Welcome to the Sixties.
LSD, or Lysergic acid diethylamide to give it its proper chemical name, is an hallucinogenic drug. It used to be very popular in the psychedelic Sixties – think Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, a popular ballad illustrating the delights of ‘tripping.’
But LSD, or ‘acid’ to give it its more popular name, is an unruly drug. Users can have ‘bad trips’ – especially if it’s contaminated or the user is suffering from depression.
Existing mood plays a big part in the course the trip takes. Colours can appear extremely rich and vivid – they can even take on meaning. Objects and faces can appear distorted, one moment they’re very close, the next, far away. Other people can suddenly appear strange, their faces changing shape in front of your very eyes – lights can seem attractive or menacing. The texture and taste of food can suddenly change – that’s if you can stop it moving around on the plate. Music not only sounds different, you start to hear it in a very different way – it can be more emotional, or it can be terrifying. Users often turn up the volume to deafening levels to feel ‘enveloped’ by it.
Most interesting is that people who take LSD or consume magic mushrooms often experience great insights when they take LSD or magic mushrooms (Psilocybin.)
LSD also enhances emotions, so if you’re not in the right frame of mind, the effects, which can last as long as 16 hours or more, can be upsetting. In extreme cases, users have been known to leap off buildings in the mistaken belief they can fly, or because they suddenly feel the need to end it all. Sudden and extreme mood changes are also a risk.
Even just one trip can affect individuals for the rest of their lives. Long-term abuse has been linked to psychosis and severe depression. Where mental illness is already present, LSD can exacerbate problems as the brain’s critical faculties struggle to separate illusion from reality. Some habitual users claim to experience occasional flashbacks, some so severe, it affects their ability to function normally. There have been reports of users experiencing psychosis-like episodes, especially in individuals who are vulnerable or suggestible and who regularly take LSD.
Nearly all users describe experiencing a ‘higher state of consciousness’ where the mysteries of life, the universe and everything suddenly become crystal clear. Everyday objects or ideas can take on a new deep and meaningful significance. Thoughts wander off in unexpected directions. The higher the dose – the greater the effect.
Up to now, the acid trip has been a purely subjective experience – the claims of ‘higher consciousness’ always regarded as a drug-fuelled urban myth by the mainstream scientific community during the 1960s, when LSD was popularised by ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’ Timothy Leary – an irresponsible college lecturer, named ‘the most dangerous man in America‘ by President Richard Nixon.
The problem with LSD and magic mushrooms is that the thoughts and insights of genius experienced while tripping usually turn out to be nonsensical once the effect has worn off. Having observed small groups made up of three, four and five people, all high on LSD or mushrooms, I can state with absolute certainty that the ideas they think brilliant while tripping (I interviewed them and made notes during and after) were as empty as the things they found hysterically funny, and which actually weren’t.
Fast-forward five decades and the first scientific evidence of the higher state of consciousness has been pinpointed by researchers at the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science at Sussex University and the University of Auckland, New Zealand using fMRI scans. The scientists have observed unmistakable increased brain activity in people who had taken LSD and magic mushrooms. Sensibly, the scientists do stress that the ‘higher state’ does not mean ‘better’ or more desirable.
The neuroscientists re-analysed data previously collected by Imperial College London and the University of Cardiff in which healthy volunteers were given one of three drugs known to induce a psychedelic state – LSD, psilocybin, and ketamine. Using brain-imaging technology they measured the magnetic fields in their brains and discovered that all three drugs increased their level of consciousness.
The scientists observed a sustained increase in neural signal diversity – a measurement of complexity of brain activity in people under the influence of psychedelic drugs, compared with their normal waking state. In other words, the tripping brain behaves very differently from the normal waking brain – electrical activity is less predictable and less integrated than during normal conscious wakefulness. The scans prove that the ‘psychedelic brain’ state is distinctive.
Similar changes in signal diversity were found for all three drugs, despite their quite different pharmacology, but the results are robust and repeatable. The study could help inform recent discussions regarding the carefully controlled medical use of such drugs, for example in treating severe depression.
In 2016, a previous study carried out by scientists at Imperial College London found that individuals who experienced drug-induced hallucinations ‘see’ with more than just the visual cortex, the part of the brain that processes information from our eyes. It seems that when ‘tripping’ other parts of the brain also join the party. The barriers separating the different neural networks break down, thus functions such as vision, movement, hearing and memory conspire to produce unusual effects.
This might explain the overall effect of the trip on the senses. Messages to the visual cortex are processed via the parahippocampus. This area is associated with memory – the higher the dose, the more the parahippocampus communicates with the visual cortex, hence the complexity of the hallucinations.
The research team are now working to identify how specific changes in the brain’s information flow affects aspects of the psychedelic experience, especially visual and ‘audible’ hallucinations.
There are correlations between the intensity of the psychedelic experience and changes in signal diversity and this suggests that there are links not only to global brain changes induced by hallucinogenic drugs, but to those aspects of brain dynamics that underlie specific aspects of the conscious experience.
For more information, scientists should take a close look at Silicon Valley. The IT industry in Southern California has continued the tradition of psychedelic drug use as an aid to boosting creativity. A growing number of Silicon Valley professionals are taking micro-doses of drugs such as LSD, Psilocybin and mescaline (from the Peyote cactus) every few days because they believe it improves creativity and focus. Both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates have admitted experimenting with LSD.
A micro-dose of LSD is usually around a tenth of a recreational dose – not potent enough to cause hallucinations, but it is reported to heighten creativity, alertness, and energy. Micro-doses are also said to engender feelings of wellbeing and with them, a reduction in stress and anxiety. Users also claim it improves quality of sleep and leads to healthier habits, although the only evidence for this is again, purely subjective or anecdotal.
There have been no scientific studies that prove micro-dosing actually does any of these things – but there should be.