LSD and the Mind

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Chapter 2
LSD and the Mind

How LSD affects a person's mind can vary widely. Many people who have taken LSD claim it is a mind-expanding drug that produces feelings of euphoria or intense happiness while increasing awareness and understanding of life. Others feel quite the contrary and have reported experiencing extremely negative emotions such as fear and anxiety and overall unpleasant experiences.

Clearly, the LSD user's experience is characterized by heightened feelings and emotions. In an article in Process Studies, Dr. Leonard Gibson noted that, whether the experience is good or bad, "everything seems to take on deeper significance, a myriad of meaning unlock in each individual thing. Events brim over with significance."10

Since the 1960s, the broad experiences produced by LSD have been called a "trip," like "drunk" is used to describe the overall effects of alcohol. The term comes from LSD's long duration in the body, which can typically last up to twelve hours. It also relates to the powerful mental experience people have while under the influence of LSD, which includes a drastic change in their overall perception of the world. In this sense, the LSD user has taken a trip to another world. Beyond these basics, no two trips are exactly the same.


The most notable features of a trip are the sensory and perceptual changes a person experiences. In addition to visual disturbances such as flashing colors, LSD often produces visions or illusions that appear to be real. While the overall hallucinations may seem unbelievable, these visions are usually based on something real. For example, an LSD user could believe she is having a conversation with her pet. According to researcher Leigh A. Henderson, "LSD alters the way in which existing sensory stimuli are perceived, and the user typically remains aware that his or her perceptions are drug induced."11

In a 1966 Life magazine article about LSD, the editors put it this way: "A stick may become a writhing snake . . . and though the person may be frightened by the snake, he realizes that it is not a real snake but an illusory one."12

The illusions resulting from LSD use vary depending on the dosage. The DEA notes:

Initially, at lower dosage levels, the visual images are intensified in color or flashes of light are seen. The visual images progress to brightly colored geometric designs and become distorted. At higher dosages, images appear as distortions of reality or as completely new visual images and can be seen with the eyes open or closed.13

LSD Affects How a Person Feels

In addition to producing visual illusions, LSD makes a person feel different. A common experience during LSD trips is feeling detached from the body, also known as depersonalization. Some people even experience a sense of levitation, that is, the feeling that the body is rising from the ground or floating. Some describe the experience as feeling that their bodies do not belong to them or that they are standing beside themselves. Leigh A. Henderson reports, "It is often described as a feeling that the mind is transcending the boundaries of the individual self."14

The feeling of depersonalization also often involves a temporary loss of the user's sense of self as a distinct individual. Henderson notes, "Users may temporarily lose their sense of identity, but they are usually not delirious. Thoughts are dreamlike, flowing freely; short-term memory and abstract reasoning are impaired."15

Likewise, author William Braden describes one of the hallmarks of the experience as the loss of ego or sense of self. Braden notes, "Awareness of individual identity evaporates. 'I' and 'me' are no more." He goes on to describe the feeling of some LSD users that they are no longer separate from the things around them but are a part of evertything: "Subject-object relationships dissolve, and . . . the world is simply an extension of the body."16

Consciousness Expanding Experiences

Many LSD users have reported reaching new states of consciousness or awareness in which they believe they have experienced great insights. The LSD user may believe that he or she has a new and complete understanding of life and its meaning. "The subject feels he knows, essentially, everything there is to know," Braden writes. "He knows ultimate truth."17 LSD users have described these experiences as cosmic, transcendental, religious, or mystical in nature.

LSD and Creativity

Many have contended that LSD can help a person achieve new levels of insight, problem solving, spontaneity, and creativity. Others argue that such beliefs are difficult to assess and nearly impossible to prove. Overall, studies of creativity have produced conflicting results.

In a study published in Psychosomatics in 1971, researcher G.J. Sarwer Foner came to the conclusion that LSD does not enhance creativity. Dr. Oscar Janiger and Marlene Dobkin de Rios came to a different conclusion in their article "LSD and Creativity," published in 1989 in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs. Based on clinical studies of LSD that took place between 1954 and 1962, the authors reported that LSD could enhance creativity as well as appreciation of the arts and beauty. In the authors' 2003 book, LSD, Spirituality, and the Creative Process, several artists discussed their experience of trying to create while under the influence of LSD. Janiger and Dobkin de Rios noted, "Overall, the artists reported that in their LSD experiences they had gained the ability to generate original insights, fresh perspectives and novel, creative form." Janiger and Dobkin de Rios stressed that LSD-inspired artwork is not necessarily "superior to those performed in ordinary states of consciousness."

Most scientists agree that it is difficult, if not impossible, to develop meaningful tests for proving whether LSD can enhance a person's creativity and performance. In its report "LSD," the Canadian Government Commission of Inquiry noted, "Although sophisticated scientific investigation in this area is only just beginning, it is already obvious that LSD will not perform the miracle of turning an uninspired and untalented individual into a creative genius. The question of more subtle effects on creative activity in certain individuals must be answered by future research."

Ultimately, the experience is intensely personal. Whether or not it is mystical or religious depends on how the individual interprets the experience. In other words, the drug itself does not produce the feeling that someone is experiencing something beyond the ordinary realm of human experience, but it does open the door to that realm. As noted by early LSD researchers Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert in their book The Psychedelic Experience, LSD "merely acts as a chemical key—it opens the mind, frees the nervous system of its ordinary patterns and structures."18

Changing Moods and Feelings

Studies have shown that the moods of someone taking LSD can change quickly and profoundly. In a matter of seconds, a person may go from extreme excitability to a feeling of tranquility.

As with many drugs, a person's own psychological makeup and current mood combined with environmental factors play key roles in LSD's ultimate psychological effects. For example, if someone is mildly depressed or anxious before taking LSD, the drug can enhance and intensify these feelings. If someone on LSD encounters a threatening or unpleasant situation, or is in an unfamiliar environment, he or she may experience intense feelings of fear or paranoia, sometimes beyond the point of control. As noted in a report on LSD by the Canadian Government Commission:

The psychological effects of LSD are not readily predictable and are determined to a considerable degree by various personality factors in the individual, his past history and experiences, his attitudes and expectations, and motivations, the general setting in which the drug is taken, persons accompanying the "trip" and external events occurring during the experience.19

What Is a Bad Trip?

Although on a good trip LSD users may feel they have attained great insights, these insights may quickly become terrifying. Most often, a bad trip is described as an acute anxiety or panic reaction that lasts for an extended period of time, a couple of hours or more. In addition to feelings of panic and anxiety, someone on a bad trip may experience a wide range of negative emotions. In the Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases, author Rick Strassman sums up the overall symptoms of a bad trip as possibly including "frightening illusions/hallucinations (usually visual and/or auditory); overwhelming anxiety to the point of panic; aggression with possible violent acting-out behavior; depression with suicidal ideations, gestures, or attempts; confusion; and fearfulness to the point of paranoid delusions."20

A bad trip may also be characterized as feeling a loss of control. LSD users may feel helpless to control their emotions. For example, they may begin laughing or crying uncontrollably or become suspicious of everyone, even their parents or friends. The loss of control usually occurs when users begin to believe that their hallucinations are real or become unable to respond appropriately to situations. Scientists James MacDonald and Michael Agar discuss these two ways in which LSD users spin out of control:

The first is to lose the knowledge that the distortions are not real. The trip changes from an alternative reality to the only reality; one starts to think it will never end. The second way to lose control, even if one maintains the knowledge that the distortions are not real, is to lose control of the actual situation. The situation makes demands that cannot be met; circumstances require a level of awareness and directed response that is made impossible by the LSD. One believes oneself to be in serious trouble, but cannot understand what is happening well enough to react appropriately.21

Stopping a Bad Trip

These feelings of fear sometimes escalate to the point at which users fear that they are insane or that they may never return to a normal state of mind. Most people who have a bad trip can be calmed down by reassurances that the experience is only temporary and will end once the drug wears off. However, some people do not respond to reassurances and end up going to the hospital when, for example, they cannot control an intense panic reaction.

A Bad Trip

In the book LSD: Still with Us After All These Years, contributors James MacDonald and Michael Agar interviewed several young people who had taken LSD. MacDonald and Agar noted that "sometimes users have bad trips that reach nightmarish proportions." One user described such a trip in which he witnessed a fight and thought his life was in danger. He described his reactions this way:

I freaked out, put myself in a closet. I strictly lost it—I landed outside a couple of times you know, ran in the woods, got lost in the woods. . . . My feeling was like, "This is never going to stop," you know. I had no sensation of, like, that this was slowing down at all. Once it started, it was like I was peaking forever. It started, you know, hanging upside down, I was just like all clenched up, all sweaty, my hat was completely wet. . . . The feeling was just shaky and there was so much tension it was just scary, it was like so emotional. There was just too much emotion involved, and it was a really scary experience.

Once in the hospital, the doctor usually keeps the patient in a quiet room free from disturbing outside influences, including anxious friends. The physician or nurse reassures the patient that the mind or brain is not permanently damaged. They also let the patient know that the effects of the drug will gradually wear off. Sometimes a calm, supportive friend or relative stays with the patient if the physician or nurse must leave. If the patient continues to be highly agitated, drugs like diazepam (Valium) and chlorpromazine (Thorazine) may be given to calm him or her down. Patients are usually not strapped down or restrained because such treatment may worsen their anxiety and paranoia. The hospital staff, however, usually take measures, such as keeping sharp objects out of the patient's reach, to prevent him or her from causing harm to oneself or others.

Before a patient on a bad trip can leave the hospital, a psychiatrist usually examines them to determine whether or not he or she has returned to a normal mental state. If the patient has returned to normal, they are released. In rare cases, the patient may be kept in the hospital if suicidal or psychotic tendencies persist.

Dangerous Accidents

Keeping an eye on users is important because LSD greatly affects how they perceive themselves and the world around them. Sometimes, LSD use can lead to foolish or irrational behavior, such as the users thinking they can fly or that they are indestructible. Some experts believe that such thoughts have led some users to jump off buildings or attempt other dangerous stunts. Users may unintentionally harm themselves in other ways. For example, in the early 1970s many reports circulated that LSD users were going blind from staring at the sun without blinking for several minutes. Although no one was actually blinded, a dozen cases of people on LSD harming their retinas from gazing at the sun were reported in national newspapers. Some believe these reports were a hoax, however.

In addition, overall functioning is often greatly impaired while using LSD because sensory input, such as sights and sounds, is often warped and difficult to interpret. As a result, the LSD user is more likely to make misjudgments and become involved in accidents. For example, driving a car and even walking in some cases can be extremely dangerous because of visual stimuli, like flashing or bright lights, that are distracting and increase the potential for critical misjudgments.

Does LSD Cause Self-Destructive or Violent Behavior?

In addition to accidents, concerns have been raised about the connection between LSD use and other self-destructive behavior. Several attempts at self-mutilation have been reported in LSD users, but none of these have been documented. In a few cases, people who have taken LSD have become depressed and attempted suicide.

Drug use is often associated with violent behaviors. For example, people drunk on alcohol can be violent, as evidenced by bar fights and an association between spousal abuse and alcoholism. For the most part, reports of users becoming violent while under the influence of LSD are rare. Police have reported that people who were high on LSD committed several homicides, but none of these reports have been well documented. Commenting on a handful of homicide cases associated with LSD use that were reported in a 1969 article, Leigh A. Henderson notes, "Aggression is not a common response to LSD . . . and the involvement of other drugs, and, particularly, prior psychiatric illness appear to have been contributing factors."22

Does LSD Cause Psychosis?

Although most negative reactions end after the effects of LSD wear off, there are concerns that LSD use can cause long-term psychosis. Some rare cases of prolonged negative mental reactions lasting months or even years after taking LSD have been recorded. The DEA sums up potential long-term psychological dangers this way:

The consequences of LSD use can be deleterious, not merely benign as is commonly perceived. Powerful hallucinations can lead to acute panic reactions when the mental effects cannot be controlled and when the user wishes to end the drug-induced state. While these panic reactions more often than not are resolved successfully over time, prolonged anxiety and psychotic reactions have been reported. The mental effects can cause psychotic crises and compound existing psychiatric problems.23

LSD has been called a psychomimetic drug because it can produce a state of mind similar to classic psychoses, such as schizophrenia, found in people who are mentally ill. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, a psychosis is "characterized by extreme impairment of a person's ability to think clearly, respond emotionally, communicate effectively, understand reality, and behave appropriately."24 In a 1970 paper, Drs. George S. Glass and Malcolm B. Bowers of the Connecticut Mental Health Center in New Haven reported on four cases of psychosis in young male LSD users that required prolonged hospitalization. According to the doctors, the patients' personalities were believed to have changed drastically after heavy LSD use. They noted that the young men were withdrawn and that their thought processes were bizarre and compounded by paranoid delusions.

In some cases, LSD has been blamed for delayed psychoses, in which people with no prior history of psychosis or any other psychiatric problems experience their first psychotic symptoms weeks, months, or years after taking LSD. In one such case reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1965, a young man went to the admitting office of a hospital in a state of panic. He was having distorted visions and experiencing feelings and fears that were similar to ones he had had while taking LSD a few months earlier. The doctors reported that these symptoms went away but occurred again during situations that caused the young man to feel fear or anxiety.

LSD researchers have cautioned against relating psychosis with prior LSD use. They point out that many factors can contribute to psychosis, such as the use of other drugs, pre-existing psychiatric illness, and a history of psychiatric illness in the family. Nevertheless, there may be a relationship between LSD and long-term psychosis. As noted by the Canadian Government Commission:

Many investigators contend that such extreme experiences occur only in individuals already predisposed to psychotic reaction, and are simply precipitated by the stress of a "bad trip." On the other hand, numerous examples have occurred in persons without obvious prior pathology, and it would appear that there is no satisfactory method for predicting who might suffer a serious adverse reaction.25

LSD Flashbacks

In contrast to long-term psychosis, flashbacks, another side effect associated with LSD, occur more commonly and have been well documented since the 1960s. According to some studies, flashbacks occur in up to 33 percent of healthy people who have used LSD and up to 50 percent of those who have psychiatric problems or illnesses and have used LSD. Flashbacks are a recurrence of the experiences a person has had under the influence of LSD. They occur long after the drug was taken and its immediate effects have worn off. Flashbacks typically involve episodes of visual distortion that can last anywhere from a few seconds to several hours in extreme cases. The person may also have physical symptoms such as tingling and numbness of the skin. Many people who have had flashbacks also report feelings of anxiety, depression, or panic. According to Leigh A. Henderson, "Flashbacks may resemble such altered states of consciousness as hypnosis, daydreaming, and sleepwalking."26

Most flashbacks are short term and less intense than the original trip. In addition, the more time that passes after a person has taken the LSD, the less intense and less frequent flashbacks become. Because most flashbacks occur spontaneously and with little warning, they can be dangerous. For example, if a person is driving a car or operating machinery and a flashback occurs, he may injure himself or others. Research has shown that several factors can play a role in bringing on a flashback. Among the most common causes of LSD flashbacks are emotional stress, fatigue, use of other drugs such as marijuana, and dark environments.

What Is HPPD?

Although flashbacks seldom occur more than a few months after LSD has been taken, long-term or chronic flashbacks have been documented. The psychiatric community has designated these occurrences as a psychiatric disease called hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD). Some instances of HPPD have been reported to last five years or more. Most people with HPPD realize that their perceptions do not represent external reality and are due to the aftereffects of LSD. The majority of people with HPPD seek psychiatric help.

For the most part, drug treatment for flashbacks and HPPD have been relatively unsuccessful. Some patients have responded well to antianxiety drugs called benzodiazepines. These drugs can help reduce the intensity and frequency of flashbacks.

Does LSD Use Permanently Change Personality?

With all the various effects that LSD has on a person mentally, another concern is the possibility that chronic LSD use permanently changes personality. An individual's personality is a combination of a variety of mental attributes, including thought processes, behavior, temperament, emotions, and likes and dislikes.

Some LSD users have reported long-term positive changes in their personalities following LSD use, including feeling less anxious and less aggressive. On the other hand, some have reported feeling that their use of LSD has made them feel more anxious and paranoid in their day-to-day lives.

Hofmann's View on LSD and the Mystical Experience

LSD's discoverer, Dr. Albert Hofmann, was first and foremost a scientist. But he did believe, largely based on several experiences he had as a youth, in people's ability to experience higher consciousness or to have a mystical experience. In his book LSD: My Problem Child, Hofmann described such experiences he had as a child and concluded, "It was these experiences that shaped the main outlines of my world view and convinced me of the existence of a miraculous, powerful, unfathomable reality that was hidden from everyday sight."

In the foreword to his book, Hofmann acknowledged that LSD and other hallucinogens can cause a "fundamental alteration in our perception of reality" that was similar to a mystical experience and, as such, deserved scientific attention. He also urged the researchers and therapists who were using LSD at the time to exercise extreme caution. He went on to note,

Deliberate provocation of mystical experience, particularly by LSD and related hallucinogens, in contrast to spontaneous visionary experiences, entails dangers that must not be underestimated. . . . The history of LSD to date amply demonstrates the catastrophic consequences that can ensue when its profound effect is misjudged and the substance is mistaken for a pleasure drug. . . . Wrong and in appropriate use has caused LSD to become my problem child.

A 1971 study of people who used LSD recreationally found that many seemed to have undergone personality changes. The group as a whole said that after they began to use LSD they were more likely to be spontaneous and seek excitement and new sensations. On the other hand, they also viewed themselves as somewhat alienated from society. But differentiating between cause and effect is difficult. It is possible that these people used LSD because they were spontaneous thrill seekers. Leigh A. Henderson points out, "The existence of such differences in the nonmedical LSD users does not mean that LSD use caused these differences; rather, the two results suggest that LSD attracts a particular type of person."27 In the end, most researchers agree they do not have enough data to establish a direct link between LSD use and permanent changes in personality.

Despite the potential dangers of LSD use, the drug's effects on the mind have attracted many users over the past four decades. While some characteristics of those who use the drug has changed over the years, LSD use largely remains a phenomenon of youth.