Magic mushrooms and acid are among the most well known of the classic psychedelics, but oftentimes, those who are curious to trip for the first time may not fully understand the difference between the two. For starters, mushrooms (“shrooms” for short) are an organic psychedelic that grows from the ground (although synthetic versions of their main component, psilocybin, are being used in clinical trials). Acid, or LSD (lysergic-acid-diethylamide), on the other hand, is a synthetic compound (although it can also be derived from the ergot fungus), and occasions a trip that lasts about twice as long as shrooming.
That said, a trip is a trip is a trip, and so it’s not surprising that many substances classified as “psychedelics” share significant traits, such as a similar molecular structure, a lack of addictive potential, and antagonistic function on the 5-Hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) receptor group, which causes an excess of serotonin in the synaptic cleft between neurons. Perhaps due to these similarities, the phenomena of “a psychedelic experience,” no matter whether it’s brought on by acid or shrooms, or any other substance, can have a broadly analogous (and largely positive) influence on human consciousness.
While both shrooms and acid meet the rather broad definition of psychedelic, they can each produce experiences that are markedly different in ambience, onset, duration, and visual effect. Here’s how to tell them apart.
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Effects of shrooms
Psilocybin mushrooms, known by mycologists (those who study mushrooms) as Psilocybe, are fungi that can be found on every habitable continent. Through shamanistic traditions, humans have used these mushrooms since even before the existence of civilization. The fungi synthesize many psychoactive compounds, the most prominent of which are psilocybin, psilocin, and baeocystin. These compounds are produced in varied ratios by different species of the Psilocybe genus, and this variance has a moderate to significant effect on the onset, content, and duration of the experience. (Of course, your set—mindstate going into the experience—as well as your setting—your physical environment—will influence the experience, too.)
The psychoactive compound responsible for the metaphysical effects of these mushrooms is interestingly not psilocybin, but psilocin. After ingestion, the liver dephosphorylates (removes a phosphorus molecule from) psilocybin, turning it into psilocin, which is able to bind with multiple brain receptors in the 5-HT (a.k.a. serotonin) group.
When this bond is formed it catalyzes a drastic shift in neural chemistry, including neurogenesis (the creation of new brain cells), a hyperconnected state between brain networks, a dampening of the Default Mode Network (DNM), which can lead to ego death, and an excess of serotonin in the synaptic cleft between neurons. This serotonergic excess is thought to be responsible for the feelings of euphoria, love, and connectedness often associated with mushrooms, while hyperconnectivity between brain networks allows you to think outside of the box, erases negative thought pathways, and mitigates fear condition responses. Dampening of the DNM is hypothesized to provide a less ego-influenced perspective, while ego-death experiences can be occasioned by large doses.
Presently, psilocybin remains a federally illegal substance, though it has been decriminalized in places like Denver, Oakland, and Santa Cruz. The Decriminalize California campaign is also aiming to decriminalize psilocybin throughout the state this coming election. Both a therapeutic and recreational entheogen, psilocybin in synthetic form has been fast-tracked by the FDA to become a prescription medication in assisted psychotherapy for depression.
The effects of psilocybin include euphoria, altered thought processes and sense of time, sensory enhancement, synesthesia, visual hallucinations, spiritual or mystical feelings, ego death, and even out of body sensations. In addition to these acute effects, psilocybin has also been shown to provide long term benefit to mental health, effectively treat the symptoms of many psychological conditions like depression or OCD, positively alter moral values like empathy, and strengthen connection with nature or the universe as a whole. While most of these above-mentioned effects happen within the mind, psilocybin also bears a few notable physical side effects (at moderate to high dosage) like increased heart rate, cold in extremities, and, for some, gastrointestinal discomfort. This physical discomfort, along with the more spiritual-oriented, organic, and introspective undertones the psilocybin experience often carries, are among the key contrasts between psilocybin and LSD.
The history and the effects of LSD
Acid also profoundly alters perception, mood, and many other cognitive processes through action on the serotonergic system—binding to several 5-HT receptors (similar to psilocybin). However unlike psilocybin, it also exerts function on the dopaminergic system, which is responsible for cognitive processes like learning, reward systems, and motivation. These combined actions generate an excess of both serotonin and dopamine, therefore making LSD experiences more “extroverted” and energetic. It often powerfully enhances the imagination and senses, stimulates a rapid flow of thoughts or ideas, and generates colorful kaleidoscopic patterns that synchronize with auditory stimulation—in addition to feelings of euphoria and connection with the universe that are elicited by all psychedelics.
Acid has less historically documented use than psilocybin mushrooms, since the toxic ergot fungus from which it is derived only appears in certain regions after an unusually wet growing season. Much better known and researched is the synthetic version of LSD, first synthesized in 1938 by Albert Hoffman, a chemist working for the Swiss company Sandoz pharmaceuticals. He intended it to be used as a respiratory and circulatory stimulant, having no knowledge of its psychoactive properties. It did not show promise in its intended application and was shelved for five years until April 16th, 1943, when Hoffman decided to take a second look at the drug.
While re-synthesizing it, he was exposed to the equivalent of a small dose, describing the resulting experience as “a dreamlike state, perceiving an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.” Three days later on April 19, he intentionally ingested 250 micrograms (quite a large dose) to confirm it was in fact the cause of his earlier experience. His faculties quickly deteriorated and, upon feeling extreme anxiety and discomfort, he asked a lab assistant to escort him home by bicycle. This bicycle ride became one of the most iconic events in psychedelic history and is now celebrated by psychedelic enthusiasts worldwide as Bicycle Day.
After these experiences, Hoffman was convinced the drug could be a powerful psychiatric tool. It was introduced by Sandoz as a commercial medication in 1948 and by the mid-1950s, several studies were underway to investigate its effectiveness in treating alcoholism, anxiety, and depression—with astounding success. The CIA even took an interest in it for experimentation with mind-control, part of their top secret MK-ULTRA program. It’s popularity continued to surge during the counterculture movement of the 1960s, but by the end of the decade sentiment sharply reversed. Backlash against its perceived corrosive effect on authoritarian values culminated in the Controlled Substances Act and President Nixon’s launch of the Drug War. This new policy placed LSD (along with psilocybin) in Schedule I, defined as having a high potential for abuse, and no medical value (which science tells us is false).
The difference between shrooms and acid
While the long term effects occasioned by a psychedelic experience, such as improved mental health and (anecdotal) personal epiphanies are often similar across drug types, the acute effects can vary significantly. A suitable and humorous analogy for these differences, coined by a post on the r/drugs subreddit, can be drawn between the two films The Lord of the Rings and Star Wars. The reddit post relates psilocybin to The Lord of The Rings, due to its somewhat more mystical, organic, and introspective properties, while analogizing an LSD experience to the sci-fi, visually stimulating and higher-octane feel of Star Wars.
For the majority of individuals, although exceptions exist, LSD experiences are more extrospective, while mushroom experiences are more inward-focused. An LSD trip often incites a desire to socialize, seek exogenous stimulation, and dance with abundant energy. On the other hand, mushroom trips generally occupy the user with deep contemplative thought, carrying more of a “body load” that lends to their therapeutic properties. Acid trips are commonly characterized as “fun,” “wild,” or “crazy,” whereas mushrooms more often instill a sense of reverence and connection with nature (although LSD can offer an entheogenic, nature-connected experience, too).
Based on my own personal experience, there are also notable differences in both the essence and intensity of the visual stimulation provided by each substance. LSD imagery tends to be more jagged, fast-moving, and fractal, whereas psilocybin hallucinations are more wavelike, vibrational, and pulsating. Mushroom visuals can be described as more an augmentation of reality, causing the edges of objects to undulate and colors to become vibrant and saturated, while LSD hallucination feels more immersive, generating strange and vivid visions along with kaleidoscopic patterns.
In addition to the contrasting content of the experience, the onset, duration, and intensity of the trips are distinctly different. Psilocybin takes approximately 45 minutes for effects to be felt and lasts between four and six hours, with these effects peaking around two hours into the experience. Psilocybin highs are also sometimes described as “coming in waves” with emotions oscillating between extreme euphoria and bliss to anxiety and trepidation. There is also anecdotal evidence to suggest a mushroom experience and can be potentiated or re-invigorated by ingesting cannabis a few hours into the experience. Alternatively the effects of LSD can last around twelve hours and are typically reported to be more steady, gradually intensifying until a peak around two hours into the experience, plateauing, then gently declining from approximately seven to nine hours in.
The method of ingestion for both shrooms and LSD is similar and most often oral, however the state of matter which they are distributed in can vary. Mushrooms are generally eaten whole, crushed up and packed into capsules, or brewed in a tea to mitigate their farinaceous taste. A typical dose of magic mushrooms is approximately 1/8th of an ounce (3.5 grams) however some adventurous and psychedelic-experienced individuals (referred to as “psychonauts”) prefer dosages closer to 5 grams, which is colloquially known as a “heroic dose.” Acid is also imbibable in solid or liquid form, sold in a range of dosages either on small pieces of blotter paper known as “tabs” or in an eyedropper bottle, with an average dose consisting of 100 micrograms.
Both acid and shrooms are by no means limited to a specific dosage, and although most of the studies that show promising results for psilocybin are based on a full dose, the practice of microdosing has recently risen in popularity. Proponents of this practice claim that a sub-perceptual dose does not impair functionality, allowing them to go about daily life, yet provides cognitive benefits, such as increased focus, mental clarity, and creativity that are associated with psychedelics. While these claims are not yet backed by concrete study results, there exists a mountain of anecdotal evidence that cannot be discounted.
So which experience is right for me?
According to data from the Global Drug Survey, mushrooms and LSD are repeatedly rated as the safest of all drugs surveyed, and also consistently trade between occupying the number one spot for value to price ratio. When compared to other drug-classes, psychedelics are exceptionally safe, however the risk of having a negative experience is perpetually present, and heightened among those with a hereditary predisposition to certain psychological conditions. If you have a familial history of psychosis or schizophrenia, it is not recommended to take any psychedelic substance as it can be the catalyst for a psychotic episode, or even continued psychosis.
That said, in my experience, if you are psychologically sound and desire a somewhat more organic, grounding, and introspective experience complete with feelings of euphoria, love, and connection with nature, mushrooms are a great choice. If you’re looking for a slightly longer duration, somewhat more visual trip that can also result in the realization of profound epiphanies, LSD is well suited to this. It is also important to pay close attention to your mental state and the environment in which the experience will take place. These variables are known as “set and setting” and can have substantial impact on your experience.
Preparation of set and setting is often as simple as familiarizing yourself with the proper dosage for your intended application, the potential effects and duration of the experience elicited by the chosen substance, and placing yourself in a safe and comfortable environment. It’s also generally recommended to have a sober “guide” or “tripsitter” either in your immediate vicinity or at the very least easily contactable by phone. Knowing that someone capable is present if anything were to become challenging increases comfort on both a conscious and subconscious level, while a familiar environment and knowledge of the many variables a psychedelic experience can have allows you to relax and enjoy the ride.
Psychedelic substances should be treated with healthy respect and caution, used with a healthy and positive mindset, and in a supportive, familiar setting. If proper preparation of intent, set and setting is done they can be powerful tools for the expansion of consciousness and therapeutic healing, providing you with objective perspective on social or emotional issues, hours of euphoric bliss, and prolonged benefit to overall mental health.
Jeff Lebowe is a psilocybin mushroom entrepreneur with a passion for writing about the more metaphysical aspects of these psychologically and spiritually healing fungi. Check out his website if you want to learn more about psilocybin.