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8 Hallucinogens PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter Laurie   
Thursday, 10 March 2011 00:00

8 Hallucinogens

The most hotly disputed illicit drugs are, for the moment, the hallucinogens. The buttons of the Mexican peyotl cactus have been used in that country since Aztec times; the principal active alkaloid, mescaline, was isolated and synthesized as 3,4,5- trimethoxyphenylethylamine in the twenties of this century. L SD-25, d-lysergic acid diethylamide, often inaccurately known as lysergic acid — a related substance with no interesting psychic effects — was synthesized in 1938 by Hofman in the Sandoz Laboratories at Basle; its psychic properties were noticed when he accidentally sniffed up a few microgrammes in 1943. It is now the most convenient and most used hallucinogen. A newer substance is psilocybin, the active principle in another Mexican.plant, the sacred mushroom Psilocybe Mexicana. This was brought to the attention of the Western world in 1953 and also synthesized by Hofman. Less used drugs of the same general class are ololiuqui, the South American morning glory, teonanacatl, another Mexican mushroom that grows on cow-pats, caapi, an Amazonian vine, which is chemically identical with yageine, harmine, banisterine. Bujotenin, the venomous secretion of the skin of certain toads, has dramatic effects and is chemically identical to serotonin. The English hop plant is a type of morning glory, of which two varieties contain natural LSD, so it is not impossible that ordinary British beer has traces of hallucinogens.

LSD is now the most powerful mind-affecting substance known. Twenty microgrammes (a microgramme, 1 micg. or y =-0.000001 gramme) is enough to produce detectable effects and amounts to about 1/700,000,000 of a man's weight. As powder this quantity is almost invisible. Minute as such a dose is, an even smaller amount reaches the brain. Even when the ordinary dose of between 50 and 200 mcg. is taken, only 2/100 mg. is available in the brain, or less than one molecule of LSD to every 3,000 brain cells.1 More surprisingly, even this small amount has left the brain within twenty minutes of taking the drug, while the effects of the dose do not begin in less than thirty minutes to one hour, and last for four to eight hours. It is supposed, therefore, that the hallucinogens act as triggers, releasing some body chemical that produces the celebrated psychic effects.

The observable physical effects of L S D are slight. Goose-pimples, stronger tendon reflexes — the knee jerk, for example — and enlarged irises are the most noticeable. Less often the drug causes nausea and muscle pain, symptoms interpreted on no very good evidence by dynamic psychiatrists as mechanisms of defence against ego loss in unstable personalities. Neurologically, its effects are complicated. Although it inhibits signals in the optic nerves of cats, it also produces 'alerting cortical responses '2 and, lowers thresholds for vision and hearing. In general it hinders the transmission of signals across nerve synapses — the junctions of the brain's electrical circuits, and it also seems to break down the electrical insulation betweenneighbouring circuits so that signals can spread sideways. (A physical analogy for this 'mind en- ' hancing ' drug might be spraying salt water inside a television set.) This might account for the interesting effect called synaesthesia: the transference of impressions from one sense to another. Thus LSD subjects can hear hands clapping as showers of sparks, or feel a mild electric shock on the forearm as a bolt through the whole body. These phenomena seem to suggest that the drug breaks down the processes that limit and channel sense impressions in the deeper interpretative layers of the brain, allowing neurondexcitadon to spread indiscriminately sideways. Curiously, although one of the commonest effects of the drug is the overwhelming impact of all sense impressions, it also appears to produce many of the signs of sensory deprivation.3 This may be because it reduces the filtering effect of the outer layers of the brain and so effectively prevents any useful information getting through at all. One might compare the brain to an office organization that handles vast quantities of small pieces of information, at each level summarizing, correlating and passing on this material to the next level for action and further condensation.

Finally, the head of the organization — or the consciousness — is presented with one simple image. But LSD disrupts this delicate process; the millions of small messages pour straight through and completely swamp interpretation. Perhaps one could carry the analogy further, and say that the consciousness, in the manner of overworked executives, tends to seize at random on one or two messages and concentrates its attention on them, thus giving the impression of increased perception.

This interpretation of LSD's action is largely guesswork, but a pointer in the same direction is given by the research result that subjects already in an environment which deprives them of sense impressions — suspension in a tank of blood-hot water, for example — react less to LSD  both psychologically and physiologically than they do when they are in the open, subjected to the normal barrage of stimuli.' It is also found that totally blind people, as opposed to those with even a little activity in the optic nerve, have no visual hallucinations.4

Although people under the influence of the drug often say that time has no meaning', or time stands still', when they are asked to guess at intervals between 15 and 240 seconds, they consistently call time before it is actually up. In other words intervals seem longer than they actually are, as they do when we are bored or understimulated.3 This finding is curiously at odds with the riot of sense impressions some LSD subjects report, and again suggests that the drug interrupts sensory inputs that are in some way connected to our internal clock.

The subjective effects of L SD can be roughly summarized thus:

1. Sense impressions are perceived more strongly, colours are brighter, sounds like the licking of clocks, that one would not normally listen to, become strikingly audible.

2. The mechanism that relates one sense impression to another is disabled, so that if a subject touches himself he may find it difficult to be sure that his hand is touching his leg, and vice versa.

3. The relationship between current sense impressions and past experience is knocked out, so that one sees things as it were for the first time. Aldous Huxley's ineffable garden chair in The Doors of Perception is a famous example.

4. Muscular coordination and pain perception are reduced.

5. Personality testing shows that learned patterns of behaviour, logical thinking, role playing, the elaborately acquired methods that enable us to survive and succeed, tend to be dissolved away.

6. With the eyes shut, swirling patterns of colours and shapes are seen.

7. 'Hallucinations, ranging from images known to be no more than fantasies to full-blown involvement in an unreal world, are common.

8. Emotional repressions are attacked, and one behaves, for better or for worse, more fundamentally. Emotional reserves between people under L SD are broken down, and they become more sensitive to each others' personalities.

9. Memories and experiences that have been severely repressed into the unconscious can be released and experienced as reality. In neurotics and psychotics this experience can be overwhelming and damaging.

So far, the effects of LSD can be summed up by saying that - the drug dissolves the crust that separates us both from the sensually experienced world and our own unconscious. The effect on civilized man is often that he discovers — to his surprise — as large and strange a world inside his bead as there is outside.

At this point it may be as well to mention two canards which have been spread about concerning L SD. The first is that American students who had taken LSD looked at the sun in a mystical trance and suffered retinal burns. This received world-wide publicity, but the correction issued by the Governor of Pennsylvania, that the story had been made up by the State's Commissioner for the Blind, who was himself blind, and at the time 'sick and distraught', has been less widely noticed. 9 The second is that L SD-taking causes damaged chromosomes. There have been a number of papers on this, and the general consensus seems to be that no such damage is found.10

The effects of LSD on personality are general, and vary with the individual; one of the few repeatable, measurable results claimed is a decreased performance on the Porteus Maze Test. In this, the subject is given a set of ten printed mazes graded from easy to almost impossible. He is given an unlimited number of attempts and unlimited time. The score, calculated from the difficulty of the last maze solved, number of tries and the time taken, measures social adaptation, forethought and self-control; it is claimed to be one of the very few tests that reliably distinguishes psychotics from normals.5

This leads us to the tantalizing connection between the L SD state and schizophrenia. For awhile, after the war, it was thought that L SD produced in the normal investigator a 'model psychosis' that would be a great help in deciphering the puzzles of schizophrenia. Thus this class of drugs was given the name psychomemetic' — psychosis mimicking. But this idea has now been abandoned. The LSD state differs from the schizophrenic in several important points (see below), and it is now thought that the drug is no more than a useful training aid for psychiatrists who can get, with its use, something of the flavour of the world of schizophrenia. Often sufferers from this disease have said how refreshing and hopeful it is for them to talk to people who at least had some idea of what they experienced. The psychic similarity is paralleled by chemical likenesses, and the work of elucidating these clues has proceeded energetically since Osmond and Smythie's important paper in 19526 suggesting schizophrenia was caused by a breakdown in the body's capacity to handle adrenaline, a substance very similar to mescaline, and that therefore the body poisoned itself with a hallucinogen. In 1962 Friedhoff and Van Winkle7 in New York isolated another mescaline relative, 3,4-dimethoxyphenylethylamine, from the urine of some schizophrenics, and this result has recently been confirmed by Clarke in Liverpool who, with a large sample and rigorous controls, recently found that 80 per cent of paranoids excrete this substance, while controls do not. But the chemical cure of schizophrenia is still a long way away.

LSD states also show interesting similarities with the experience of sensory-deprivation subjects and sufferers from delirium tremens. It is tempting to guess again that all four conditions are caused by the central consciousness' starvation of interpret* sense messages; into the vacuum flows unconscious material electrical mid-brain activity that is usually suppressed by signal from outside and the brain's learned methods of dealing wit] them. One could make a crude analogy with the whispers of fax off, inane conversations one hears-on trunk telephone calls ove bad lines. But in the mind this buried activity that L S D and thea other states uncover is far from inane. In the sick, the schizophrenic or the alcoholic, who are what they are partly because of their inability to adjust to themselves and their view of society  this material is often full of menace and dread, reflecting the destructive apprehension of the world and their place in it. The same thing sometimes happens when LSD is given therapeutically to neurotics. But often the healthy person, in a benign environment, finds this bathing in the raw world and his unconscious an exhilarating, even an exalting experience. Some would take it further, and make it the basis of new religions, or new approaches to old religious truths.

This table8 summarizes some relationships between the LSD, schizophrenic, delirium tremens and sensory deprivation states.



Inward Bound

The LSD experience differs from the other three described above in its potential beauty, and its power to bring over-civilized man into close and invigorating contact with his animality. An American philosophy student describes his supervised, experimental experience:

On the Rorschach I had great pleasure over the shadings on the plain black-and-white cards. The cards aroused my boundless admiration and I repeatedly said that I hadn't appreciated what a line and intricate set of patterns they were. I was impressed with the effect of overprinting, where one pattern was placed on top of another one. As I associated to the cards, it was much the atmosphere of a dream. I was floating along with the reverie, not watching it from the shore. At intervals the door opening or a glance at myself would remind me that I was in an experiment, that I had had a drug, that this was a strange experience, but this was not disturbing, just on a par with the rest of my reverie. The coloured cards were magnificent. Each colour seemed to carry its own feeling tone, all positive. The oranges, reds and yellows were vital and expansive and sexual. The blues and greens were cool, serene and rational. I realized that normally I was a thinker more than a feeler and I revelled in the warmer shades which represented a release from obligation. But I didn't dislike the cool tones although I , aware that I couldn't think much now. It seemed to me that probab the rational activities were the better part, but the sensuous qualities of colour and tension and activity were attractive and engrossing now. I reflected several times that I was giving much the same interpretations I had some years earlier, the same volcanoes, the same sexual symbols — only they were franker this time, the same restless and powerful animals, but I wasn't a bit unhappy about this. Rather I admired the intensity of images, the aliveness of the figures, without concern about the interpretation the psychologist would put upon these responses. ... Some time after the Rorschach, it was suggested we go for lunch. The hall seemed lovely and impressive and I remember remarking that it was quite a contrast to the drab hall I had seen on entering; then it occurred to me that this might not be a polite way to refer to their building. But I felt they wouldn't mind, after all it wasn't their responsibility the way the place was decorated. My face was quite flushed and I looked tousled and it must have been apparent to many that I was a patient ora subject. When I noticed an attendant or nurse looking at me curiously, I would momentarily think 'I must look very odd'. Normally I would be quite embarrassed at such attention, but I didn't mind it at all. Rather, I felt a warm affection for anyone interested in looking at me cwiously. The canteen appeared as a beautiful and most attractive ball peopled by the loveliest of characters and filled with the most dazzling food. The salads, the meat balls, the vegetables, all were gloriously radiant.•

Some days later he wrote:

The most impressive characteristic of the experience was an enormous and, for me, unique sense of freedom. Normally I am unconscious of the tension and strain under which I live, but the difference between my Usual state and the one I enjoyed during this experience is so great that it could be compared to the lifting of a heavy burden.

Another subject, a young psychiatrist who seems to have borne his obligations rather heavily, felt that whatever L S D's effects he ought to remember his professional dignity, and said afterwards,

Somehow I was rather surprised when I found out under lysergic acid I was really rather a nice, warm sort of person. The other feeling I retain is that no matter how bad things get I always have a nice, comfortable, warm place to go. The feeling is almost as if I carried a quiet, pleasant, serene garden around in my head,1

Experiences on the LSD trip are extremely unpredictable, and vary with the same individual from occasion to occasion. My own essay took me neither to grandeur nor horror; it is perhaps typical of many that are not otherwise thought worth writing up.

A big, bare, white room in Paddington. The mantelpiece is hidden by blow-ups of photographs taken by the owner, a nervous Australian pot-smoker. His round-headed friend sits like a wooden doll on the floor — a long way away from us. He says, 'It's incredible here, man, everyone's on the LSD  kick.' His remark had nothing to do with the conversation; he spoke slowly, as if he weren't thinking exactly of the same things that you were, or even anything like them; as if he were holding another, silent, conversation in between the gaps of your own. I said I was interested in the stuff, and he looked arch: 'Perhaps I should make you a proposition.' I gave him thirty shillings and he went up the road for ten minutes, came back and sat down, looking straight in front of him as though he had not moved. Half an hour later, I made to go. He pulled a small silver cube from his pocket: `Do it with someone you like — and have your wife handy,' he said, as though these might be two distinct people. In my case, it's the same person. As we were going to bed — because of looking after the children during the day I'd thought it would be best to take the L S D, experience at night — she hadn't been keen to try. Then, as we were getting undressed, she said yes. I got a black plastic plate and a knife, and cautiously cut the corner off the sugar cube. We split it, and ate; I expected Hofman's first instant reaction. Of course, nothing. After half an hour, we ate the rest, made some self-pitying jokes about buying sugar at £300 a box and went to bed.

The trouble was that we couldn't sleep. At first I thought it was being excited, and anyway there was a full moon which always keeps me awake. Then after an hour, Barbara said she could see patterns. Sick of lying still, I went downstairs to get some paper and a pencil. I picked up a pink Biro: suddenly, there it was —the pinkness, the huge hand, the fleshness. 'It works, it works, come out in the light,' I yelled up the stairs.

We turned on the bedroom light and waited for visions. All that happened at first was that the room looked less white, colder and crooked. It is in fact white all over with a pleasant fluted wallpaper put in by the interior decorator who had it before us, with heavy white Victorian cornices and white blinds. Normally it's a pleasant, soft, diffuse box for sleeping in. The walls weren't pure white any more — yellowish. But I began to think the hand bit downstairs meant nothing. I picked up a box of little disk magnets the children had been given; there was a tube of iron ' filings with them. If you poured the filings on the magnets, they clustered furry and curved in on themselves, they looked like space monsters. As you pulled the two disks apart the filings stretched out in knobbly arms, then fell back like the petals of a flower. When they came together again the petals reached out to each other, and near enough they stroked each other, some petals growing longer by the contact. We could hear the rustle of the filings over each other as the moving magnetic fields rearranged them.

I felt things were beginning to look odd, but only out of the corners of my eyes. If! glared, they immediately looked all right. Then I scratched the back of my head. This definitely was odd. There was a tremendous noise of threshing wheatfields. I could feel hair roots bending, knotting the scalp. There were the feelings a field gets being harrowed — by my finger-nails I supposed. I was fairly sure someone was scratching someone's head, and that someone's head seemed to be being scratched; but it was difficult to be sure whose or by whom.

It was as if inside one's head there were an alert observer, who at moments like this would have said: The scratching sensations from fingers and scalp correlate with your arm and head positions: you are scratching your hek' The drug had retired him; I had to solve the problem by sheer intellectual effort. My children, when they were small, used to reach up, grasp an ear, then they would burst into tears because someone was pulling it. Suddenly I could understand their predicament.

Barbara was holding her left arm before her face. 'It's like an old film; it lurches,' though she was holding it still. I tried with a band, and it writhed slowly like the tentacles of a sea anemone (apparently the eyeball wriggles all the time to shift images on to fresh bits of retina; this movement is invisible until LSD knocks out the compensating mechanism, so one sees things moving slowly). It had taken quite a long time to get this far — the use of the word 'trip' for an L S D experience is quite appropriate, though not in the sense one might imagine of strange lands and romantic experiences. For us it was very like going on a modern journey by aeroplane, say: a little fear, homely surroundings, aches, staying awake all night, dirtiness, more fear, the flat garish light of indoors at four in the morning. I became conscious of how badly made the house was; each particle of dust on the floor stood out like an overdone TV commercial for sink washing-powder. Colours were richer — the old varnished floorboards escalated from being just old varnished boards to a rich, cynical House and Garden honey colour, but the effect wasn't particularly pleasant.

It began to feel irritating with the light on, hire being at a fun fair too long, so we turned it out and tried to go to sleep. lu some ways this was a mistake. Barbara began to mutter about the colours she could see: mauves and oranges — 'There it goes — a lovely purple.' She enjoyed this bit; for a long time I could see no patterns and felt cheated, then suddenly! was inside the ho!-low tooth of a lobster, with a fine view out of his mouth at an army of handsome buff-coloured legs walking along beside us. When he ate, the noise was enormous, like a giant eating lettuce. Then I was Low's T.U.C. horse, covered in buff nylon fur, with five legs and having a shoe nailed inside my mouth. Neither of these illusions, though vivid, was alarming. Then the patterns began: a line of lights so bright I looked round the room to see what they were. They grew into dots and dashes, squares, cubes and little balls all intricately packed and dissolving together. Barbara began to say: 'Oh hell, this is agony. When will it stop. What a ghastly life people must lead who take this for fun.' ,

Lying still became impossible because of the contact of clothes or each other. My left arm felt horrible — light and infuriating.! wanted to tear it off and have some peace. One's mind's eye kept sinking and swooping, dashing about and dissolving into itself, creating mad situations and simultaneously chopping and serving Ihem a dozen at a time; the whole process ticking onwards in jumps like a metronome.

Sounds became clearer - we could clearly hear someone winding up a watch next door; and we could hear every breath of a strange baby crying in some house down the street. Barbara seemed to sleep, then sat up, looked about her carefully, and said: 'How many pairs of gloves am I?' She said afterwards that she'd been standing in High Street, Kensington, wondering who she was; she'd had to make an inventory round the room: 'Who do I know who owns that pair of shoes, that dress? It must be Barbara Laurie.'

Although I felt so odd, I found! could write legibly, and wrote down some fairly full notes. Thinking about it afterwards, it seems obvious that we had split a fairly small dose; anything larger would have precluded note-taking. Just as well. We could see very clearly the predicament we were in, like travellers stranded in some bizarre place. Often it seemed funny. We had been some months before to see Villa 21', a free-range unit for young schizophrenics in a mental hospital to the north of London. Barbara said now: 'Someone, somewhere, must be able to make sense of all this,' and we both giggled nervously, because one of the boys there had sat about conspicuously saying: 'What's the meaning of it all? Someone must

We turned the light off again. I began to feel frighteningly sure that this was madness; being roller-coastered inside your own head, knowing it was all illusion, yet unable to stop or control it. Time went unbearably slowly, and often seemed to slip backwards, so that the precious five minutes won towards release would slither away again in a whirl of sparks. I thought of the plight of madmen in their narrow hospital beds, with not just the problem of winning through until morning, when it would all - I sincerely hoped - go away, but through tomorrow and tomorrow and the next day and the next night, until when? Worse than a prison sentence because you would have no peace. It was like being locked up in a little-ease with a lunatic who wouldn't stop letting off fireworks.

We had sex - you couldn't call it making love - for something to do. At least it felt fairly normal, though towards the end I was in a church crypt where invisible craftsmen were gilding choir Stalls; Barbara had something to do with a lot of Moroccan handbags. It was meagre on sensation, and as we stopped the patterns began again, I found I could smell now: with a little practice I could distinguish the smell of nrzt left armpit from my right and each finger had a different, rich, gamey scent Our two-year-old daughter, who is very fat and self-confident, came into the bed for a while. We both clung to her because she was so sane and normal. Barbara made us laugh by sitting up and theatrically declaiming: 'So onward they slept, wearily gnashing their multi-coloured teeth.' She drifted off to sleep, and dreamt that the iron filings were cream she had to swallow, and were coagulating in her throat; then later about two unhealed burns on her finger: she could see into the red pit, right into the cell structure and the quivering walls of protoplasm.

The next day we felt cold and remote, but got through a lot of work Driving the children to school, I nearly crashed when a coloured girl came out of a grey house wearing day-glo orange trousers: they went off on my retina like a bomb in a free-church assembly. It is difficult to explain how long and gritty and unsatisfying the LSD experience was. For several months we used it as a comparison for anything unpleasant; yet the results were not at all bad. We both felt that it made us more sensitive to shape and colour, and that it made us more dispassionate about other experiences and relations**, more direct about our day-to-day intentions. None of these effects was profound, but LSD seemed to jolt us forward over a stretch of maturing we'd probably have covered anyway. Like a tough expedition, one came away from it saying, `HI can cope with that, I can cope with a lot of other things too.' One thing I couldn't have got another way was an understanding of the tenuous links between the outside world, my own past experiences and my consciousness. Before this trip I had made several attempts to read Laines The Divided Self, an analysis of a certain type of schizophrenia, without being able to get any sense from it; afterwards it read like a guide-book to the town of my birth. For us the LSD experience was less important shalt the carpets it lifted and the structure of our minds we saw below.

Last Updated on Monday, 14 March 2011 16:11

Our valuable member Peter Laurie has been with us since Sunday, 13 March 2011.

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