“Magic mushrooms” are simply mushrooms which contain the active ingredient psilocybin. The “magic” is its interaction with the receptors in your brain, and like other hallucinogens, it distances your experience of the moment from your preconceived notions of reality. When used therapeutically, hallucinogens can be useful in treating post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety.
This most recent study, using psilocybin, is not the first time hallucinogens have been used successfully against addiction. A 2012 meta-analysis of various studies in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, investigating the usefulness of LSD against alcoholism, showed it to be drastically more effective than “standard” therapeutic interventions like alcohol anonymous. The precedent for using hallucinogens effectively against addiction is not particularly new.
Now, a smaller study undertaken by John Hopkins University, using psilocybin, saw 80% of the cigarette smokers quit completely after 3 rounds of therapeutic use! These were not “casual” users, each smoking an average of roughly a pack (19 cigarettes) a day for 31 years. They were simply given the psilocybin in pill form (to more perfectly control the dose) and left alone to reflect and focus on their inner experience in a “homelike” setting.
But, it is not as simple as “psilocybin made them quit.” The psilocybin itself was not helping them quit, but instead helping them better understand themselves and what they wanted in the world. These drugs are not themselves the answer, but can function more as bridge for the person to help them find their own answers.
Since Amber Lyon publicly came out and testified to her use of hallucinogens in overcoming her post-traumatic stress, the idea using hallucinogens as a central part of treatment has slowly been getting appreciation beyond some psychologists and shamans. Of course, they are not right for everyone and definitely not right all the time. The key is of course to pay attention to the setting and dose: to not do it in a stressful or unsettling place, and to do it among people you trust or alone.
A neurobiological study last year (2013) even defined the mechanism, showing that hallucinogens (through a modulation of the 5-HT serotonin receptor activity) helped extinct fear responses to conditioned stimuli.
Personally, I have seen people use these substances to help them better reflect and come to terms with themselves and things in their history (including violent and/or sexual trauma). It has great potential, but the intensity of the experiences also carry the potential of themselves becoming a traumatic experience (slightly lessened by the outpour of serotonin and dopamine). The experience is always intense, and your reflections and understandings can rewrite how your brain works to some extent: leading to changes in personality, worldview, or behavior.
I would say that hallucinogens, specifically magic mushrooms and LSD, have serious therapeutic potential. I also think they carry more positive potential than the SSRI antidepressants currently being prescribed to approximately 13% of those in the US and 18% of the UK. Historically, shamans have used different types of mind-altering substances to distance themselves from the moment, from their usual mental habits, and gain new insight.
Of course, these substances are not necessary, but they can be helpful. They are not the end themselves, but a means to intense reflection and thus self-change. Much as with many other medicines, they can be abused or misused, but are themselves not harmful in appropriate doses.
You have access to a body-made (endogenic) hallucinogen right now: DMT (dimethyltryptamine). You produce it when you sleep and likely when you meditate (it is described by Dr. Rick Strassman, who did the first official DMT research, as the “spirit molecules”). For those too wary to use still currently illegal hallucinogens, in your search for self-discovery, enlightenment, and understanding, meditation is also a means to the same end.