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How will Denver change if it decriminalizes magic mushrooms?

Psilocybin doesn't just make you trip; it can have lasting effects on how you see the world.

Matt Cardy/Getty Images
  • In May, Denver will vote on whether or not to decriminalize magic mushrooms.
  • In addition to their ability to combat depression and anxiety, magic mushrooms can also affect people's perspective, including their political positions.
  • If Denverites begin to use more magic mushrooms, how will this change their community?

The Mile-High City might be about to get a bit higher. In May, the citizens of Denver, Colorado, will vote on whether or not to decriminalize magic mushrooms, the colloquial name given to a group of mushroom species that contain the psychoactive compound psilocybin.

In the US, psilocybin is classified as a Schedule I drug, taking a place alongside heroin and ecstasy, ostensibly as one of the most dangerous drugs around. However, this classification doesn't seem to jibe with the scientific consensus on magic mushrooms.

Drugs get placed in different schedules according to their potential for abuse, whether they have any medical applications, and the drug's safety and addictiveness. Magic mushrooms were scheduled in the early 1970s, and the dearth of research at the time resulted in their misclassification. Instead, modern assessments suggest that magic mushrooms should be Schedule IV drugs, alongside Ambien, Ativan, and Xanax.

Psilocybin is typically not abused and is not addictive (in fact, some research has shown it to reduce addiction to other drugs). Furthermore, it does indeed have some medical purposes. Research has shown that its impact on depression, anxiety, and other psychological conditions is profound.

But Denverites aren't talking about legalizing magic mushrooms purely for their medicinal properties; rather, they will be voting on whether or not to decriminalize the drug. First, decriminalization does not mean legalization—buying and selling the drug will still be illegal, but using and possessing it will simply not be prosecuted. Since this means the infrastructure to support its medical use won't exist, we can assume that more Denverites will be using the drug recreationally.

If decriminalization and eventual legalization go ahead in Denver, what will this mean? Well, in addition to hallucinations, a distortion of time, and a sense of connectedness to the universe, magic mushrooms also have some more interesting long-term effects. First, some studies show that psilocybin usage can make people experience greater personal meaning, spiritual significance, and life satisfaction even six months after their initial dose.

mushrooms

Flickr user kooikkari

So, let's assume that magic mushroom usage increases as a result of decriminalization. Visitors to the Mile-High City might expect to see young adults in sunglasses having difficulty navigating a staircase or staring blankly up into the trees. Instead, they might see happier, friendlier, more satisfied people.

What's even more interesting is how magic mushrooms affect one's world view. It's a stereotype to imagine magic mushroom users as tree-hugging hippies; as it turns out, magic mushrooms actually make people more invested in nature and more anti-authoritarian over the long term. While right-wing politics are more often associated with authoritarianism in American politics, it's important to remember that authoritarian tendencies can show up in both right-wing and left-wing politics. But regardless of the dominant political party in Colorado, authoritarians might find that their biggest critics are those who use psychedelic mushrooms.

In today's political climate, a broader acceptance of magic mushroom usage may encourage more activism and political engagement. In a state like Colorado, famous for its natural beauty, sweeping environmental deregulation may sit poorly with any Denverites who've suddenly developed an appreciation for nature from taking psilocybin. Aspects of American politics, too, have become increasingly authoritarian for decades now—perhaps the citizens of Denver will also become more inclined to combat that tendency.

The unfortunate truth is that there is simply not enough research out there on the effects of magic mushrooms. It's always difficult to research illegal drugs, and what research has been done has focused on psilocybin's medicinal benefits. This is important, to be sure, but few studies have focused on how psilocybin's activity in a social sense, which is strange considering that the drug has predominantly played a social role throughout humanity's thousands of years using magic mushrooms. Now is a good time to start paying attention to Denver; if the drug is decriminalized and later legalized, how will it affect Denver as a whole?

Gerald Heard on the value of psychedelics

"To do this in two minutes, eternity in an hour; it's almost impossible of course, as all the patients say, to describe it. You can only say, 'It isn't, it isn't, it isn't,' trying to tell people what it is.

Well, of course, I don't know any of our friends that have taken it but haven't said this one thing in common: 'Well. I never knew anything like that in the whole of my life.' And one or two people have said to me, and I've said it to myself, 'That's what death is going to be like; and oh what fun it will be...' There are the colors and the beauties, the designs, the beautiful way things appear; people themselves, dull people – that I thought dull – appeared fascinating, interesting, mysterious – wonderful. But that's only the beginning.

A man was saying it this afternoon, who was taking it: Suddenly you notice that there aren't these separations, that we're not on a separate island shouting across to somebody else and trying to hear what they're saying and misunderstanding. You know. You used the word yourself: empathy. These things flowing underneath. We're parts of a single continent, that meets underneath the waters. And with that goes such delight. The sober certainty of waking bliss." – Gerald Heard

Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
  • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
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Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

Does conscious AI deserve rights?

If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.

Videos
  • Does AI—and, more specifically, conscious AI—deserve moral rights? In this thought exploration, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, ethics and tech professor Joanna Bryson, philosopher and cognitive scientist Susan Schneider, physicist Max Tegmark, philosopher Peter Singer, and bioethicist Glenn Cohen all weigh in on the question of AI rights.
  • Given the grave tragedy of slavery throughout human history, philosophers and technologists must answer this question ahead of technological development to avoid humanity creating a slave class of conscious beings.
  • One potential safeguard against that? Regulation. Once we define the context in which AI requires rights, the simplest solution may be to not build that thing.

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