This Is Your Brain on LSD

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By Nathaniel Scharping | April 11, 2016 5:39 pm
LSD-cover

This image shows how much more of the brain contributes to the visual experience under LSD than under placebo. (Credit: Imperial/Beckley Foundation)

The psychedelic drug LSD is known for the wild hallucinations it conjures, and its effects have been portrayed by Hollywood in movies like Easy Rider and The Big Lebowski.

But actual studies of LSD and its effect on the brain have been few and far in between, due to its classification as a Schedule I drug. But a new study from researchers in the United Kingdom delves into the science of an LSD-enhanced trip using bran scans to observe 20 patients under the influence of the drug.

I’m Freaking Out, Man!

The researchers used a trio of neuroimaging techniques to examine how LSD influenced blood flow and magnetic fields in the brain. They also studied how LSD affected communication between various parts of the brain. When LSD is ingested, researchers found, disparate parts of the brain that are responsible for processing things like touch, hearing and movement link together, leading our brains to produce unconventional images and sensations.

More communication between brain regions was correlated with stronger, more visceral visions, offering further support for their hypothesis.

After consuming LSD, researchers say that regions of the brain that normally don’t “speak” to each other begin communicating. The researchers say that the volunteers could “see with their eyes shut” because their visual cortex, for example, was receiving input from non-visual stimuli.

The brains of the study subjects bore striking similarities to how our brains look as infants, before they fully mature, said lead author Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial College London in a press release. As our brains grow, they become more compartmentalized, and different regions further specialize in specific tasks.

Taking LSD seems to transform our brains from a cubicle-laden office of sorts to an open-concept plan where the walls have disappeared. As a result, users experience strange visions and odd revelations — stereotypical hallmarks of a drug trip.

Besides gaining insight into what peoples’ brains look like when they’re tripping out, the researchers say their work could also reveal new approaches to combat mental illnesses like depression. Researchers published their findings Monday in the journal Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences.

Woodstock Was on to Something

In addition, a separate study published in March in the journal European Neuropsychopharmacology paired LSD with music to see how the combination of stimuli would affect participants.

Turning on music while consuming LSD resulted in stronger hallucinations and visions, because the tunes strengthened the connections between the visual cortex and a region of the brain called the parahippocampus, which controls mental imagery and personal memory, the researchers say. Why music affects an LSD trip in this fashion isn’t known, and scientists also aren’t sure if sounds — of any nature — would create the same effect.

In the study published Monday, the researchers found that the parahippocampus was also associated with the phenomenon of “ego-dissolution” that some LSD users experience. While on LSD, the parahippocampus stops communicating with the retrosplenial cortex, a poorly understood region of the brain responsible for episodic memory, among other things. Severing the link between these two regions results in stronger feelings of connectedness in participants, according to their findings.

Understanding such experiences could help us understand nature of consciousness — a goal that may sound like the result of a drug trip, but is key to improving mental health.

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  • Dan Smith

    Not sure what kind of music was used, but it stands to reason comforting music—and even music a particular subject may be partial to—would yield far more positive effects than say car horns, shrieks or cacophony of any kind. There’s a reason The Grateful Dead, Phish and The Doors are so popular on acid trips!

    • reed1v

      Way better is to listen to Bach while tripping. You roll within the music.

      • Dan Smith

        Better? Why better? As I alluded to in the comment to which you replied, the complement of music to one’s trip would vary based on his or her musical preferences; however, I don’t know that one musician, or group, is “better” than another. Incidentally, I have played Bach on the piano while tripping—Toccata in d minor.

        • reed1v

          Surprised you could actually play piano while tripping. Usually, if not always, folks would get stuck on a key and just float away from there.

          • Dan Smith

            Not only could I play, but I found it rather enjoyable. Just as a trip enhances and intensifies many experiences, it did so with piano. I encourage you to parse your use of the word “always” and be careful of your apparent tendency to confuse your own experiences with everyone’s. Playing musical instruments on hallucinogens has likely been done a lot—and effectively. I use again the examples of The Doors, The Grateful Dead, and Phish—to name just a tiny sample.

          • reed1v

            Not sure they “played” while on an acid trip. Afterwards, and on pot or hashish, yes. Knew several rock bands very well, and their experiences trying to play while tripping were horrible, or at least the playbacks were horrible. Rumor has it that erik satie did his compositions while tripping.

          • Dan Smith

            Dude, you really ought to restrain yourself from projecting your limited knowledge (as we all have) onto life writ large. It’s actually fairly common knowledge that each of those bands I’ve mentioned have performed while tripping. Perhaps the “several rock bands” you knew “very well” couldn’t play on LSD, but I hope you at least realize how this does not mean ALL rock bands can’t play on acid?? Each person is different, and, since you couldn’t possibly know every musician’s individual abilities under the influence of any substance, you couldn’t possibly say one way or the other.

            Having played Erik Satie’s music on piano—not tripping—I can see how that last thing you said may be possible.

          • reed1v

            Stoned, yes; strung out on acid not likely. There were some notable exceptions that resulted in some violent acts like smashed guitars, rodents being ripped apart, and performers just walking off the stage. Donovan tried that once and became inarticulate to the point the audience booed him. Richards started cursing his audience. Commander Cody and LPA just simply walked off stage.

            Most performers either stayed with simple stuff like pot and hashish or good, old fashion booze. None of which helped their stage acts. Tom Petty had the best take: Not for public consumption.

        • Justo Talkalottashit

          Death metal or sirens (not police but more like air-raid whaling) while under the influence of a psychadelic is the closest thing I can think of as “hell on earth”. One thing i would like to see is the study of cluster headaches and their total abortion from psychedelics like psilocybin.

  • Maia

    “The brains of the study subjects bore striking similarities to how our

    brains look as infants, before they fully mature… as our brains grow, they become more compartmentalized”

    A strong hint as to why many children experience synesthesia, can draw, sing and dance, etc …but when they are older lose spontaneity, and become more rigid, more self-conscious and less creative, stop remembering dreams and daring to be creative or “stand out”. How avoidable is this process of “compartmentalization. In a culture that strongly encourages it, very few escape.

    But the thing is if a bit of LSD (or other things) can return most of this to a person, it’s all still there…which seems to imply it can be cultivated without drugs. Music is definitely one of these! Each person finds there own, of course, but music is probably universally potent in re-connecting the compartmentalized brain.

    • reed1v

      Naw, no one yet has “cultivated” it.

      • Maia

        Um, I beg to differ.

        • reed1v

          Do tell. Never got that zigzagging experience from TM nor from yoga. A bad migraine came close to it.

          • Maia

            If you are determined to “go after” a particular experience, you may or may not find it. Meantime, you might be missing a lot of surprising experiences because they don’t fit into your expectations…

          • Maia

            I get silvery crescent expanding zig-zags with migraines and there is nothing psychedelic there. It’s just a small light phenomenon, no big deal.

          • reed1v

            Yup, grand migraines are no fun. Problem is that it can become a big deal when you can not see nor hear, nor speak as the migraine disrupts your brain’s circuits.

          • Maia

            I’ll say! Never had full blindness, but blind spots or holes or patches over vision. Never had the hearing go. What is that like?

          • reed1v

            Confusing. All sounds blend together so can not pick out the words someone is speaking. Eyes have no focus, ears none either; and then the crushing headache.

          • Maia

            That sounds terrible! Must have been really scary the first few times, but I am hoping you’ve found ways to work around this?

            Crushing headaches, arrgh, I know how those are! They run in my family, nearly disabling. But for me, much much milder now. Partly diet, herbs, meditation, regular sleep hours, etc

            How about you?

          • reed1v

            They happen irregularly. Last one about 8 years ago. Was given a lot of pills but not a big pill fan. A lot of new knowledge is out there on the grand mal type migraines nowadays. When they happen, not much can be done so usually stay in bed for several days till it’s over. Suspect there may be different causes, and thus no one treatment.

          • reed1v

            Back when Meisner and Alpert were “promoting” psychedelics, the idea was to set up safe situations where the experience could be guided towards specific “outcomes’. Much like climbing a mountain, you plan out a route beforehand. The “guide” would minimally nudge you in the direction you wanted to explore, whether religious, spiritual, personal, or otherwise.

            Then it migrated to doing trips in cars while driving downtown, or gorging out at an ice cream bar. And finally, it became something to do on a boring Friday night just to see what would happen. That is when a lot of folks had “bad” trips.

            All in all, a purpose and a plan are probably better than just randomly walking among your neural pathways.

          • Maia

            Right, I totally agree that setting can guide the general flavor and tendency, but absolutely not determine anything, since there are internal and external variables involved, some of which don’t even exist until “you get there” so to speak and “find out” a hidden fork in the river, a side canyon, a cavern in the rock, etc.

            What you describe has happened with every “drug”…because it not treated “ceremoniously”, with respect and even awe, it becomes a plaything an entertainment. And its power and magic is lost… not forever, but until those who are using such things in that way, grow up and WAKE up.

          • reed1v

            Usually, not always, once the “magic” is lost, it is gone forever. Turning something into a plaything becomes a one way street. Interestingly, Sandy Bull’s guitar music became a cult rage for ceremonial drug trips back in 67-68. Helped folks to just stay put, and thus safe. Nothing worse than an acidhead walking, or worse driving, all over the place.

    • Dan Smith

      Not an original idea. Timothy Leary. “Electric Kool-aid Acid Test.” Ken Kesey. “Acid Graduation”… didn’t work. Besides, there’s a difference between a socially or psychologically compartmentalized brain and a neurophysiologically compartmentalized brain. However, I don’t discourage pursuit of avoiding the former!

      • Maia

        Not talking about what you are assuming!

  • lindsncal

    It’s been a long time but I’ve never felt more connected to the world or alive as when I used LSD.

    The secret, as in most drug use, is the dosage. Even a small amount of acid brings a bright awareness to all your senses without being ‘high’.

    It’s amazing stuff.

    • reed1v

      No that was mescaline. LSD was the buzzy stuff. Mescaline was the love stuff. Although sex on either was one powerful experience. Truly, one goes down the rabbit hole.

      • bric

        LSD can be mellow and contemplative as well, but usually (IMHO) mescaline and psilocybin were smoother and more organic. (Sometimes acid was mixed with speed, too). For me, the synesthesia, the loss of ego, the sense of connectedness, were strong on all three, but acid took me deeper. It formed the basis of my world view. Nice to know the neurological basis of the experience. It doesn’t reduce the subjective experience in the least.

        • reed1v

          Never had a “mellow” trip on acid.

          • lindsncal

            You took too much.

        • Dan Smith

          reed1v seems to think that if it didn’t happen to him a certain way, then it couldn’t have happened to anyone else that way either.

          • reed1v

            You read me wrong. My experience is based on not only my personal experience but being involved with a drug help group where we provided emergency medical intervention, drug analysis, and drug counseling to probably well over 1000 kids. Many had bad experiences(trips) and severe physical reactions to the drugs they were taking.

            People do have very similar reactions and experiences. Maybe the insights are different, or the interpretations they placed on the experiences; but the actual effects are quite uniform.

            We could fairly predict what kind of drug was being used after talking with a kid and observing them after 15 minutes. The psychedelics were the easiest, the paint thinners and speed balls the most difficult.

          • Maia

            People who are having bad trips and calling help lines are not a representative sample of humanity. You are missing the point that several here are trying to point to: experiences are not uniform. They have some overlap, and some are more alike than others, and that is ALL you can legitimately say. Because there is always plenty of “evidence” on the other side(s)…which you deny by implying it isn’t real experience, just an interpretation, while the experience you yourself describe is somehow the REAL thing.

            There’s an important principle here…

          • reed1v

            What the drugs due to the brain are fairly uniform and similar. The areas affected, the chemical impacts on the nerve synapses, and the like are virtually identical for all lsd users. So at the bio-chemical level its all the same, with some unique exceptions that i will not get into here.

            Like our dreams, what we visualize and think about during these drug trips are obviously different. Which is why lsd was thought to be a powerful psychoanalytic tool for psychiatrists.

            In between the dream state and the physiological neural state is the area of body senses and motor coordination impacts. These two area are quite similar as to lsd’s impacts among subjects. The visual kaleidoscope and delayed movements are quite common. The dissolving of closely viewed objects into snake like moving parts also common; and so forth.

            Another area we became curious about was the impact on a person’s perception as to their performance under acid verses their perception afterwards. Again a lot of commonalities. One would expect this. Much like two drunks comparing notes, the drunken state is fairly uniform among drunks except for what they think about and visualize, and thus, unfortunately sometimes, act upon.

          • Maia

            I believe ” a lot of commonalities” is close to what I was saying. Not the same as “uniform”.

      • Dan Smith

        You speak as if each of these substances yields an identical and a predictable effect/experience every time they’re used, no matter who uses them. Widen your focus, my friend.

        • reed1v

          Not identical, but distinctly different. Not sure you can be on acid and not have the buzzing, the herringbone visuals, and the feeling your head is rising upwards. That seems fairly common, or was among a lot of folks i knew here and in europe. Mescaline did not have those interesting effects for me nor for those i knew who used it a lot.

          True, each trip leads to different places; but getting there has somewhat unique and signature properties.

          Love fests were almost always done with mescaline. A very communal drug. Acid made folks too spacy. More an athletic event. Again a common take on the two based on 1960s experiences and a lot of folks’ comparisons of notes back then.

          • Dan Smith

            You’re right. You’re not sure, because you’ve never and will never have anyone else’s acid trip but your own.

          • reed1v

            Well, that pretty much defines solipsism. Yes, that is one belief system. Does not get you very far. Your standpoint applies to everything in life if you are of that persuasion.

          • Maia

            Every experience is like that, actually, not just the ones we are discussing. Playing music, hearing music, eating sapotes, you name it, every experience is to some degree surprising and unpredictable and unique. Be fascinated by that! It’s NOT solipsism.

          • reed1v

            Surprising and unpredictable has nothing to do with the solipsism philosophy. To a large degree we all have the same brains and experience things in very similar if not identical ways. Exceptions excepted. That is why we can communicate and use a common language. Even more so why a shaman can guide someone through a deep peyote experience as if the shaman was inside that person’s head.

          • Maia

            BOTH/AND not either/or is the world we actually live in. Solipsism is thinking that YOUR experience is the only kind there is.

            We communicate in a more complex way than you realize, if you mean by “language” what the word usually means. Merging between people is way more complex than having a common language. A shaman guiding doesn’t have to speak the same language or even speak.

          • reed1v

            Actually solipsism supposes no one has the same experience, or even exists beyond our minds. Obviously reality dictates otherwise. Most, if not all mammals communicate real well and do exhibit the ability to have the same experiences, emotions, and insights. Speaking is but one tool for communicating such.

          • Maia

            I’d say we can have similar experiences, not “the same” and certainly not exactly. Solipsism assumes MY experience is real but everyone else is an experience of mine, so to speak, because the world “out there” is not real. Somebody though to disprove this by kicking a stone! But I am not saying any of that. I am saying that there is no complete overlap, that each being’s experience is similar in some ways AND unique to itself. Through this nexus of “similar but unique” we humans try to communicate. . .

            A minor example: none of us here defines (experiences) words in the same way. We start off assuming X means Y plus R…and realize that to another X means U plus Y plus Rg…and to yet another X means R minus Y plus Z, or whatever…ad infinitum. Sometimes it seems we’ve hit on exactly similar experiences or definitions and it’s thrilling. But. I don’t how many times I’ve thought that was the case, only to find out later…no. Which is okay. The living is in the creative attempt to communicate…more and more overlap as we get to know each other…but the territory always turns out to be…virtually infinite.

          • reed1v

            Sometime try this experiment. Get a group of people, 7 or more, the more the better. Have them sit on the floor in a circle so they are shoulder to shoulder with each other. Have them put their arms over the next person’s shoulder(so right arm over the person to your right and left arm over the person to your left. Now play some slow but rhythmic instrumental music(indian music is good). Should be music that one wants to sway to. Have the circle start leaning to the right, and then to the left, and then keep up that movement until it moves to the beat of the music. Fast or slow is ok. A bit fast probably best.

            What will happen is each person will start to feel their body move without any self effort. Effortless movement. They will start to feel an out of the body experience, almost as if they were part of one mind with all these separate bodies attached to it. Quite an experience. No drugs needed. Eventually someone will freak out and stop the process. That is ok. Just a glimpse of that reality will stay with those people for the rest of their lives. Enjoy.

          • Maia

            :) Done similar things, but not exactly this one and I definitely look forward to trying it. In fact, I have an occasion in mind!

          • reed1v

            Its an old therapy technique for groups; was used in what was called t-groups back in the dark ages. Think t-groups are long gone. Also used in Sufi “dancing” and is common in a lot of tribal cultures, most of which are also long gone.

            The world has lost so much diversity in recent times; it’s frightening to think how humans have enslaved themselves to a monotheistic viewpoint about life. Hopefully there will be isolated islands where such traditions and knowledge will be preserved for distant generations to discover anew. Much like the Irish did for western civilization during the barbarian onslaughts.

          • Maia

            This connects closely with your commen above. “Neurobiologist Andrew R. Gallimore suggests that while DMT might not

            have a modern neural function, it may have been an ancestral

            neuromodulator once secreted in psychedelic concentrations during REM

            sleep – a function now lost.”

            I was just thinking about the other-worldly experiences in Irish folklore…Happen to have that heritage, but the tradition of such is nigh-well universal. The ones who carry this kind of knowledge, those who remember the “talking plants”, etc are always few it seems, but always around.

          • reed1v

            Do not forget leprechauns and other tiny forest folks. Moldy bread can produce an ergot that is very similar to lsd and may in fact be the root to a lot of the olden folklores of yore. Or maybe they really exist. In the quantum universe, anything can exist, or not exist, or….

          • Maia

            Yes, I’ve thought that and read about that, too. Makes sense because those stories are all over the planet. Each culture seems to have discovered plants (or mushrooms/fungi etc) that enhanced their already exiting cultural gifts.

            But what about this modern or post-modern culture we find ourselves in? The sixties was a moment in that new and also ancient direction, but that got shut down…

          • reed1v

            Correct you are. Flower power replaced by the power of greed. Strange that most of the peaceful cultures have been eradicated from the earth over the past 50 years: Replaced with Coke bottling plants and cavities.

          • Maia

            Btw, DMT like all the other psychedelics is apparently endogenously produced in the human body, not only plants. Which could explain a whole lot of things where ingestion is not needed.

            I have practiced zikr…but we did it in a line, not a circle. I like your circle much better. I was also in t-groups a long time back, but we did not do ceremony, just talked. Which is why I quit… for more ceremonial endeavors.

          • reed1v

            Talk seldom has any lasting impact. Touching does.

      • lindsncal

        Nope…it was LSD.

        MDMA was the love stuff and I think it’s what they call ecstasy today.

        • reed1v

          Mdma was not around, or not used much in the 60s. Psilocybin and mescaline were the groupie choice back then. Never heard of folks trying to get it on with lsd as a group. Too unpredictable. Between here, NYC, amsterdam, and london that was the “culture” and attitude about acid vs. the others.

          • lindsncal

            Maybe it wasn’t around wherever you were but it was in my world.

            I spent 67 to 69 in Europe, by the way, and after that in the music business in L A but much of what you say is correct.

            LSD is not unpredictable. It’s about dosage and being sensible to achieve what you want from it.

          • reed1v

            If you were around then, and did what you imply, you would know that no one, outside of maybe Stanley, had any idea what dosage they were taking. Totally random. Swallow a piece of paper, drop a tablet, crack open a capsule and whatever; it was truly a lottery as to dosage.

          • lindsncal

            Not if one uses their brain.

            I’d test the smallest amount, then more, if needed, etc, to find the perfect dose of any new purchase.

          • reed1v

            Strange you had that ability. Most did not. A tiny blot on paper could be not much or two orders of magnitude more in dosage. We tested a lot of blotter drops in the early 70s and found the dosage range went from almost no effect (5 mics) to hospitalization (2000 mics). Same drop spread. Even Stanley’s purples were not uniform in dosage.

          • lindsncal

            It was trial and error, a magnifier and a razor blade.

            I never had a problem with uniformity. Only once did I make the mistake of …took some, felt nothing, took a little more, felt nothing, took a little more and wow.

          • reed1v

            You were a rare exception.

    • Maia

      That’s what I was referring to in my other comment: being deeply connected to the world and so much more alive. This is a state of consciousness that does not need to be dependent upon psychedelic substances ingested. It’s right there in the brain. Literally. All the time. The brain makes its own psychedelic substances like anandamine and LSD like, cannabis-like substances and many more, plus the connections between “compartments” already exist, though possibly they need to be strengthened. What is not “used”…you know the saying. We don’t have to lose it all, Maybe we can’t have it all, either, but we as adults CAN have SOME of that naturally paradisaical condition most of us knew as young children …then sadly got conditioned out of.

      • Dan Smith

        Endocannabinoid is the word you’re looking for, which describes the actual system of reception and neurotransmission in our brains regarding cannabinoids—cannabinoid receptors and neurotransmitters—including the natural neurophysiological creation of cannabinoids. The same thing occurs with opioids, dopamine, serotonin (triggered by tryptamines [e.g. 5-MeO-DMT], LSD, MDMA, etc.), GABA, and so on.

        You ought to look into research on DMT that hypothesizes its stimulation of the pineal gland—a tiny gland in the brain that René Descartes believed was the doorway to the afterlife (I’m paraphrasing). Researchers and subjects alike tend to believe this is why DMT has such an otherworldly impact on its users.

        • Maia

          Yes, I am aware of all that, but appreciate your laying it out more precisely! We could not be tripped, so to speak, by plant or drug if we did not have some similar receptors already. I have done some research on DMT and pineal. Do you feel this one is different in some important way, ie the pineal connection? Other ways?

          I’ve spend a lot of years on ways to release the endo-substances and expand connections between erstwhile “compartments” …for many reasons, in the long run, it’s been a better route for me.

          It’s relationship between the person and the substance that leads to a different experience, though many are influenced stongly by what they have learned to expect, etc This is true outside of tripping, too, of course, but we usually don’t take notice, and make assumptions which become reinforced/molded into beliefs, thus limiting our own experience. Which is internalizing our cultural conditioning…

          Ironic since people try these things in order to expand their psyche/spirit (literally ie, “delia”) and yet can end up doing the opposite and then projecting onto the substance all of the power of the experience.

        • Maia

          I thought Descartes said the pineal was the connection point between matter/body and the soul. Anyway, he also said some lame things, eg animals being nothing but machines, and the like.

          I did read some more on DMT, today, fascinating. It’s endogenously produced and there is a possibility it is involved in visual dreaming and near-death experience, no ingestion necessary. Have you ever had a vivid lucid dream? You might see the similarity there.

    • Maia

      There’s a lot more involved than “dosage”, that is only one parameter of a rich nexus of experience possible What you describe as that magical brightness to our senses doesn’t ultimately depend on ingesting LSD et al.

      • lindsncal

        “What you describe as that magical brightness to our senses doesn’t ultimately depend on ingesting LSD”

        Strange…it certainly worked that way. I understand what you’re saying but when used as an enhancement or to stimulate what we already have, but nearly impossible to reach, it works wonders.

        • Maia

          I didn’t mean to imply what you experienced wasn’t true! I am trying to say that kind of experience is not necessarily dependent on ingesting any powerful chemicals, natural or otherwise. That’s not a put down to your experience, sorry if it sounds like that. It is so hard to communicate experiential subtleties, because, in spite of what some think, verbal language is a rough instrument, especially when it’s just text on a page without the other dimensions!

          • lindsncal

            Thanks for a rare polite and intelligent response in this age of idiocy, hate and negativity.

  • reed1v

    Which explains why we were listening to colors, seeing music, and smelling ideas. Miss the 60s, except for the stinking feet.

  • http://batman-news.com Darka Watters

    The guided trip is better if you center yourself in God. He will show you many things you could not see from earth. Just don’t forget to come back. Once you get there it is so beautiful you won’t want to come back!

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