Psychedelic (Part II)

by by Emily Gogolak & Ellora Vilkin

illustration by by Julieta Cárdenas & Annika Finne


Looks like one good trip really could change your life: according to a meta-analysis published last month, taking LSD may help alcoholics put down the bottle. Norwegian scientists pooled data from six clinical trials published in the U.S. between 1966 and 1970, to measure the effect of a single dose of acid on patients suffering from alcoholism. Of the new study’s 536 participants, nearly 60 percent of those who took the drug either cut back their drinking significantly or quit, compared with just 38 percent who took a placebo. Only eight “bad trips” were reported overall, with positive effects lasting between six and 12 months.

According to the study’s authors, neuroscientist Teri S. Krebs and clinical psychologist Pål Ørjan Johansen, a single dose of LSD was as effective as daily doses of Vivitrol, Campral, or Antabuse, the medications approved by the FDA to treat alcoholism. “Given the evidence for a beneficial effect of LSD on alcoholism, it is puzzling why this treatment approach has been largely overlooked,” said Johansen, a fellow of Harvard Medical School.

Scientists aren’t exactly sure why a single dose of acid has such powerful effects, but it likely has to do with the mind-bending experience of tripping. “Psychedelics probably work in addiction by making the brain function more chaotically for a period—a bit like shaking up a snow globe—weakening reinforced brain connections and dynamics,” said Robert Carhart-Harris, a psychopharmacologist at Imperial College London in an interview with Nature. Like other hallucinogens, LSD can trigger powerful hallucinations and a perceived expansion of consciousness. As supervisors of one trial in the Norwegian study reported, “It was rather common for patients to claim significant insights into their problems, to feel that they had been given a new lease on life, and to make a strong resolution to discontinue their drinking.” That’s why for problem drinkers prone to relapse, repeated doses of acid might help break the cycle. “LSD may stimulate the formation of new connections and patterns, and generally seems to open an individual to an awareness of new perspectives and opportunities for action,” said Krebs and Johansen to the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

If acid seems like a wonder drug, researchers warn that tripping out of addiction is hardly a sweet escape. Acid might help boozers sober up, but the process is emotionally exhausting. In early LSD trials during the ‘60s and ‘70s, researchers thought the drug would work by annihilating alcoholics’ egos to make way for a spiritual awakening. While modern efforts focus more on LSD’s effect on serotonin levels in the brain, there’s still an afterschool special’s worth of negative side effects to contend with. Tripping comes with the risk of increased blood pressure, sweating, nausea, and tremors; periods of extended psychosis or profound depression; and uncontrollable flashbacks, to name a few.

For chronic addicts, though, the risk of psychedelics might be worth it. Evidence is growing that drugs like MDMA, or ecstasy, and psilocybin, or mushrooms, might be helpful for treating disorders from depression to post-traumatic stress disorder. Experts are calling for continued research into the link. Commenting on the Norwegian study, Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Matthew Johnson said, “Although this meta-analysis does not replace the need to test the approach in new, well-designed and rigorous clinical trials, it puts some more muscle behind the interpretation that the older literature shows hints that psychedelic therapy might really help addiction.”

THINK LSD-ifferent

In January 2006, a dapper white-haired Swiss man stood at a podium before a crowd in Basel on his 100th birthday. “It gave me an inner joy, an open mindedness, a gratefulness, open eyes, and an internal sensitivity for the miracles of creation,” he said. The birthday boy = Albert Hofmann. It = C20H25N3O, aka lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).

Back in the Lab Basel in 1938, Dr. Hofmann isolated psychoactive substances of psilocybin and psilocin from Mexican magic mushrooms (psilocybe mexicana) to make that soon-to-be-famous magic of his own. Flash forward to Basel nearly seven decades later for “LSD: Problem Child and Wonder Drug, an International Symposium on the Occasion of the 100th Birthday of Albert Hofmann,” where over 2,000 researchers, scientists, artists, and historians gathered to talk about, well, tripping. Wired magazine called it the “scientific coming-out party” of the drug Hoffman fathered—the one he hoped would soon work its way from the fringe into the mainstream. “I think that in human evolution it has never been as necessary to have this substance LSD,” he said. “It is just a tool to turn us into what we are supposed to be.”

Among the attendees of the Wonder Drug event was none other than one of our era’s greatest Wunderkinds, the late Steve Jobs. Following a Freedom of Information Act request by media outlets after Jobs’ death, the U.S. government released his FBI file in February, which, to no one’s surprise, revealed among other things that SJ indeed liked his LSD. A lot. He even told New York Times reporter John Markoff in 2005 that LSD was “one of the two or three most important things he has done in his life.” And to top that, he said that Microsoft’s Bill Gates would “be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once.”

Another big hitter at Hoffman’s Baselsymposium was Kary Mullis, the surfer/chemist/genius who claims that LSD helped him develop the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), an indispensible technique now used in medical and biological research labs everywhere. During an interview for BBC’s 2008 Psychedelic Science documentary, Mullis postulated: “What if I had not taken LSD ever; would I have still invented PCR?” He replied, “I don›t know. I doubt it. I seriously doubt it.”

And the very concept of DNA itself? LSD might have had a hand in that discovery as well. Scientist by day, hippie by night, Francis Crick, the Brit who discovered DNA along with James Watson in 1953, was known for throwing nuit blanche psychadelic ragers, with no shortage of acid. And in 2006, the London paper The Sunday Mail reported that Crick told friends that he first saw the double-helix structure while experimenting with LSD. Now that’s a trip that made history.


Ten years before Albert Hofmann would synthesize the first batch of LSD in 1936, Dr. Curt John Ducasse taught his first philosophy class at Brown University. The Angoulême, France-born philosopher and paranormal enthusiast would become department head just four years later; he was so popular, in fact, that he was asked to teach part-time even after reaching the compulsory retirement age in 1951. It’s no mystery why Ducasse’s classes were perennially packed: the impish, slight man was known to lecture on topics like telepathy, extrasensory perception, and life after death. “So many people are hemmed in by tacit beliefs and disbeliefs, by conformities and the things they take for granted,” he said, “that they shut their eyes to the fact that the material world is not the whole of this world.”

Ducasse was also tapped to support emerging research into psychedelic drugs. On May 14, 1965, William Mellon Hitchcock wrote to Ducasse asking him to serve on the Sponsoring Committee for some of the first experiments into the applications of various hallucinogens. Ducasse agreed, calling the research “important;” as always, though, the avid logician was concerned with legitimacy.

Writing to Hitchcock one week later, Professor Ducasse showed remarkable foresight of his own: “In this field the line between open-minded but responsible investigators on the one hand, and on the other, cranks or addicts of the marvelous, is often elusive and largely a matter of personal opinion.”

He had reason to be skeptical. Two years earlier, Harvard professors Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert (later known as Baba Ram Dass) had been fired when the University decided their experiments with LSD and mushrooms were too radical. Years later, Hitchcock would provide the men a new location for their psychedelic exploits in his family’s Millbrook Mansion—a property that would become notorious in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.


I’ve tried to think about CompSci before while on acid, because I read somewhere that it helps you visualize a program better, but my tripping usually ends up more Videodrome than A Beautiful Mind. LSD definitely changes your perspective in ways that help you think about abstract things, but in my experience, any CS insights I’ve had have quickly slipped away, replaced by, “Why do I spend so much time pushing buttons on a metal box?”
–Anonymous #1

A lot of people say the brain is like a computer: algorithmic, deterministic, and predictable.  If this is true, acid is like injecting a virus into your computer—it’s poison for your brain.  One of the most amazing things acid does to me is distort time.  Parallel events that should be happening in sequence feel like they’re processed separately and out of order.  For example, let’s say I’m tripping on acid, and you say to me, “Hi, Stranger!” and then a bird flies by.  To me, the bird may fly by, I think for some reason that the floor is moving like a kaleidoscope of fractals, and then I hear “Hi, Stranger!”  The strangest part is, the time distortion is visual in nature. It enables incredible insights into seemingly mundane things, and enables one to visualize problems in entirely new ways.  In math and computer science, we’re often taught to think in n dimensions to solve difficult problems.  Sober, this seems daunting.  On acid, it becomes trivial—why couldn’t you picture something in n dimensions?
–Anonymous #2