How does psilocybin, a psychedelic substance found in magic mushrooms, affect perception of self? A recently published study in the Journal of Psychedelic Studies found a considerable diversity of experiences by examining online posts from Reddit users who shared their encounters of gazing into the mirror while under the influence of psilocybin.
Psilocybin is known to have profound effects on consciousness, perception, and awareness.
However, no previous study has examined how psilocybin affects self-perception (how one views oneself in terms of qualities, characteristics, and emotions) and self-recognition (the ability or inability to correctly identify oneself), using mirror reflections. Mirror recognition is a test of self-awareness and self-identity, as it requires the ability to understand that the image in the mirror is oneself and not another person or entity.
To investigate this topic, the Montclair State University researchers led by Sam Elias searched Reddit for posts that contained the keywords “psilocybin mirror” or “shroom mirror”. They screened the posts for inclusion criteria, such as explicit mention of psilocybin ingestion, no other substances consumed, and the description of the experience looking into the mirror.
They identified excerpts from the posts that related to the experience and categorized them into 15 categories based on the content and tone of the description. They analyzed the frequency and percentage of each category – i.e., how many times a particular phrase was mentioned that belonged to each category.
Finally, they employed statistical tests to compare the categories related to self-recognition (”real self”- the ability to correctly recognize oneself, vs “unreal self” – the inability to correctly recognize oneself) and self-perception (”positive affect” vs “negative affect” vs “neutral affect”).
The researchers found that out of 486 posts, 89 met the inclusion criteria and contained 775 excerpts.
The most frequent categories were “visual change” (the excerpts reported changes in the visual field outside of the usual e.g. environment, face), “self” (the excerpts discussed the self in some way without classifying the self) as well as “cognitive change” (the excerpts reported changes in thoughts, beliefs, especially surreal, untrue and irrational).
Elias and colleagues discovered no significant difference between “real self” and “unreal self”, meaning that psilocybin did not consistently impair self-recognition.
However, they found that there was a significant difference between “positive affect” and “negative affect”, meaning that psilocybin tended to enhance positive self-perception.
They also found that other categories, such as “aging” (seeing oneself as younger or older specifically with visual changes) and “animal/entity” (seeing oneself as an animal or some kind of non-human entity) were rarely mentioned.
“It is a common conversation in the psychedelic space that one should be wary of looking at oneself in the mirror while under a dose of any psychedelic. With the results derived from the posts discussing what happened when someone looked in the mirror while on psilocybin, the positive affect to the experience was statistically significant compared to negative affect. This can suggest that the lore of not looking in the mirror while under the influence of psilocybin may not be the entire story,” the authors concluded.
The researchers acknowledged some limitations of their study, such as the reliance on Reddit posts, which may not be representative of all psilocybin users. Future studies could use more controlled and experimental methods to examine the effects of psilocybin on self-perception and self-recognition using mirror reflections.
The study, “Self-perception and self-recognition while looking in the mirror on psilocybin”, was authored by Sam Elias, Stephanie Spivak, Alexa Alverez, Alejandro Gili Olivares, Maria Ferrol and Julian Paul Keenan.