LSD, the Brain, and Aldous Huxley

Now we know a lot more about what was going on in Aldous Huxley’s brain sixty-one years ago.

By Shelby Traynor 

Image via Imperial/Beckley Foundation

It’s Christmas Eve, 1955, and renowned writer and intellectual Aldous Huxley is on LSD. He reports his findings in his book The Doors of Perception:

“Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe.”

Since LSD was synthesized in 1938, the world hasn’t exactly been deprived of first person accounts of its effects (see: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds by the Beatles, or this subreddit).  

However up until April 11, 2016 the world was deprived of something pretty major: modern scans of the brain high on LSD.

In a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from the Imperial College of London and the Beckley Foundation gave us just that—and now we know a lot more about what was going on in Aldous Huxley’s brain sixty-one years ago.

During the study 15 mentally and physically healthy people were injected with either 75 µg  of LSD or a placebo over two days.

The researchers used three different neuroimaging techniques to collect data: arterial spin labeling (ASL), blood oxygen level-dependent (BOLD) measures, and magnetoencephalography (MEG).

The study found LSD causes the brain to go into a sort of psychedelic hyper drive. It becomes more active, makes connections, breaks connections—researcher Dr Robin Carhart-Harris said it was like the volunteers were, “seeing with their eyes shut” (The Guardian).

They discovered that their volunteers processed visual information differently while on LSD.  

If you’re me right now—not high on LSD—your brain processes images in the visual cortex. If you’re Aldous Huxley on Christmas Eve, 1955—LSD zooming through your system—your brain isn’t just processing images in your visual cortex, but in other parts of the brain as well. And more likely than not, you’re hallucinating. You should probably get off the internet because it doesn’t exist yet.

The study also found extra connections between the frontoparietal cortex, a part of the brain linked to self-consciousness, and sensory areas in charge of how we perceive the exterior world. This has an effect on how people taking LSD see and understand the world, as well as their place in it.

The extra connections mean that while on LSD, there’s more information being shared between a person’s sense of self and their sense of environment. There’s a possibility the close connection could, to some degree, break down the distinction between the two.

There were lost connections too, notably between the parahippocampus and the retrosplenial cortex. Throughout the study the decreased connectivity between the two areas was associated with ego dissolution, altered meaning, and impaired reality. The three phenomena have to do with a loss of self identity, a change in the meaning of objects or surroundings, and a weakened distinction between what is real and what isn’t (Journal of Psychopharmacology).

Co-author of the study Professor David Nutt told The Guardian:

“This is to neuroscience what the Higgs boson was to particle physics. We didn’t know how these profound effects were produced. It was too difficult to do. Scientists were either scared or couldn’t be bothered to overcome the enormous hurdles to get this done.”

There is still more to learn—we all know from science class that experiments need to be repeated again and again in order to verify and solidify results.  

For now, the study has offered possible scientific explanations for the effects of LSD. It has connected the transcendental observations of local hippies, sensitive artists, and Aldous Huxley with images and data collected from neuroimaging technology. There are even hopes the findings could give further insight into treating depression, anxiety, and addiction. It’s a start—a door opened.

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