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Understanding Consciousness by Altering It

Our favorite LSD research.

By Kate Wheeling


Different sections of the brain, both on placebo and under the influence of LSD. (Photo: Imperial/Beckley Foundation)

On Monday, an international team of researchers published images of the effects of LSD on the human brain, providing the world with the most accurate representation to date of your brain on drugs.

Researchers have long been interested in the potential therapeutic effects of psychedelic drugs for humans, but moral panic over hallucinogens in the 1960s stymied research on the substances until recently.

In the new study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the research team gave LSD to 20 volunteers and tracked their brain activity for eight hours. The results help to explain some of the stunning visual hallucinations the drug can induce.

“We found that under LSD, compared to placebo, disparate regions in the brain communicate with each other when they don’t normally do so,” study author David Nutt, a professor at Imperial College London, toldNature. “In particular, the visual cortex increases its communication with other areas of the brain, which helps explain the vivid and complex hallucinations experienced under LSD, and the emotional flavour they can take.”

It’s an exciting time for LSD research, but scientists have, for decades, been steadily chipping away at the mystery surrounding the drug’s psychotropic effects to better understand how human consciousness arises. Here are a few of Pacific Standard’s all-time favorite studies:

1. The Benefits of LSD for Addiction

In the mid-20th century, experts considered psychedelics such as LSD a promising treatment for addiction and alcoholism. Recently, researchers from Norway looked back at several studies published during the 1960s and ’70s on clinical trials of LSD-based treatments for alcoholism, and their findings seem to confirm what mid-century psychiatrists already suspected: The meta-analysis found that nearly 60 percent of the 536 study participants who received LSD were less likely to abuse alcohol in the three to six months after ingesting the drug. Fewer than 40 percent of the participants who received a placebo reported similar benefits.

2. LSD and the Animal Mind

After research on humans and hallucinogens was halted, researchers turned to animal studies to understand the drug’s effects. In 1971, the Guardianreported on the research of psychologist Peter Witt, who studied the effects of various drugs on spiders’ web spinning abilities. Spiders weave complex, sticky webs and rely on radial threads to pick up on vibrations when prey collide with their constructions. Witt found that extremely high doses of LSD bungled web-building behaviors. High doses led to webs that were “strikingly psychedelic” in shape and mostly useless in function, but, on low doses, spiders were still able to spin regular, functional webs. “At the end of this programme of mental ruin, Dr Witt is still uncertain how far his results apply to human beings,” the Guardian reported. “One problem must be that we are still unsure precisely how a drug like LSD operates chemically on the human brain, let alone the spider mind.”

3. LSD and the Human Mind

Today, researchers are finally gaining insights into the effects of the drug on the human mind. A study published yesterday in Current Biology, from the same team behind the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study, looked at fMRI images of volunteers’ brains on LSD for insights into the sensation of ego dissolution — or the loss of one’s sense of self that individuals on LSD often report. The brain scans revealed that, compared to study participants who received a placebo, volunteers on LSD had higher levels of communication between the cortical regions of the brain involved in consciousness, self-awareness, autobiographical memory, emotional processing, and a region often associated with out-of-body experiences. The regions involved in self-awareness also showed increased connectivity with the parts of the brain typically involved in parsing incoming sensory information from the environment, which the authors suggest might at least, in part, explain the breakdown or blurring between LSD users’ sense of self and the world around them. In other words, the team hit on a physiological explanation for LSD users’ sense of being one with their environment.

Research on LSD has not only given scientists insights into human consciousness and creativity, but novel solutions to technical problems in their own fields of study. In the 1960s, a group of researchers at the International Foundation for Advanced Study famously dosed scientists with the psychedelic. The tripping experts came away from the experience with several innovations.

In perhaps the most notorious case of a scientist finding inspiration through psychedelics, Francis Crick claimed he was on LSD when he envisioned DNA’s double helix. More recently, Apple founder Steve Jobs hailed the drug as one of his most important life experiences.

But despite growing support for the potential benefits of psychedelics, restrictive drug policies will continue to slow the progress of research on LSD from the laboratory to the real world. There’s no telling what scientific and medical breakthroughs might be missed in the meantime.