How LSD Makes Your Brain One With The Universe


by Angus Chen

Some users of LSD say one of the most profound parts of the experience is a deep oneness with the universe. The hallucinogenic drug might be causing this by blurring boundaries in the brain, too.

The sensation that the boundaries between yourself and the world around you are erasing correlates to changes in brain connectivity while on LSD, according to a study published Wednesday in Current Biology. Scientists gave 15 volunteers either a drop of acid or a placebo and slid them into an MRI scanner to monitor brain activity.

After about an hour, when the high begins peaking, the brains of people on acid looked markedly different than those on the placebo. For those on LSD, activity in certain areas of their brain, particularly areas rich in neurons associated with serotonin, ramped up.

Their sensory cortices, which process sensations like sight and touch, became far more connected than usual to the frontal parietal network, which is involved with our sense of self. “The stronger that communication, the stronger the experience of the dissolution [of self],” says Enzo Tagliazucchi, the lead author and a researcher at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience.

Tagliazucchi speculates that what’s happening is a confusion of information. Your brain on acid, flooded with signals crisscrossing between these regions, begins muddling the things you see, feel, taste or hear around you with you. This can create the perception that you and, say, the pizza you’re eating are no longer separate entities. You are the pizza and the world beyond the windowsill. You are the church and the tree and the hill.

Albert Hofmann, the discoverer of LSD, described this in his book LSD: My Problem Child. “A portion of the self overflows into the outer world, into objects, which begin to live, to have another, a deeper meaning,” he wrote. He felt the world would be a better place if more people understood this. “What is needed today is a fundamental re-experience of the oneness of all living things.”

The sensation is neurologically similar to synesthesia, Tagliazucchi thinks. “In synesthesia, you mix up sensory modalities. You can feel the color of a sound or smell the sound. This happens in LSD, too,” Tagliazucchi says. “And ego dissolution is a form of synesthesia, but it’s a synesthesia of areas of brain with consciousness of self and the external environment. You lose track of which is which.”

Tagliazucchi and other researchers also measured the volunteers’ brain electrical activity with another device. Our brains normally generate a regular rhythm of electrical activity called the alpha rhythm, which links to our brain’s ability to suppress irrelevant activity. But in a different paper published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, he and several co-authors show that LSD weakens the alpha rhythm. He thinks this weakening could make the hallucinations seem more real.

The idea is intriguing if still somewhat speculative, says Dr. Charles Grob, a psychiatrist at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center who was not involved with the work. “They may genuinely be on to something. This should really further our understanding of the brain and consciousness.” And, he says, the work highlights hallucinogens’ powerful therapeutic potential.

The altered state of reality that comes with psychedelics might enhance psychotherapy, Grob thinks. “Hallucinogens are a catalyst,” he says. “In well-prepared subjects, you might elicit powerful, altered states of consciousness. [That] has been predicative of positive therapeutic outcomes.”

In recent years, psychedelics have been trickling their way back to psychiatric research. LSD was considered a good candidate for psychiatric treatment until 1966, when it was outlawed and became very difficult to obtain for study. Grob has done work testing the treatment potential of psilocybin, the active compound in hallucinogenic mushrooms.

He imagines a future where psychedelics are commonly used to treat a range of conditions. “[There could] be a peaceful room attractively fixed up with nice paintings, objects to look at, fresh flowers, a chair or recliner for the patient and two therapists in the room,” he muses. “A safe container for that individual as they explore deep inner space, inner terrain.”

Grob believes the right candidate would benefit greatly from LSD or other hallucinogen therapy, though he cautions that bad experiences can still happen for some on the drugs. Those who are at risk for schizophrenia may want to avoid psychedelics, Tagliazucchi says. “There has been evidence saying what could happen is LSD could trigger the disease and turn it into full-fledged schizophrenia,” he says. “There is a lot of debate around this. It’s an open topic.”

Tagliazucchi thinks that this particular ability of psychedelics to evoke a sense of dissolution of self and unity with the external environment has already helped some patients. “Psilocybin has been used to treat anxiety with terminal cancer patients,” he says. “One reason why they felt so good after treatment is the ego dissolution is they become part of something larger: the universe. This led them to a new perspective on their death.”

LSD used as drug therapy for the first time in 40 years

Swiss scientists broke a four-decade-long informal ban on LSD research yesterday when they announced the results of a study in which cancer patients received the drug to curb their anxiety about death.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, looked at the safety and efficacy of LSD when used in combination with talk therapy. The researchers used the semisynthetic psychedelic drug to facilitate discussions about the cancer patients’ fears of dying. The patients who took LSD, most of whom were terminally ill, experienced 10-hour-long supervised “trips.” One patient described the trips to The New York Times as a “mystical experience,” where “the major part was pure distress at all the memories I had successfully forgotten for decades.”

These periods of distress are regarded as therapeutically valuable because they allow patients to address their memories and the emotions they evoke. The patients underwent 30 such trips over the course of two months.

A year after the sessions ceased, the patients who had received a full dose of LSD — 200 micrograms — experienced a 20 percent improvement in their anxiety levels. That was not the case for the group who received a lower dose, however, as their anxiety symptoms actually increased. They were later allowed to try the full dose after the trial had ended.

Because of the small number of study participants, the researchers are reluctant to make any conclusive statements about the LSD treatment’s effectiveness. Indeed, the results were not statistically significant. But the fact that the study took place at all bodes well for psychedelic drug research, as the drug caused no serious side effects. Rick Doblin, executive director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a foundation that has funded many of these studies, thinks that revisiting LSD-based treatments is worthwhile. “We want to break these substances out of the mold of the counterculture,” Doblin told The New York Times, “and bring them back to the lab as part of a psychedelic renaissance.”

Thanks to Jody Troupe for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.

Toxic bracelet causes hallucinations and abscesses

A 40-year-old British woman blames a ‘toxic’ bracelet she bought on eBay for ruining her life.

During a two year period, Jo Wollacott, from Bridport, Dorset, suffered abscesses, hives and hallucinations; she lost her boyfriend, her job and her home and was even sectioned under the mental health act.

Miss Wollacott thought her terrible time was the result of back luck, until she discovered a bracelet she’d been wearing contained a dangerous toxin.

The mother-of-two is actually lucky to be alive. The bracelet contained a banned substance called abrin, which is prohibited under the Terrorism Act because just three micrograms of the drug could kill if swallowed.

Incredibly, it’s 75 times more deadly than ricin poison.

Miss Wollacott bought a batch of the deadly red-and-black ‘love’ bracelets for just £1 each from internet auction site eBay in April 2010.

She put one around her wrist, kept another and sold the rest.

The mosaic maker, who was living with her partner and children, Shirelle, aged 22, and Dagan,  seven, started noticing problems as soon as they arrived.

She said: ‘A few weeks later I had a really big abscess in my mouth. Then about one month after that I got hives all over my body.

‘I was being physically sick throughout the summer – suffering diarrhoea and vomiting – but I just put it down to having a bad bug.

‘Then my life started to spiral out of control.’

She split up with her boyfriend in July 2010 and claimed the bracelet had started to put her in an hallucinogenic-like state.

A few months later she ended up quitting her mosaic design business after missing so many days through illness.

Miss Wollacott then got into debt and was forced to sell her family home in Lyme Regis, eventually moving to a smaller home in nearby Bridport.

She also had to sell her Ford Fiesta.

Her mental health deteriorated and things came to a head in December 2010 when she was sectioned in the Forston Clinic in Dorchester.

She said: ‘I was in hospital for a few days with hallucinations – I did not know what was going on.

‘Doctors could not work out what was wrong with me – they did not know what medication to put me on. They thought I had been on drugs, but all my tests were negative.

‘Thinking about it now, the effect of the beans on the bracelet probably would have been the same as being on drugs.’

Miss Wollacott was released from the clinic after nine days but continued to suffer problems throughout most of 2011 and was briefly sectioned again in October.

At that point the mum had lost 22 beads off the bracelet and had attached it onto her house keys.

By November last year she finally decided to put the beaded item away in a bedside jewellery box – sparking a transformation in her life.

Since then her mental health has improved, she has stopped feeling sick, bought a new car and has now begun a new career as a toymaker.

But Miss Wollacott did not discover her woes were down to the bracelet – until son Dagan bought a letter home from school in December warning of the dangers.

She said: ‘The letter had a picture of my bracelet on. When I got the warning letter I came home and got the bracelet and realised how long I’d been wearing it for.

‘I couldn’t believe it. When I found out hallucinations were part of the side affects of the bead poisoning I started to piece things together.

‘My life is a lot better now and I am 99 per cent certain it is down to me not wearing the bracelet.’

I feel like I have lot two years of my life to this bracelet.

‘It has been a nightmare. Everybody around me thought my life was just spiralling out of control because I was going through a stressful time.

‘But now I realise that my problems started when I bought this bracelet. I am now finally trying to get my life back together.’

She now keeps the bracelets in a sealed box in her home and is warning others about the dangers.

The Jequirity bean, also known as the abrus precatorius, originates from Peru and can cause serious sickness or even death.

In December last year the Eden Project, in Cornwall, had to recall all of its bracelets – after selling them in its gift shop for a year.

A spokesman from the Health Protection Agency said: ‘Seeds from abrus precatorius contain the poison abrin which is very toxic.

‘Ingestion of any quantity of chewed, crushed or drilled seeds should be regarded seriously because, if fully absorbed, even small amounts of abrin can be fatal.

‘Anyone who is suspected of ingesting seeds from this plant should seek medical advice immediately.’

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