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.
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.”
Myth two: LSD can be used as a truth serum
It is often reported that one of the major goals of MKULTRA was to use LSD as a truth serum, in order to extract secrets from captured enemies. Although this ultimately proved not to be the case, recent studies have shown that LSD does enhance “suggestibility”, as users’ minds become more malleable and open to manipulation.
By skillfully tinkering with set and setting, some researchers believe LSD could be used as a powerful adjunct in psychotherapy, enabling therapists to harness this increased suggestibility in order to help patients alter their mindset regarding certain issues.
Myth three: LSD kills brain cells
“This is your brain on drugs,” declared a now iconic US anti-drugs advertising campaign in the 1980s, accompanied by an egg being fried in a pan. While many drugs do indeed harm brain cells, a growing number of prominent neuroscientists believe LSD should not be placed into this category.
“The whole of America was conditioned with the image of the brain being fried by LSD and other psychoactive substances,” says Feilding. “That was a brilliant advertising image but it’s completely not based on reality. There’s absolutely no evidence that [acid] kills brain cells.”
Naturally, however, LSD should always be taken with caution and should not be automatically considered harmless, as very little research exists regarding the long-term effects of taking large doses.
Regardless, LSD jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire in 1970, when the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) classified it as a Schedule I substance, implying that it has a high potential for abuse and no therapeutic value.
At the time, people across the US were experimenting with LSD and developing a distaste for violence and a sense of rebellion, which didn’t suit the agenda of a government that needed soldiers for its disastrous campaign in Vietnam. In response, the establishment began to make a series of unscientific and occasionally outrageous claims about the dangers of LSD, using the front pages of newspapers as a weapon against those who endorsed the drug.
Newspapers became a weapon against LSD in the 1960s. Source unknown
Myth four: LSD gives you more brain cells
Fighting fire with fire, supporters of LSD have responded to the militancy of anti-drug campaigners with some unscientific claims of their own. For instance, after a few small-scale studies began to indicate that psychedelics can increase creative thinking and treat depression, rumors emerged that acid and other similar drugs cause neurogenesis – or the birth of new brain cells.
Though there is no evidence that taking LSD has this effect, a recent study did reveal that some compounds found in a psychoactive Amazonian brew called ayahuasca can stimulate stem cells to develop into neurons when placed together in a petri dish. “Our research hasn’t shown that LSD causes neuroregenesis, but the beginning of our research with ayahuasca has shown that,” says Feilding. “We’ve only done it in a dish, we haven’t done it in vivo… although I’m very much wanting to do it with LSD as well, because I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we get the same results.”
At present, there is no evidence that taking LSD directly destroys or creates new brain cells. Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock
LSD: poison or medicine?
Earlier this year, scientists imaged the brain on LSD for the first time, discovering that it weakens connectivity in a brain network called the default mode network (DMN), which is associated with maintaining a sense of self. This explains why taking acid often leads to a sense of “ego dissolution”. At the same time, LSD produces a more “entropic” pattern of neural activity, increasing communication between brain regions that are normally highly segregated.
Psychotherapists have successfully harnessed these effects, using psychedelics to help patients break down their rigid thought processes and overcome issues like depression and alcoholism. At the same time, the enriched brain activity produced by these substances has been found in numerous studies to increase users’ capacity for creative thinking. Amazingly, biochemist Kary Mullis says taking psychedelic drugs helped him envisage the polymerase chain reaction, for which he won the Nobel Prize. LSD microdosing has also become a phenomenon in Silicon Valley, where it is believed to increase productivity.
However, the effects of LSD can also be frightening and potentially dangerous when the set and setting are not appropriate. As Feilding explains, “when you take acid you’ve got simultaneous function in many more areas of the brain, and that can produce those ‘aha’ moments of creativity, but also when it gets out of control or gets into a negative slant it can produce paranoia.”
Imaging studies revealed how LSD (left) increases connectivity between brain regions that do not communicate with each other under normal conditions (right). Beckley/Imperial Research Program