JUST HOW DOES LSD affect human consciousness? This question has puzzled users and investigators for more than seventy years. Personally, I have been more amazed and filled with joy wonder awe at the Universe/Void/God than puzzled by the how of these things. And that seems to be a defining difference between the experienced and the non-experienced in the world of LSD and any and all things psychedelic. 1
But the question of how it does what it does—and my-oh-my, what it does when it does it!—seems to have the most meaning to those who have not done it. Speaking of which, this essay was sparked by a headline from a recent AlterNet newsletter: “How LSD Affects Your Consciousness.”
It is sub-titled, “New research may be opening the way to the use of LSD in studying psychosis, as well as in the treatment of addictions and depression.”
Take me on a trip upon your magic swirling ship, I’m ready to go anywhere.
It was written by Ali Venosa (Medical Daily on December 11, 2015) and concerned research by Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris at Imperial College London. What caught my attention was on the word psychoses. I shuddered at seeing it (“Not that crap again!”), and so I had to address the issue and its connection to that word and its meaning.
What I am addressing here is the article as written by Ms. Venosa—not the actual work or report of the researchers. That is, I am addressing the information that is being relayed to us citizens via the media. Here “media” includes a reasonably popular website that dispenses news that one does not generally find on the mainstream corporate media. 2
This is a quick response: I am NOT spending hours researching the sources. The only source that matters here is the Venosa article. And I will focus on a few loaded words in the article, notably psychosis, hallucination, and intoxication. 3
Life magazine may have most accurately represented the tastes and interests of white middle-class Americans in the 1960s among nationally published periodicals. The March 25, 1966, issue featured an interesting cover image for an article disturbingly titled, “The Exploding Threat Of The Mind Drug That Got Out Of Control.” It is cover-dated around the same time that the Byrds fired the psychedelic shot heard ’round the world with the release of Eight Miles Hugh.
Connectivity would be increased
The article starts out innocuous enough regarding LSD, noting “it’s unclear how these pharmacological effects translate into such a significant change in consciousness.”
“A new report suggested that LSD reduces the connectivity within brain networks—basically, the extent to which neurons within a network can fire simultaneously. It also showed that LSD seems to reduce how much separate brain networks remain unique in their patterns or synchronization of firing.”
While that seems at odds with the LSD experience—meaning that one would assume that connectivity would be increased—the tone of the article is still neutral. And what do I know, right?
The researchers used both functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and magnetoenchalography (MEG) and showed that LSD led to a chaotic brain state not dissimilar to what is seen in a certain stage of psychosis.
It got bad here. First, the word magnetoenchalography was new to me: type it into Wikipedia and you will be told that it does not exist, even though there are 178 entries. So I typed in “MEG” and was steered to another new word, magnetoencephalography.
So, are there two forms of MEG?
I don’t know.
Or did the writer misspell a word and not do any research?
I don’t know.
Second, the investigation of LSD as a psychotomimetic was dropped decades ago. Clinicians deciding that a person on LSD as having a psychotic episode was determined to have been caused by the conditions under which the experiments of the 1950s and ’60s were carried out. The tripper was essentially a lab rat in a state of enforced anxiety. (But that’s a whole other trip for a whole other time.) 4
The April 29, 1966, issue of Life magazine was graced with a cover photo of Julie Christie. It contained a brief editorial titled “LSD: Control, Not Prohibition,” a welcome respite from the emotional brouhaha of misinformation making the rounds of the print media at the time. (And this is an incredibly unflattering photo of the incredibly lovely Ms. Christie.)
A model for psychosis research?
At this point, I went to the source—the Medical Daily website—but it was the same article by the same writer. So back to Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris and his Imperial College cohorts:
“The team found a potential explanation for the hallucinations and distortions that are so common in LSD intoxication—blood flow in the visual cortex at the back of the brain. The MEG picked up a change in brain oscillations as well, specifically a decrease in alpha waves across the brain. These changes were highly correlated with visual hallucinations, suggesting that while under the influence of LSD, the visual system is tethered more to the internal than external world.”
I can’t remember the last time I heard the term “LSD intoxication” used in popular print. Seeing it again is a scary sign, and probably indicates that the writer is also non-experienced.
“LSD may be able to provide a helpful model of human psychosis, since it leads to changes in the brain network that overlap with the prodromal (the first) phase of psychosis.”
Okay, interesting but scary if what the researchers are seeing—again—is LSD and the psychedelic experience as miming a psychotic episode. Not so scary if they are only referring to observable similarities in brain behavior.
According to Dr. Carhart-Harris, “With better assessment tools available today than in the 1950s and 1960s, it may be possible to evaluate potential uses of LSD as a treatment for addiction and other disorders, such as treatment-resistant depression.”
This has been known among researchers and shrinks for decades. The work of Timothy Leary with felons may be anecdotal, but the work of Oscar Janiger is not.
The September 9, 1966 issue of Life (above) featured a look at psychedelia in the art world. It featured a cover image that looked like it may have served as the inspiration for Stanley Kubrick’s horrific vision of Alex’s rehabilitation in his 1971 movie adaptation of Anthony Burgess’s dystopic 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange. 5
Do dolphins have consciousness?
Just how LSD affects human consciousness (as differentiated from, say, dolphin consciousness, or ET’s) has puzzled users and investigators for more than seventy years. But the question of how it does what it does takes on new meaning after you have done it several times—and especially if you reach what Masters and Houston termed the fourth, or integral, level of psychedelic experience. 6
Alas, many of the people who have worked with LSD as scientists and doctors and psychologists have never done LSD.
When these people talk about LSD and its effects, they are absolutely clueless about their topic. Even if they’re bloody “experts”! I have likened explaining the psychedelic experience to a non-experienced person to explaining making love to a virgin.
It’s scary that researchers are once again seeing the psychedelic experience as miming a psychotic episode.
When non-experienced people talk about psychedelics, two topics always arise: hallucinations and bad trips.
Most of us use the word hallucination to mean seeing something that isn’t there. By “seeing something” most of us mean with our eyes open! And very little happens while tripping with your eyes open that qualifies as hallucinatory. 7
Of course, once you close your eyes while tripping, things do appear on the backsides of your eyelids that words can’t begin to describe.
For a very interesting take on human consciousness, read Terence McKenna’s Archaic Revival. There he makes a case for its development being triggered by our ancestors’ developing a taste for psilocybin mushrooms discovered while foraging for more nourishing foodstuffs.
What a bummer, man
As for bad trips: the only large-scale experimentation of LSD’s effects using healthy (apparently emotionally balanced) volunteers in a real scientific setting was done by Dr. Sidney Cohen in the early ’60s. Hundreds of subjects underwent thousands of trips; negative experiences were registered less than 2% of the time. 8
The “scientific method” involves observation, ratiocination, theorizing, experimentation, and duplication. It also involves predictability: even if your experiment “proves” something to be so, if you can’t use it to make obvious predictions (“If I drop two identical objects from the same height at the same time, they will reach the ground at the same time”), then something is NOT correct and you have to go back to the drawing board.
That said, I can’t think of a single warning about LSD use that came from the non-experienced critics and doomsayers in the past seventy that has ever come true. There is no meaningful physical damage associated with LSD. Not only is it not addictive, but serial users tend to discretely indulge with long stretches of time in between trips.
There is also no meaningful psychological damage associated with LSD—unless you take some heavy emotional baggage on your voyage.
Capitol’s now-legendary documentary album LSD borders on black comedy. In places, it’s funnier than the Firesign Theater because it doesn’t attempt to be anything but “real.” Listening to this album while tripping was a regular event for my acid-using friends for years afterward. Note that the album’s primary medical consultant was Dr. Sidney Cohen. 9
How does LSD affect consciousness?
No one knows. My assumption is that until science fully understands human consciousness, we may never fully grok (look it up!) how LSD works and what is the nature of the psychedelic experience. For science to fully understand human consciousness, it may require knowing whether or not the soul exists. This means that science may perforce have to study the alleged mystical/religious aspects of the psychedelic experience.
So, at this point in time, your local sham shaman may have a better idea than the finest scientific minds in the world as to just how LSD affects your consciousness …
HEADER IMAGE: This is the featured image on the Medical Daily website for their article, “LSD Effects Are Similar To The First Stage Of Psychosis, Could Provide Model For Research.” I have done acid more times than I can count and I have never had an experience like this. I assumed that the artist was non-experienced and had looked to Hollywood for inspiration, as this piece looks like E.T. Meets Avatar.
The image is by Okan Caliskan for Pixabay. Titled “Forest Abstract,” it could be about anything—including meeting aliens in the dead of night neath a canopy of leaves.
1 I use the term experienced as a reference to Jimi Hendrix’s song Are You Experienced, from the 1967 album of the same name. There, the singer may be heard attempting to seduce some sweet young thing into making love: “Are you experienced? Have you ever been experienced? Well, I have.” Or he can be heard to be suggesting that the listener turns on, tunes in, and drops out.
2 I am claiming NO authority here! My qualifications here are slim: aside from being on intimate terms with LSD, I have read hundreds of books and articles on it and related areas of concern over the past forty years.
3 The media of the past—mostly magazines and books—has done a remarkably good job of disseminating massive amounts of misinformation about LSD. It was a common topic of this media in 1966 and most of what was written was borderline nonsense. I am hoping the Internet media does a better job.
4 A psychotomimetic drug mimics the symptoms of psychosis, including delusions and/or delirium, as opposed to mere dime-a-dozen hallucinations.
5 Wudda coincidence: why just this morning at our Saturday morning coffee klatch, Looney asked each of us, “What science fiction movie had the greatest impact on you?” My answer was easy: “Not counting the stuff I saw as a kid, A Clockwork Orange—with 2001: A Space Odyssey a close second.”
6 This is hilarious (and ironic?): I went to the Goodreads website to copy the link to their page for Robert Masters and Jean Houston’s book Psychedelic Art and found there was no real description of the book. Nor were there any reviews from readers. So, of course, I posted a review:
“The best book (the only book?) book on psychedelic art before the term engulfed a world of art that didn’t exist in 1967. Fascinating text that accompanies fascinating art—with very little of the high-tech/high polish that many associate with modern psychedelic art.
Masters and Houston also break the psychedelic experience into four levels—the “deepest” being the fourth, or integral, level where mystical or religious experiences occur. That alone makes this book a great place for a beginning researcher into the psychedelic experience to start reading. Note that the levels of experience really only make sense after you have tripped more than a few times.”
So now I am using my Goodreads review as a reference here in my article! Ain’t the literary life grand?
7 As dedicated users and researchers came to grasp with the implications of what was happening during the psychedelic experience, alternative terms for the experience were coined to move it away from the clinicians. Newly coined terms included psychoactive and entheogen. The former should be self-explanatory; the latter is more recent and more interesting: entheogen means “generating the divine within,” and refers to “a chemical substance used in a religious, shamanic, or spiritual context that may be synthesized or obtained from natural species. The chemical induces altered states of consciousness, psychological or physiological.” (Wikipedia)
8 “Cohen’s 1960 study of LSD effects concluded that the drug was safe if given in a supervised medical setting, but by 1962 his concern about popularization, non-medical use, black-market LSD, and patients harmed by the drug led him to warn that the spread of LSD was dangerous.” (LSD Before Leary)
9 “Capitol Records’ LSD is in two parts: The Scene, examining the attitudes of the youthful acid trippers, and The Trip, which looks at the acid experience itself. Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, and Sidney Cohen offer expert testimony. Side two apparently features a 5-minute recording of a bad trip to balance the proselytizing elsewhere. Discogs shows the interior art which typically depicts the trippers as looking far more freaked out than people usually do on these occasions. The drug that regularly turns people into mewling, puking, unhinged maniacs is called alcohol.” (feuilleton)