LSD and the brain: so many questions…

While I’m sure everyone who has a computer has been inundated by blog posts and re-tweets about the  new study from researchers at Imperial College, I thought I would take a look at how these findings match with current evidence in other areas, what are the limitations with the research, and maybe what we should look at next…

In case you missed it, in summary,  researchers suggest the rhythms that the brain uses to communicate with itself during self-referential processing reduce in power, as well as finding areas of the brain communicating that would otherwise be silent. Effectively, the brain stops filtering out sensations or thoughts that would otherwise be ignored, or creates the perception of new sensory data where there was none. Your brain starts to play the field a little with its faculties.

Authors discuss that the effect of LSD creates an experience of a dissolving ‘self’, or ‘ego-dissolution’. This is inferred to pave the way for our brain to communicate with our environment and inner experiences without the entrenched thought and behaviour developed in adulthood.

This internal shift has therefore been suggested as potentially useful for psychiatry, both from a research and therapeutic perspective.

The findings are supportive of evidence into neural effects of other psychedelic substances, such as psilocybin, and the shamanic preparation ayahuasca. The evidence into brain rhythms also appears to compliment findings from fields of contemplative practice and neurofeedback, where similar brain networks and mechanisms have been suggested to be the center stage of change.

So, can we now close the book on understanding the effects of LSD and other psychedelics? Not really. Research definitely needs to continue, and potentially down two main fronts:

  1. As mentioned in the discussion of the original article, further study into direct neural activation will definitely help us understand the technical side of what’s happening in a lot more depth. Methods such as EEG and MEG (to measure brain rhythms) can compliment research with clearer data into the specific computations of what’s occurring, as opposed to the metabolic (blood flow changes) of fMRI techniques. This isn’t to suggest that fMRI techniques aren’t useful, but understanding what types of neurons are producing this effect will give us more detailed and richer understanding of what’s occurring under the hood.

2. Recently, emphasis has been given to the dangers of ‘neuro-hype’, and the confusion that we might get when we try to equate what happens in the brain with the totality of our human conscious experience. While neuroimaging is a visually pleasing and an exciting medium to use, often it carries the risk of creating a bit of a neuro-fallacy. For example, I might believe that because I know how a cat’s brain works, I completely know how it feels to be a cat. But I can never claim to know the profound and mystical pull of catnip, or fitting into a slightly-too-small box.

The relationship between the biological and the experiential (psychological, social, etc) is the key to understanding human consciousness. Trying to understand the whole issue from one angle is never going to be totally sufficient, and might be the public enemy of getting to a real answer. So don’t always believe the hype.

Therefore, these findings, while compelling and insightful, must be  matched with qualitative evidence and phenomenological accounts of how it ‘feels’ to be in these states. The phenomenology associated with a particular brain state may be quite different depending on the individual, especially depending on the environment they are situated in. How does this experience differ or is understood across cultures? Does it mean different things to different people? Will this be a destabilising or unique and insightful experience?

In this study, participant’s were already experienced with LSD, and therefore may have had an understanding of what to expect, as well as having an inferred ability to manage the experience. Participants who are trying a psychedelic for the first time  might have a different flavour of the experience.

This may require future practitioners who use psychdelics for therapeutic purposes to have a thorough and broad understanding of how individuals may react. So if LSD and psychedelic use becomes a viable route for further research in therapy, will practitioners need to take on the role of contemporary shamans?

These are important questions that in time will give depth and clarity to the neuroimaging data, and bring the nuances of the experience to the forefront. If it is to be used in a therapeutic environment, understanding qualitative experiences will be just as useful as understanding how one’s neural geography is shifting. This will ensure experiences are guided properly. It may even be useful for individuals to have a ‘soft’ run of the experience, by participating something grounding before delving a little deeper.

This new study has given unique scientific understanding into the brain under periods of perceptual change, and paves the way for more research to build up these findings to give a rich, human, and in-depth understanding of the experience. Combining methods from different perspectives will work to give a more holistic impression of this potential therapy, and hopefully enable a deeper understanding of consciousness.



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