What Happens to the Brain When We Take LSD? Is “Tripping” an Illusion?
Studies show that psychedelic experiences (complex hallucinations often associated with LSD) aren’t “illusions” (tricks of the drug) but are rather the result of many areas of the brain communicating at once. This subtle but important difference shown by recent studies hints that psychedelic drugs like LSD, DMT, psilocybin, and lesser known compounds and substances, may have unstudied benefits (especially regarding mental health, when used in a clinical setting in conjunction with counseling).
LSD Brain Scan Reveals Stunning Info.
TIP: This page is on the science and study of psychedelics. See our page on “what is tripping?” for the metaphysics of psychedelics.
An Overview of the Effects of Psychedelic Experiences and the 2016 Study on What LSD Does the the Brain
According to a recent study by the Imperial College London, LSD caused many areas of the brain to become active and work together while other areas that normally worked together decreased in function. Instead of just the visual cortex processing visual information, many areas decided to join in the process.
This hints that psychedelic experiences from LSD (and other hallucinogens) might contribute to loosing a sense of self over time, but it also implies that what is happening is a function of the mind (in an altered state of expanded consciousness), and not just a smoke and mirror illusion induced by the drug. This isn’t to say there is no hallucination. The hallucinations are more than just a side-effect of the drug.
With the above in mind, and keeping in mind this is also partially a matter of semantics regarding the word “illusion”, it seems an old insight into the usefulness of LSD has been re-confirmed by science, and some of the old propaganda debunked. The scientific results are not yet there, as this is only one of a few tests done publicly since research was banned in the 60’s. Comment with your thoughts below.
Below we clarify the difference between illusion and perception, explain tripping, and then explain the study and the ongoing research into the health benefits of LSD (especially for things like PTSD and depression where the risk/reward makes sense).
What Does LSD Do To Your Brain? – Brit Lab.
TIP: This page is about the history of LSD research, the difference between perception and illusion, and the findings of the recent study from the Imperial London College’s Department of Medicine “Neural correlates of the LSD experience revealed by multimodal neuroimaging“. See a writeup from Nature.com.
Does LSD Make You Lose Your Sense of Self? “Hang on to your ego,” said Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys after hanging out with Charles Manson and taking acid. This was sound advice. It seems that LSD may make you lose your sense of self, potentially making you more empathic to out-groups and less selfish. We can see how this, in an extreme, could work against our overarching goals as a society. As with all things, the answer is balance.
The History of LSD, LBJ, USA, FBI, CIA, and Long Hair. The 60’s and early 70’s may look good on paper, but the Nixon Administration, J. Edgar Hoover, and even at one point Elvis and the Duke were a little weary of the hippy uprising after the campus protests, LBJ’s sweeping Civil Rights legislation, and the rise of Rock and Roll and the drug culture. These were seen as a threat by those with both far-right and center-right conservative principles trying to steady the boat (an effort not without merit, but not without casualties and causalities). It is likely that some effects of LSD have been long known, but have been held back from the public. Dissolving one’s ego and tripping in fields while marching against Vietnam was not viewed as a legitimate pathway to being the world’s superpower (go figure, right? Alcohol has been long proven good for morale, LSD, not so much). All things considered, that was then and this is now, I think we can look at the past with understanding while making better choices for today. I’m not advocating legalizing LSD, Molly, or other mind and emotion expanding drugs, but I think recent research and some hindsight clearly points to the need for questioning the science behind experiments and exploring health benefits (especially mental health benefits in a clinical setting). LSD might not be good for a solider on the field, but it may have merit after their tour is over.
Psychedelics – What is the Difference Between Perception and Illusion?
If David Copperfield tricking our senses with a magic trick is an illusion, and if when we look at an apple tree and see an apple tree it is perception, then when we take LSD and see that the apple tree is alive, we have an experience between illusion and perception (an apple tree is literally alive, think “how cell-based lifeforms work“).
Under normal conditions, with regular optics, we are using our optical sensors and brain’s processing power to create a composite image of an apple tree in our mind (we take two upside down screen grabs of the matrixes of quantum particles that form the apple tree, which we can see because its surfaces reflect photons in the shape of apple tree, and our brain flips them into a single composite image, see “what is sight“).
When we “trip”, the same thing is happening with our eyes and the apple tree, but more parts of the brain are contributing to the composite image (which is why things get strange).
Whether or not we define that perception as an illusion or as useful information is a question that is hard to answer. Recent studies have indicated that these perceptions are not “a trick” in the general sense of the term, where illusion or trick implies “being fake” and “not being useful”.
Given recent research (which looked at brain activity under LSD, explained below) it is likely that psychedelic experiences allow us to perceive more aspects of reality than we could otherwise, but defining the line between useful data and illusion is impossible without further empirical testing. Considering that LSD is a schedule 1 drug, this poses a problem. The most recent study marks the first time a study was done on LSD since the drug was made illegal to the public (including the science community).
All signs point to psychedelic experience being best categorized as “not an illusion”. An illusion implies trickery. Trickery does not seem to provide an adequate description based on recent research, which shows its effects on the brain, and other research which shows its mental health benefits for therapy. There is no video showing the recent research, but we have compiled videos from scientists who worked on the recent study and included highlights from the study below.
WALACEA crowdfunding video for Worlds first LSD Brain Imaging Study. This video was from a now closed crowd funding campaign on WALACEA for the research presented below.
TIP: To understand this line of reasoning it is helpful to understand the human senses, sensory memory processing, and neuroplasticity. This is different than illusion or mentalism, which tricks us by exploiting flaws in our perception and attention.
The 2016 Study on LSD and the Brain
In a series of experiments were done on the biological affects of LSD in 2016 and the results were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)
The team administered LSD (Lysergic acid diethylamide) to 20 healthy volunteers in a specialist research center and used various leading-edge and complementary brain scanning techniques to visualize how LSD alters the way the brain works.
Normally information from our eyes is processed in the visual cortex. However, when the volunteers took LSD, many additional brain areas, including the visual cortex, contributed to visual processing. This was especially true when participants shut their eyes.
How do psychedelic drugs work on the brain? – Imperial College London.
Interview on Neural correlates of the LSD experience revealed by Multimodal Neuro-imaging
An article The brain on LSD revealed: first scans show how the drug affects the brain, from the Imperial London College, includes an interview with Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial, who led the research. She says:
“We observed brain changes under LSD that suggested our volunteers were ‘seeing with their eyes shut’ – albeit they were seeing things from their imagination rather than from the outside world. We saw that many more areas of the brain than normal were contributing to visual processing under LSD – even though the volunteers’ eyes were closed. Furthermore, the size of this effect correlated with volunteers’ ratings of complex, dreamlike visions. ”
…”Normally our brain consists of independent networks that perform separate specialized functions, such as vision, movement and hearing – as well as more complex things like attention. However, under LSD the separateness of these networks breaks down and instead you see a more integrated or unified brain.”
…”Our results suggest that this effect underlies the profound altered state of consciousness that people often describe during an LSD experience. It is also related to what people sometimes call ‘ego-dissolution’, which means the normal sense of self is broken down and replaced by a sense of re-connection with themselves, others and the natural world. This experience is sometimes framed in a religious or spiritual way – and seems to be associated with improvements in well-being after the drug’s effects have subsided.”
…”Our brains become more constrained and compartmentalized as we develop from infancy into adulthood, and we may become more focused and rigid in our thinking as we mature. In many ways, the brain in the LSD state resembles the state our brains were in when we were infants: free and unconstrained. This also makes sense when we consider the hyper-emotional and imaginative nature of an infant’s mind.”
LSD Neuroscience – David E. Nichols. LSD studies before the first human tests in modern times were run.
Reconsidering the War on Drugs
In other words, just as a shaman or hippy would have told Nixon had he asked before starting the War on Drugs, LSD seems to have properties that lead to extra sensory perception that could be valuable to neurosciences and other fields of medicine.
Still, like any drug, be it legal or illicit, there are dangers and side-effects (although there has been “No link found between psychedelics and psychosis” for instance). The gripe isn’t over a nation treating drug use with care, it is over imprisonment on the taxpayer dollar, the side-effects of fueling the illegal drug trade, and the restrictions to science that goes along with the war.
The science is still out as to the exact mechanics of LSD, psychedelic experiences and the brain. But if we don’t embrace the idea of reform, the science may just stay out for ever.
Is LSD Really That Dangerous?. Is the war on drugs about protecting people? Or is it a money grab spurred on by the changing culture of the 60’s and Civil rights?
TIP: It’s hard to find addiction treatment for LSD, because you know, it isn’t addictive. With that said, any drug can be dangerous and deserves a call to “get help with addiction now“.