Is it rational to take psilocybin?

Just to make my definition of rational clear:

Rationality is only intelligible when in the context of a goal (whether that goal be rational or irrational). Now, if one acts rationally, given their information set, will chose the best plan-of-action towards succeeding their goal. Part of being rational is knowing which goals will maximize one’s utility function.

According to Discovery:

“Scientists released their findings on a recent survey of volunteer psilocybin users 14 months after they took the drug.”

“Sixty-four percent of the volunteers said they still felt at least a moderate increase in well-being or life satisfaction, in terms of things like feeling more creative, self-confident, flexible and optimistic. And 61 percent reported at least a moderate behavior change in what they considered positive ways.”

Assuming you won’t get a bad trip, is it rational to take the drug?

I doubt a psychedelic experience can help me optimize my current utility function better than my sober self. How can I be more rational from a drug? Therefore, I conclude that it must, in fact, change my preference ordering—make me care about things more than I would have otherwise. I prefer my preferences and therefore would rather keep my preferences the way they are now.

If you were guaranteed to have all these positive results from taking the drug, would you take it?


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56 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 6:22 PM

Meta-comment: why ask "is it rational" rather than "should I take psilocybin" or "who should..." or "what are the pluses and minuses of..."?

"Do not ask whether it is “the Way” to do this or that. Ask whether the sky is blue or green. If you speak overmuch of the Way you will not attain it."

Well, I wanted to specifically ask whether taking psilocybin will help me optimize my preferences. In other words, whether it would be rational to take them.

Asking "Is it rational to X?" is a way of saying "I value rationality. Should I X?" The part of the title which is a question is equivalent, but the mention of rationality provides extra information about the author's values. This would be clearer if the value statement and the question were split into separate sentences, but his meaning was clear enough.

I agree with Annoyance below. I value rationality. I also value other things. I think that it is true for some X that it is rational to X and I should not X, as it conflicts with things that I value more highly than rationality. I'd have to do some work to find an example, though.

This only makes sense if you think that "rational" only applies to a subset of your utilities. I can't see how X could be "rational" to do if its negative utilities exceed the positives, using my definition of "rational".

"Asking "Is it rational to X?" is a way of saying "I value rationality. Should I X?""

No, it isn't. That implication only exists in a greater context. The question itself asks only whether a certain action has a certain property, without bringing up ideas of value or desirability.

Because declaring something to universally belong to a category is much, much easier than specifying conditions under which it's X or Y.

It may or may not be rational to do something, but if we declare it to be inherently rational or irrational, we don't have to give it any further thought.

It's a basic form of the Oversimplification Fallacy.

The answer is "yes".

Your mind was designed for not getting eaten by lions, which is not the same as your goals. It shouldn't be surprising that it's possible that thinking differently (temporarily) can give you new insights. Since so many problems are due to not "thinking outside the box" (eg. aging is normal and acceptable), seeing things from new perspectives can be valuable. That is a big part of what makes talking to intelligent people interesting.

Even if you're someone that intellectually acknowledges that aging is a big problem, 50 micrograms of LSD can make you see it from the perspective of someone used to indefinite lifespans- shocked, with a "gut level" appreciation of how bad it is.

The upsides are a likely self reported "increase in wellbeing" (which I'd bet has a significant entry in your utility function), and possible new perspectives (which can be discarded if they don't make sense when sober), which are both pretty significant.

Possible downsides include the possibility of a "bad trip", the possibility of being seen as a "druggie" and the small possibility of legal trouble.

The possibility of a bad trip can be quite small if one is properly prepared, and bad trips are seldom as bad as good trips are good. Experimenting once or twice with psychedelics isn't looked down on like shooting heroin is by anyone that isn't completely ignorant on the subject, and is not a hard secret to keep.

I have not met anybody that thinks that trying psilocybin was a bad decision. While it may be hard to convince you to take psilocybin in a short comment, hopefully the sum of all comments will convince you that it's worth researching.

[-][anonymous]14y 1

The sum of all comments do suggest that it's worth researching. Where would you suggest such research could begin?

Erowid is pretty much the source for unbiased drug information.

[-][anonymous]14y 0

Yeah, vote down, then answer me bitch!

Some of the commenters on this thread seem to be viewing the change caused by psilocylbin as foreign or hostile in some way. Maybe I'm approaching it from a different perspective. My emotional tendencies fluctuate from hour to hour, day to day, and month to month. Just eating a good meal brings me from grouchy and irritable, to happy and creative. I don't feel like my identity is lost during any of these transformations.

Going from sad to happy doesn't change my utility function/preference ordering, my beliefs about the world, or my level of rationality. It just makes me able to enjoy all these things more fully. So if I were assured that the psilocybin would just change my happiness set point it would seem like a pretty good deal.

Applying the wirehead argument here seems a case of lost purposes. The problem with wireheading isn't that you're happier than you "should" be, it's that you've lost the chance to get all of those things in your utility function that aren't just happiness, because you're too busy blissing out. I see no reason to believe the psilocybin takers are at even the slightest risk of that.

A question to anyone who wouldn't take the psilocybin: if you had depression, would you take Prozac (assume for this hypothetical that Prozac is proven to work)? Do you think the answer to this question should always be the same as the psilocybin question?

Re: I doubt a psychedelic experience can help me optimize my current utility function better than my sober self. How can I be more rational from a drug?

Psychedelic drugs can provide people with a different perspective on your own mind. They thus provide you with information about the operation of your own mind - how its perceptual filters work, that kind of thing - which is otherwise inaccessible to consciousness.

Some find that information valuable, much as they find foreign holidays valuable in providing a new perspective.

[-][anonymous]14y 6

People's priorities are altered by hallucinogens in part because they broaden one's perspective. Often the specific way this happens is difficult to pin down.

It's similar to going to a foreign country or watching a good movie. You can't always anticipate what you'll get out of it, and even when you do get something out of it that seems important, that thing isn't necessarily immediately useful.

Psychedelic experiences are an exploration of the service corridors of your own brain. It's one place you can't really just read about in a book, because nobody but you can go in there.

If you don't want to see it, because you're worried the new perspective will screw you up, that's a legitimate fear.


If you don't want to see it, because you're worried the new perspective will screw you up, that's a legitimate fear.

But I feel like any drastic perspective change will screw me up, whether it be positive or negative. Why would someone make the choice to change their preferences (as opposed to optimize them)?

Because we can have preferences over our preferences. For instance, I would prefer it if I preferred to eat healthier foods because that preference would clash less with my desire to stay fit and maintain my health. There is nothing irrational about wishing for more consistent (and thus more achievable) preferences.

[-][anonymous]14y 0

Right, but your new set of preferences would have to be consistent with the old one. But a positive perspective change doesn't necessarily mean that your new preferences are consistent with the old one.

because preferences are malleable because the people who have them are. For me most moves toward rationality is a drastic perspective change. If you fear to change your preferences the slower you go anywhere great.

The argument you made that the only way such a drug can work is by changing your preferences seems pretty weak to me. Does an trip to Peru change your preferences? No - it just tells you a lot of things about the world that you didn't know before.

If the drug reveals new information about the world (possibly how my brain works), then why wouldn't I want to take the drug?

The more obvious negatives: legal concerns; purity - will you be consuming what you think; your reputation - what do your friends think of drug users; bad reactions - most react positively to psychedelics - but not everyone does - depending on how stable your personality and circumstances are, there may be risks; unknown factors - psycheldelic science is young - and on safety grounds, you may be better off with LSD rather than psilocybin - if you can get pure controlled doses.

How certain are you that the only effects the drug has (after it wears off) is reveal new information about the world?

Here is what I think is a possible (other) effect the drug can have:

Imagine that after taking the drug it made you more emotional towards others. This caused you to quit everything you're doing currently and join some charitable organization. Why would you take the drug knowing there is a possibility your goals would completely change?

It could be that it would only happen as a result of revealing new information and therefore, be what you really always wanted to do. This is assuming that the drug only reveals new information. I am not convinced that all the drug might do is reveal new information after it wears off.

Suppose it made you less "emotional towards others". Then you could ignore all those nagging feelings that you ought to be performing charitable works and become a perfect personal utility maximizer.

I've heard cocaine is a pretty good drug for producing this sort of effect, but obviously it has other less desired effects as well. Perhaps some rich Randroid could fund an effort to develop a better anti-altruism drug.

I don't know that the only effects are as a result of obtaining new information. My own perception is that the drugs do provide a mountaian of information, that it is difficult to obtain that information in other ways, that the information is sometimes regarded as being useful by the individuals in question, and that the side effects on things like goals are sometimes so slight as to be undetectable by the individual. How frequent are such outcomes? Pretty often it seems to me - and you have a reasonable chance of avoiding negative outcomes if you use some common sense.

If you are not expecting to have your preferences changed, they probably won't be. I believe that for the study participants they explicitly recruited older, religious people with no previous psychedelic experience. People much more suggestible to the power of magic. What is more likely for you is more of a "huh, it's kind of neat that my brain also functions like this."

I think that for a rationalist to have permanently changed beliefs as a result of a psychedelic experience it would have to represent an improvement in one's rationalism or personal utility function. If you spend the trip mediating on optimizing your preferences, then you're only going to improve them. Most likely, nothing will change, but there is always the possibility that you can be more rational.

The greatest actual danger with illegal drugs is that you never really know what you are going to get. The naturally occurring magic mushrooms are picked out of cow shit. The farmed ones are subject to contamination, maybe the grower had a contaminated batch but just picked off the mold and sold them to you.

DMT is a molecule that is practically identical to Psilocybin and other than duration and method of consumption, I doubt most people would be able to tell the difference in a double blind test. Under one of the more bizarre loopholes in US law, DMT is legally available in unextracted plant form. To be orally active, it must be mixed with an MAOI, also available in plant extract form. However, if you possess the knowledge and intent to use the DMT containing plant for psychedelic purposes, you are committing a crime. It is perhaps the truest example of a thought crime codified into law.

My personal experience with mushrooms was very helpful -- I gained the ability to completely clear my head of thoughts and maintain that state. Each individual's experience is personal, of course, but achieving that bit of zen has been great for me. If you don't already have total control of your active mind, you may be able to fine tune it with the aid of such tools.

One negative could be wasting time. Since you're asking this I doubt you'll be the type to abuse psychedelics, but one is completely unproductive while tripping. So any benefits one gets diminish rapidly with each successive trip. One time won't hurt you cognitively at all, but 100 trips will. You won't get HPPD doing it just once, but it becomes a real possibility when these drugs are abused. HPPD is not the same as flashbacks, flashbacks are BS they tell kids about in DARE. Hallucinogen flashbacks are only occur when someone has a trip bad enough to suffer PTSD. That doesn't happen very often. I would be surprised if it has happened 100 times in history.

Re: The naturally occurring magic mushrooms are picked out of cow shit.

That's the Mexican ones. Come to the Europe and relatives grow in the ground.

Re: DMT is a molecule that is practically identical to Psilocybin and other than duration and method of consumption, I doubt most people would be able to tell the difference in a double blind test.

Um, those drugs may be chemical relatives - but they typically have pretty radically different effects.

They may have "radically different" duration and intensity at commonly chosen dosages, but the effects are reported to be very similar at a comparable dosage

There are reasons to expect human mind to be fragile, and little understanding of effects of various substances on cognition. So, the prior belief that it's dangerous to randomly modify your mind (especially permanently!) should outweigh even a study that shows that a number of controlled parameters improve as a result of taking the substance, since you don't have the data for other parameters that current science doesn't understand.

The same goes for positive accounts of affected people: it might be a mild version of wireheading, in which case positive accounts is exactly what you'd expect. Also, people can't accurately see their own values, in particular because they are too many, so the assertions that values haven't changed count for little where you expect them to change sufficiently less than to the smash-the-head-with-a-hammer degree.

Does psilocybin get classified as a "random modification of your mind" any more than a trip to India does? Surely both could be dangerous?

Self-reported values are all we we have, really - if you want better evidence, you might have to wait for quite a while.

A trip to India isn't optimized for messing with your mind, it isn't expected to impose significantly more change on your cognition than commuting to work and watching a new movie. Better than self-reported values, we have status quo as the guiding principle: if you don't know how to hack a system, leave it alone until you do. Don't rely on the temperature of processor to debug the new superb modification you invented for your program.

If I visited India, I would expect it to result in significantly greater changes to my cognition than commuting to work or watching a new movie.

People take coffee to stimulate themselves, and alcohol for social lubrication. Is that "hacking" too? We know a lot about the effects of many drugs. For many people, the knowledge that we already have is enough for them to decide.

[-][anonymous]14y 2

Except, of course, if we do not like the status quo, or believe a modification can give a greater expected value to our utility, all risks accounted for.

Great discussion here. In my experience, psychedelics have not "changed my preference ordering" (at least not notably) but have helped me change the narrative that I tell myself on an ongoing basis. During one mushroom trip, for example, I felt very much like a child -- overwhelmed and vulnerable at times, but also unusually engaged by my own sensory experience. That state of mind partially stuck with me after the fact. I've come to see myself as a work in progress rather than as a "formed" adult. I'm more inclined to embrace new challenges even when they might end in failure. Other experiences have also helped, including yoga and reading Eliezer's OB posts. I highly recommend the experiment (assuming a reliable source of material) and would happily send a narrative description of my experience with another drug to interested parties. (nathan (dot) labenz (at) gmail (dot) com)

(Disclosure: I have tried the whole suite of safe psychedelics, and psilocybin was valuable but probably least valuable.)

I think some of the negative emotional response to this question derives from the illegality and external-ness of psilocybin.

We could switch to calling the manipulation "regular exercise", which certainly has the effect of lifting mood; it might also change preference ordering.

Here are better primary sources:

The Johns Hopkins Study: Commentary:

"How can I be more rational from a drug?"

In the short term, ingesting sugar will boost your capacity for handling complexity.

"I doubt a psychedelic experience can help me optimize my current utility function better than my sober self. How can I be more rational from a drug?"

WTF, dude? Not everything in life is about improving your rationality. Do you expect to become more rational after eating a hot dog? How about a peach?

The entire point of being rational is to maximize your expected life value.

If taking psilocybin increases your expected life value by construction you would be irrational not to take it... unless you place a high value on passing up "at least a moderate increase in well-being or life satisfaction".

WTF, dude? Not everything in life is about improving your rationality. Do you expect to become more rational after eating a hot dog? How about a peach?

I think you're being a bit too skeptical here. Yes, I usually eat peaches because I like them and they're good for my health. But I would, in fact, expect to become more rational after eating - especially if I was about to enter a supermarket to do my grocery shopping!

There is a difference between rationality (optimal decision making based on the known facts and a set of value-weightings of possible futures) and the value-weightings themselves. It strikes me that eating the peach would quite probably alter how much you would value particular possible worlds, but I find it much more difficult to believe that it would alter your ability to deal with complexity (predict the future).

"The entire point of being rational is to maximize your expected life value."

That may be your purpose of being rational, but I don't see how that follows necessarily. The purpose of being rational is to consciously know what you're arguing and why. There are many potential reasons why that could be a useful strategy.

"Just to make my definition of rational clear: Rationality is only intelligible when in the context of a goal (whether that goal be rational or irrational). Now, if one acts rationally, given their information set, will chose the best plan-of-action towards succeeding their goal."

I request further clarification.

So if someone can't articulate why they're choosing one way over another, but tends to choose the strategies that maximize the likelihood of reaching their goals, they're being rational by your definition? What if they don't recognize that their choices tend to be optimal, explicitly or otherwise?

It depends on what the drug actually does, for example:

  • Drug A removes irrational fears and worries
  • Drug B makes you happy by stimulating your pleasure centers ("wirehead drug")

If you live in a place with a lot of harmless spiders, and you have arachnophobia, you'll spend a lot of time nervous. You could take drug A, and as a result you'll feel better.

If you have fears and worries similar to arachnophobia, but about things like speaking up or getting rich or not finishing your damn thesis or whatnot (leading to procrastination, shyness, etc.), and drug A could solve that, then it might be pretty rational to take it, even considering your current pereferences.

I wouldn't want to take drug B (it would be against my current preferences), but might want to take some forms of drug A.

However in practice it can be hard to tell the difference between drugs A and B - the information from the Discovery article quote could apply in both cases, though I think it tends more towards A than towards B (But a form of drug B might just make you believe that your behaviour changed in a positive way !). So as a precaution I would tend to shy away from drugs like that until I have a clear idea of whether they fit in A or B.

In addition, even drug A may be questionable - imagine the commander of an army that's killing off civilians, who as a result finds it hard to sleep. He could take drug A to eliminate his irrational feelings that come up in response to the death of other human beings (though a mechanism that may be very close to arachnophobia), and thus sleep more soundly. So I'm even a bit wary about drug A, until I have a better understanding of it and of human morality.

I think what you are referring to in drug A that is so beneficial is the removal of irrational fears. In other words, you have these emotions that you know aren't inline with your preferences, therefore, it would only be rational to have a drug that only removes those emotions.

But what if drug A completely changes your preference on something. Say, before you were pretty happy working towards your thesis, and working at starbucks, but after taking drug A you suddenly really start caring for people.

You end up wanting to quit everything and join some charitable group. Let's assume that you may even get more bliss when you start doing charitable work, I still believe you wouldn't choose to take the drug. You wouldn't knowingly change your preferences to something else even if it makes you happier. You wouldn't be optimizing your current preferences by taking the drug.

It depends how much relative value you assign to the following things:

  1. Increasing your well-being and life satisfaction.
  2. Your reputation (drug users have low status, mostly).
  3. Not having unpleasant contacts with the criminal justice system.
  4. Viewing the world through your current set of perceptive and affective filters, rather than through a slightly different set of filters.
[-][anonymous]14y 1

Hmm, good point Mark

The drug could make a user happier without changing the user's preference ordering by bringing the user to a state he couldn't have achieved without the drug. This state, for example, could involve having new "happy chemicals" in the brain.

The tryptamine like psychedelics really do make you happy in a very direct way. Chemically they are almost identical to serotonin. This happiness means that bad trips are rare. Mostly a bad trip is just anxiety. This is easily treatable with anti-anxiety medications, or anti-psychotics to completely terminate a trip.

David Pearce puts things better, in my view:

"Worse, the psychedelics aren't primarily euphoriants. They don’t directly stimulate the pleasure-centres and guarantee the user a good trip. Both the serotonin- and catecholamine-like families trigger psychedelia mainly via their role as partial agonists of the 5-HT2A receptors in the central nervous system; 5-HT2 heteroreceptors exert a tonic inhibitory effect on the striatal dopaminergic neurons. Such agents aren’t a dependable choice of clinical or recreational mood-brightener, whether in the short- or long-term."

If you are at all interested in how the mind works, you ought to have at least a cursory exposure to psychedelics and other psychoactive drugs.

On the other hand, if you are the kind of person who organizes their life around maximizing a utility function, then you probably shouldn't.

Isn't that a little bit like saying that you should have at least a few concussions to better appreciate how a damaged brain alters experience?


The analogy with a trip to India is not a bad one. You can read all you like about India, but it won't be the same as actually going to Mumbai and experiencing it first-hand. Presumably nobody would claim to be an expert on India without visiting it, seeing as it isn't that hard, and while it is not without risks the experience is worth it.

I disagree here. I think that Annoyance's analogy was apt in that it is the same sort of decision, but with a different cost/benefit analysis. Clearly in both cases (and in the India case) you "should" take the action (get a concussion, take some drugs) if you think that the cost of taking the action is less than the potential benefit.

I do agree with you, however, in the sense that I imagine that most people consider the net benefit of taking drugs at least once to be more in line with a trip to India than with a damaged brain.

[-][anonymous]14y 1

Concussions are a clear all round negative to brain function. The drugs in question appear to provide some clearly demonstrated benefits. I do not agree that Annoyances analogy is appropriate.

I still think it's the same basic framework. "Benefits" is a highly subjective term. I think you are still making the same essential decision - is it worth risk X for new experience Y. I agree with you in the sense that I think very few people would actually decide to take a concussion just to experience an altered brain, but that doesn't mean it's not the same type of decision.

And to be fair to your point, although I think his analogy is apt, it is rhetorically misleading in that the implication is that you wouldn't want the concussions so you shouldn't want the drugs. In fact, I think that the asymmetry between his analogy and the drugs analogy serve to best demonstrate that the question isn't black-and-white and that it would be hasty to jump to the conclusion that everyone interested in brain function should rationally take mushrooms.

Aldous Huxley once identified "professors" as the category of people most llikely to benefit. His reasoniing involved the effect on shaking up their views of the world and seeing things from another perspective.

See interview with him here:

I would nominate Dawkins as the man most likely to benefit. Hallucinogens often produce mystical experiences indistinguishable from religious revelations - c.f. "The Miracle of Marsh Chapel". Dawkins is a seeker - see "God on the brain" - He should probably take some of the classical god medicine. At the moment, he hasn't witnessed what he is talking about. Maybe Sam Harris will turn him on.

Although it is known that concussions cause lasting harms, those harms aren't always noticeable. Our brains have a limited capacity to repair themselves, and that capacity is slowly expended when it's used, which is one of the reasons why people who have had many concussions (playing youth sports, for example) are more likely to have detectable neurological damage in old age. There's less reserve capacity and thus more vulnerability.

I can easily imagine a person who decides that the loss of some of this reserve capacity is worth gaining the insight into what it's like to be in a concussion-induced altered state of consciousness. I don't say I understand or empathize with that decision, but that isn't the point.