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Mushrooms used to be the territory of hippies, explorers, indigenous people and artists. Now tech bros and wellness gurus have taken over

On a June evening in 1955, an investment banker and amateur mycologist named Robert Gordon Wasson found himself in an adobe house high in the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico, encountering the divine. That night, Wasson, his wife, the photographer Allan Richardson and about 20 local indigenous people took part in a Mazatec ritual involving psilocybe mexicana, a species of hallucinogenic mushroom. As Wasson recounted in Seeking the Magic Mushroom, his 1957 Lifemagazine photoessay: We chewed and swallowed these acrid mushrooms, saw visions, and emerged from the experience awestruck.

In the first episode of The Goop Lab, a new Netflix docuseries tied to actor Gwyneth Paltrows lifestyle and e-commerce enterprise, several of Paltrows employees fly to a Jamaican resort, in search of some modern analogue to Wassons psychedelic ceremony.

The volunteers for Goops psilocybin ritual a hodgepodge of hand-me-down indigenous liturgy, weekend-long Pilates retreat, and hollow self-help blather are all described as being deeply successful people. Gone are Wassons visions of the archetypes, the platonic ideas, that underlie the imperfect images of everyday life. In their place: the clinking of coffee mugs filled with mushroom tea; giggling and group-hugging on yoga mats; tearful sobbing by participants listening to music through wireless Apple AirPods; and people sinking into Patagonia vests repurposed as makeshift pillows.

Back in the Goop headquarters (or lab), Paltrow speaks of psilocybin as the newest, hottest healing modality. Mushrooms, as one researcher tells the Gooper-in-Chief, are back.

And in their current iteration, theyre also totally uncool.

For most people, psychedelic drugs like psilocybin and LSD are singularly associated with the 1960s American youth culture. The English psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond coined the term psychedelic meaning, roughly, mind-manifesting in 1956 to describe the effects of hallucinogenic drugs taken in a clinical context. The word, for Osmond, was clear, euphonious and uncontaminated by other associations.

But the history of psychedelics and psychedelia (that is, the culture that has coalesced around the drugs and their usage) can itself feel somewhat contaminated by certain associations. Even the phrase psychedelic 60s slips so naturally off the tongue, encouraged as much by the pleasing (euphonious, even) sibilance as the cliches conjured in the collective memory: San Francisco, Sgt Pepper, Woodstock, tie-dye, and Timothy Leary urging youngsters to turn on, tune in, and drop out. Beyond these more obvious, ready-made cultural signifiers, psychedelics helped catalyze the 80s British rave scene, facilitate Bob Dylans more introspective lyrical turn, and helped Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis throw a legendary no-hitter.

Whether these things are at all fascinating or cool is, perhaps, a matter of taste dependent on ones tolerance for kaleidoscopic tapestries, all-night dance parties, woolly talk about self-transcendence, and freeform electric guitar jamming. But the so-called psychedelic renaissance that Goop seized upon feels like part of a larger, concerted attempt, to break free of these associations. Its part reset, part rebranding effort.

Recently, Canadian businessman and TV personality Kevin OLeary (the no-nonsense Mr Wonderful from ABCs entrepreneurial cavalcade Shark Tank) announced that he had invested in a neuro-pharmaceutical company dedicated to exploring the clinical benefits of psychedelics in treating addiction. Like Paltrow, who waxes on the potential of psychedelics in a process she calls the optimization of self, OLeary an investor who has spoken to the role Ayn Rands Atlas Shruggedplayed in shaping his business acumen doesnt exactly seem like an avatar of free love, mind-expansion, and other platitudes of the psychedelic sixties. And thats precisely the point. If we are now expected to take psychedelics seriously, they must appear, well, serious.

Parsing Goops sundry claims to pseudoscience and utter quackery feels like low hanging fruit. (Paltrows company had to pay damages in 2018 after a court ruled that the benefits of a $66 jade egg, advertised on the Goop website for its role in supporting vaginal health, were unsupported by competent and reliable scientific evidence.) In the case of magic mushrooms, however, the science seems solid. Researchers at NYU, Londons Imperial College, and Johns Hopkins University, have produced reams of reputable evidence pointing to psilocybins role in easing depression, PTSD, anxiety, and even addiction.

Such research marks a resurgence of these substances in a clinical context a resurgence arguably unseen since the 60s cocktail of hedonistic recreational excess and resulting social panic stripped psychedelics of any lingering reputability. If the current surge of serious interest in psychedelics is, in any meaningful way, a renaissance, then its not reviving the cultural heyday of hippies, Hells Angels, campus protests and free outdoor rock concerts, but an earlier period in these drugs history. Before these powerful substances fell into the hands of hippies, they were largely evangelized by doctors, executives, and academics including the above-mentioned Osmond, and author Aldous Huxley, who firmly believed that the psychedelic experience be made available only to an elite coterie of achievers.

Even Wasson, one of the earliest known white Americans to partake in a psychedelic sacrament, returned to work as a high-level executive of an investment bank. Like Goops Gwyneth Paltrow, Shark Tanks Kevin OLeary, and other current vanguards of the contemporary psychedelic vogue, such early evangelists were very much part of the establishment the 60s cohort opposed: deeply successful people whose minds required, if not perspective-shattering expansion, then just a little optimization.

  • John Semley is the author of Hater: On the Virtues of Utter Disagreeability

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