and some are young. Some have clinical issues while some seek spirituality. Some intend to self-reflect, and some merely want to contribute to modern science. Whatever the intention, it is clear that all the participants have been affected and touched by their psilocybin encounters.

For many it allowed them to get out of a depressive rut; the plastic state that psilocybin induces can help to relinquish the control that negative thought patterns had over their lives. For others, a titanic shift in internal thought led to a titanic shift in the way they behaved externally (for some, this manifested in the cessation of smoking or drinking alcohol).

Although you can’t change your age, it is increasingly clear that you can change your mind. Doors that have been seemingly shut for years can once again be opened with psilocybin.


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