LSD-bunked: How Research Is Finally Separating The Facts From The Myths Surrounding Acid

LSD fueled a countercultural revolution in the 1960s, but is now becoming the subject of genuine scientific research. An Vino/Shutterstock

Ben Taub 18 Aug 2016, 11:21

LSD has had a colorful history since its accidental discovery by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann. Cycling around the picturesque city of Basel while experiencing the world’s first acid trip in 1943, he could hardly have imagined that his “problem child” would soon fuel a countercultural revolution. However, with the 60s now a fading memory and LSD firmly outlawed, opportunities for proper scientific research into the drug’s effects have been severely restricted, opening up an information black hole that has largely been filled with myths and hearsay.

Yet as the moratorium on LSD research begins to thaw, scientists are finally starting to dispel some widely believed misnomers regarding acid.

Myth one: LSD causes psychosis

In the early days of psychedelic research, neuroscientists believed drugs like LSD were psychotomimetic, meaning they induce psychosis. This theory inspired the CIA’s infamous Project MKULTRA in the 1950s, which involved spiking unwitting civilians with acid in order to observe its effects, with a view to using it as a weapon against the Soviets during the Cold War. The shocking outcome of these reckless experiments gave rise to much of the folklore surrounding LSD.

For example, most people have heard the story of the guy who took acid, went mad, and jumped out the window thinking he could fly. Though it’s possible someone might actually have done this, the historical protagonist of this tale is American scientist Frank Olson, who fell to his death from a hotel balcony in 1953. Several days previously, he had unknowingly been dosed with LSD by MKULTRA agents, and while his death was officially ruled a suicide, many believe he was actually pushed.

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Acid is traditionally taken on a sugar cube, although the CIA used much sneakier methods of supplying LSD to unwitting civilians as part of the MKULTRA program. mikeledray/Shutterstock

Regardless of what caused Olson’s death, researchers soon abandoned the psychotomimetic theory after discovering that LSD does not in fact cause madness. Interestingly, though, a recent study conducted as part of the Beckley/Imperial research program found that the acute effects of acid do indeed mirror certain elements of psychosis – such as delusional thought and a fragmented sense of self – although these soon give way to longer-term positive effects like elevated mood and positivity.

In light of this, Beckley Foundation founder and director Amanda Feilding told IFLScience that “there is absolutely a truth in the fact that LSD – particularly in larger doses – can be a very frightening experience, because there is a similarity to the characteristics of insanity in the ego dissolution.”

However, by no means does this mean that the drug can make you jump out of a window. Instead, it is widely accepted that the experiential effects of all psychedelics are largely determined by “set and setting”. “Set”, in this context, refers to the mental and emotional state of the user, while “setting” indicates the actual surroundings in which a drug is taken. As such, Feilding warns that “when used inappropriately, LSD can be dangerous.”

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