Take a trip through Psychotropic plants
Plants whose ingestion changes the mental state of humans have been in use for thousands of years for their purported healing properties, in religious rituals, and hey, just for kicks. They have inspired literature, music, art and philosophy, and probably started quite a few religions as well. We’re not only talking about the psychedelic ones like psilocybin mushrooms and mescaline cacti that take you on a two-day mind warp, but the whole range of plants and fungi that have psychoactive effects on the human nervous system, from stimulants to sedatives, and, yes, including the trippy ones. Plants and fungi can be uppers, downers and inside-outers, and people have known about this for a long time.
Behind the mystique of psychotropic plants and fungi lies a lot of interesting science, mostly in the fields of neuroscience and biochemistry. What are the substances in these plants that alter our mental states, and what happens in our brains when they do?
Some substances are produced by a wide range of plants. DMT (N,N-Dimethytryptamine) is a powerful hallucinogenic which occurs in a large number of different organisms. Other psychoactive molecules are restricted to just one or two species, like the South American yopo tree which, almost uniquely, contains a molecule with the catchy street name of 1,2,3,4-Tetrahydro-6-methoxy-2,9-dimethyl-beta-carboline. But psychotropic species all have one thing in common: when ingested, they monkey around with our neurotransmitters to make us euphoric, sedated, mystical, creative, religious, or a mixture of all these.
A good introduction to these ‘magic’ plants and how they do what they do is the Psychotropic Plants Diploma Course from the Centre of Excellence. It starts with some sensible groundwork on the nervous system and its chemistry before embarking on a tour that sounds a bit like characters in a Harry Potter novel: Mugwort and wormwood, mandrake, hyssop, vervain, belladonna, henbane and jimsonweed.
Completing the Psychotropic Plants course will net learners 150 CPD points.
The course delivers an introduction to plant pharmacology as pertains to their effects on our subjective experience, and goes through the different types of hallucinogens and active constituents found in plants. The grand finale of the course is what we all probably first think about when approaching this subject: trippy toadstools and magic shrooms, like fly agaric and the psilocybe family of gilled mushrooms, which wre the stuff of legend.
There is an assessment at the end of the course, which should make for entertaining reading if the students have been diligently sampling the plants and fungi being studied. The course takes around 150 hours to complete, but time is an illusion. The elephants know!