In the same week that Victoria has become the first Australian state to legalise the use of medicinal cannabis, new research throws fresh light on the effects that LSD has on the brain.
It’s been a good week for hippies. I’m not talking about a sale on patchouli oil or another reunion for The Grateful Dead, but to the literally mindblowing images that have been published of the human brain under the influence of LSD.
A research group, including the brilliantly named David Nutt, a neuropsychopharmacologist (easy for you to say) from Imperial College London, measured bloodflow, brainwaves, and functional connectivity between different networks within the brains of volunteers both on and off the drug.
What they discovered is that, while there is a marked increase in communication between the tripping brain’s visual cortex and other regions (hence the colours, man), there is a concurrent muffling of what’s called the “default mode network”, the source of mind-wanderings, thoughts about the self, the past, the future, and pretty much all the stuff that gets in the way of our being truly present in the moment, and makes, say, lying in a hammock less relaxing than it should be.
Dr Nutt has noted that this default mode network is overactive in people who suffer depression and anxiety, and suggests that LSD could aid the breaking down of destructive thought patterns. He also describes a “more unified brain” on acid, which corresponds to popular accounts of a sense of “oneness” under the influence.
On reading this, I experienced a rush of liberating vindication. So I hadn’t wasted my twenties, after all.
Fate took me to Manchester University, England, in 1988. Those were heady days. The Cold War was thawing out, with Solidarity about to crush the Communist Party in Poland’s free elections of 89, and the Berlin Wall to be reduced to highly collectible rubble shortly after.
Meanwhile, Clubland, of which Manchester was the spiritual centre at the time, partook of this spirit of revolutionary optimism, and embraced the acid house scene. And, as a highly impressionable and hedonistic nineteen year-old pursuing a just-say-yes philosophy, I was willingly smothered in that embrace.
On graduating from uni and then drama school (drawn to an acting career by the promise of long periods of unemployment), I continued to drop acid whenever possible. I never considered it a party drug, more of a sacrament (like many twentysomethings, I was pompous beyond my years), and preferred to get on it in groups of select friends, alone, or, on one memorable occasion, in the company of my cat, Woody (NO, I didn’t dose the pussy, that would be horrible, and, anyway, cats are pretty much tripping 24/7, which was the point of the exercise).
As is the case with many recreational drugs and passing pleasures, LSD offers diminishing returns; nothing comes close to that first time. For me, my regular trips during the nineties were a kind of psychic ritual, a periodic cleansing of the slate.
This recent research suggests that what I was experiencing was “ego dissolution”, a kind of disintegration of subjective self-identity, brought about by a loss of synchronisation of neurons that usually fire together in that irksome default mode network. “Coming down” was a bittersweet process of the self, in the form of those neural connections, being gradually re-established.
But whatever it was, I knew that I liked it. By the time I reached my early thirties, though, I was pretty much done with it (special occasions notwithstanding), the practicalities of eight to ten hours spent in an altered state, giggling at wallpaper, grown irreconcilable with encroaching responsibilities and economic necessity.
Some things have stayed with me, though. The sight of rose petals, viewed through the broken window of a derelict house, opening to greet the dawn and bathe me in an overwhelming cognizance of eternal and divine love, for one. (It now seems that was probably an effect of my parahippocampus getting cut off from my retrosplenial cortex, which seems a bit less mystical).
Not to mention an abiding soft spot for prog-rock.
What is really exciting about Dr Nutt et al’s findings is the the therapeutic potential they’ve uncovered. This takes us back to the drug’s origins. LSD was first synthesised in 1938, but its properties weren’t fully grasped until 5 years later. The extensive psychiatric research that followed, which included some very positive work treating alcoholism, was curtailed in the sixties, because people having fun with it meant it had to be banned.
Which brings us to the war on drugs. That well-intentioned but misguided campaign of prohibition that, besides banging up harmless drop-outs all over the “developed” world, would seem to have needlessly disrupted valuable research into a drug which could be treating depression, addictions and any manner of mental disorders, as well as helping us along in our pursuit of the holy grail of mindfulness.
It doesn’t take an acid trip to see that makes no sense.
Ian Rose is a formerly London-based actor who migrated to Australia in 2007. He writes regularly for SBS Life, and also for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.