Matthew Johnson Is Expanding Acceptance of Psychedelics

matthew johnson

Photo by Johns Hopkins Medicine

Psychedelics are having a real moment of publicity right now, due to ample amounts of medical research in support of their use. So far, evidence suggests they could treat many mental health conditions—from depression to addiction, to PTSD.

But Matthew Johnson, PhD, one of the founders at Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research, has been studying psychedelics since 2004, long before the current psychedelic renaissance. 

He traces his interest in psychedelics all the way back to his time as an undergraduate at the University of Vermont, an interest that he stresses was “on the academic side," not the recreational side.

Combing through the stacks of his university library for a research paper, Johnson began discovering research on psychedelics from the 1960s and earlier, and he was intrigued. 

Matthew Johnson, PhD

It’s not that we found these things didn’t work. It’s more that they were sacrificed because of how central psychedelics became in the culture wars at the time.

— Matthew Johnson, PhD

Johnson points out a few reasons psychedelics got caught in the crosshairs back then. For starters, they were much stronger than they are today. “A street dose of LSD might have been about six times stronger than it would be today,” he says. 

"And then you have Tim Leary,” he says. Leary is widely considered a psychedelics pioneer for his early research at Harvard, but he became what Johnson calls “the poster child for we can’t even trust researchers with this stuff” following some outrageous and irresponsible antics.

Johnson's Introduction to Psychedelic Research

Johnson’s work in the field started while he was an undergraduate psychology major at Eastern Oregon University. There, he conducted research on a potential cocaine immunization that was published in an academic journal—virtually unheard of for an undergrad.

This put him on the trajectory to continue his work, at the doctorate level, in experimental and behavioral psychology at the University of Vermont.

"And I applied that to addiction with questions like ‘How does one’s propensity to value the future versus the present relate to things like compound interest rates and the economy?’” These are things someone might not necessarily think to associate with one another, but the underlying human behavior is the same.

Matthew Johnson, PhD

I got really into this area of behavioral economics, understanding psychology using the lens of economics to understand decision-making.

— Matthew Johnson, PhD

His early behavioral economic work in the field of pharmacology led to his psychedelic work by looking at things like psilocybin and LSD as powerful behavioral change tools. 

“You never hear these stories with other substances,” he says, “like Steve Jobs crediting his LSD trips with leading to the creation of Apple or Kary Mullis inventing the Nobel Prize-winning polymerase chain reaction process of replicating DNA. Mullis has said that ‘without psychedelics he wouldn’t have had the experience of thinking of a surfer on the DNA molecule and watching it unzip.’” 

Johnson's Groundbreaking Work

In 2008, Johnson published psychedelic safety guidelines that, in many ways, laid the groundwork for the “psychedelic renaissance” we are experiencing today. He also was responsible, in 2014, for the first research looking at the use of psilocybin in tobacco addiction.

Amidst the current psychedelic renaissance, he helped launch the Johns Hopkins Center for Psychedelic & Consciousness Research in 2020. The first academic center in the United States solely dedicated to psychedelic research, the institution’s founding added legitimacy to studying these promising treatments.

Through his work, he hopes to provide psychiatrists, psychologists and others in the mental health field with another tool to help people. One goal of that, he says, is to focus on therapeutics, meaning, looking at psychedelics as medicine in the mental health category. Research on migraine and other neurological disorders is another area that Johnson finds promising as well as psychedelics for smoking cessation.

There’s also a corrective aspect to his work, helping educate the public on some of the misconceptions about the psychedelic field. “But even within the field, you have to have a more nuanced understanding that psychedelics do have some dangers as well. I have some concern over the cultogenic effect of these compounds,” he says.

He knows, however, that psychedelics aren’t a panacea and recognizes and respects the power of the medicine, writing an article on the abuse potential of medical psilocybin.

The Future of Mental Health Care

Johnson is nervous about the state of mental health in the United States today but hopeful for the future. “It’s in dire straits right now.  We’re seeing that, for the first time ever, Americans’ life expectancy is lowering, not increasing, with the two big factors being addiction and suicide.”

Still, he hopes for a paradigm shift in how the United States looks at mental health and sees psychedelics merely as a part of that. “Even within the National Institutes for Mental Health, there’s the Research Domain Criteria Project.”

RDoC considers five different domains where brain function is impaired, rather than using DSM criteria—which has been the long-standing gold standard in psychiatry—to subjectively describe mental health impairment.

What RDoC means, he says, “is that we need to get away from the purely descriptive labeling of symptoms and start to really look underneath the hood. We need to focus on what the symptoms within the disorders are fueled by.”

For instance, Johnson asks, "Why do two-thirds of people with addictive disorders tend to be men but then two-thirds of people with internalizing disorders like depression tend to be women? Maybe, to a degree, these are different ways of dealing with the same stuff. So psychedelics can be powerful tools to examine what trans diagnostic factors might be affected".

To A More Holistic View of Mental Health

While he thinks it would be great to find effective treatments for mental disorders, he thinks that “bigger picture, we can actually start to understand the nature of mental health problems and therefore the nature of mental health and the nature of the mind.”

Johnson ultimately sees a healthy future “where we have routine mental health checks. How it is a thing to have a physical checkup every year but not a mental health checkup?”

That future would also include an understanding that the line between positive psychology and treating of disorders is blurry. “We are all susceptible to deteriorating and falling into unhealthy mental traps. We need not just preventative care, but maintenance and strengthening of our mental health.”

Winning this award is a recognition that taking psychedelics seriously is really gaining cultural momentum and recognition, not just among the fringes of society, but people and organizations that are interested in mental health.


He considers spending time with his wife and child as one of the most important things he does to take care of his own mental health, in addition to exercising. Always the scientist, he exercises “with the law of entropy” in mind.

“You can’t bank this stuff,” he says. “It has to be an ongoing thing.” He adds that he doesn’t feel like himself if he’s not doing some weight lifting most days of the week, and he also adds in cardio like working out with a punching bag or using a stair machine.

Additionally, he says he largely avoids alcohol. “Even if you’re not satisfying criteria for alcoholism,” he says, “there’s still cancer risk and mental health effects. When you think of that, you’re less likely to engage with it.” He also credits staying away from alcohol with helping deal better with stress, as alcohol can help you be good with stress short term but not in the long run.

He’d like to see more science on it, but he also enjoys cold exposure, even if it’s just 30-60 seconds in the shower. “I think we need to go through something on a regular basis where, in your mind, you’re telling yourself ‘I can’t do this,’ but then you do and you realize you can.” Exercise, he says, is the same principle, of fighting through that mild discomfort, to help you be less reactive when stress comes up in other areas of your life.

But ultimately, in the behavioral economy of a growing demand of things one could do for their mental health with a limited supply of time, he always sees his best ROI for his health and happiness as investing time with his family.

8 Sources
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  1. Johnson MW, Ettinger RH. Active cocaine immunization attenuates the discriminative properties of cocaine. Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology. 2000;8(2):163-167. DOI: 10.1037/1064-1297.8.2.163

  2. Johnson M, Richards W, Griffiths R. Human hallucinogen research: guidelines for safety. J Psychopharmacol. 2008;22(6):603-620. DOI: 10.1177/0269881108093587

  3. Johnson MW, Garcia-Romeu A, Cosimano MP, Griffiths RR. Pilot study of the 5-ht2ar agonist psilocybin in the treatment of tobacco addiction. J Psychopharmacol. 2014;28(11):983-992. DOI: 10.1177/0269881114548296

  4. Schindler EAD. Psychedelics in the treatment of headache and chronic pain disorders. Curr Top Behav Neurosci. 2022;56:261-285. DOI: 10.1007/7854_2022_365

  5. Johnson MW, Garcia-Romeu A, Griffiths RR. Long-term follow-up of psilocybin-facilitated smoking cessation. Am J Drug Alcohol Abuse. 2017;43(1):55-60. DOI: 10.3109/00952990.2016.1170135

  6. Johnson MW, Griffiths RR, Hendricks PS, Henningfield JE. The abuse potential of medical psilocybin according to the 8 factors of the Controlled Substances Act. Neuropharmacology. 2018;142:143-166.  DOI: 10.1016/j.neuropharm.2018.05.012

  7. Casey BJ, Craddock N, Cuthbert BN, Hyman SE, Lee FS, Ressler KJ. DSM-5 and RDoC: progress in psychiatry research? Nat Rev Neurosci. 2013;14(11):810-814. DOI: 10.1038/nrn3621

  8. Mooventhan A, Nivethitha L. Scientific evidence-based effects of hydrotherapy on various systems of the body. N Am J Med Sci. 2014;6(5):199-209. DOI: 10.4103/1947-2714.132935

By Theodora Blanchfield, AMFT
Theodora Blanchfield is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist and mental health writer using her experiences to help others. She holds a master's degree in clinical psychology from Antioch University and is a board member of Still I Run, a non-profit for runners raising mental health awareness. Theodora has been published on sites including Women's Health, Bustle, Healthline, and more and quoted in sites including the New York Times, Shape, and Marie Claire.