Clinical research with psychedelics is currently undergoing a major revival after having been brought to a halt in the 1960s. One of the benefits of conducting research into psychedelics is their potential to help deepen our understanding of consciousness. In 2016, researchers from Imperial College London were the first to use brain scanning techniques to visualise how LSD alters the way the brain works. One key finding was that LSD had a disorganising influence on cortical activity, which permitted the brain to operate in a freer, less constrained manner than usual.
The results suggested that psychedelics increase communication between parts of the brain that are less likely to communicate with one another, and decrease communication between areas that frequently do. This likely 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”, in which the normal sense of self is broken down. People instead often report a sense of reconnection with themselves, others and the natural world.
In a small pilot study, LSD in combination with psychological therapy also led to a slight improvement in anxiety experienced by terminally ill cancer patients. Many of these psychiatric disorders are characterised by inflexible, habitual patterns of brain activity. By introducing a disordered state of mind, LSD and other psychedelics may help to break these inflexible patterns.
Similarly, the unconstrained brain state induced by psychedelics may also help explain the reported increases in creativity. From the late 1950s until the early 1970s, a whole host of studies sought to determine if classic psychedelics could be useful for enhancing creativity. In the most notable of these studies, researchers found that LSD and mescaline could aid in creative problem-solving when used in carefully controlled settings.
However, while these studies do provide some insight, they are mere anecdotal by modern research standards (they were not double blind or placebo-controlled). A more recent study found that use of classic psychedelics was robustly associated with greater creative problem-solving ability. Enhancing creativity has many potential applications in society. For example, it could be both used by commercial industry including advertising and in clinical settings, such as helping patients with autism.