Inside LSD, a film by National Geographic Explorer, takes the viewer on a historic tour of lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as the psychedelic substance LSD.
The documentary gives a glimpse of the therapeutic promise of LSD as well as the risks. “Inspiring perceived moments of genius, or descents into madness?” the narrator asks in this journey designed to “separate the myth from the molecule.”
Around 23 million Americans have tried acid, with 600,000 taking it for the first time every year, according to the video. The most likely current users of LSD are educated white males ages 18-22. Some of its proponents describe the effects:
“A collapse of time and space.”
“A flash, that experience of the other, of the divine”
“It’s opening your eyes onto a vast horizon that you never even knew existed.”
“The whole universe is inside of you.”
But where did this chemical come from, and what does it actually do to the brain? The film stretches back to the 1938, when chemist Albert Hoffman developed the molecule, based on a fungus called ergot, while trying to create a respiratory stimulant. Five years later, he accidentally spilled some on himself, and the first acid trip set in. For the next two decades, scientists experimented widely with the new chemical, trying it on disorders like alcoholism and autism and using it as a tool to break through tricky science and engineering problems.
Soon, LSD use leaked out to society at large, and made a permanent impact on the music, literature and culture of the 1960s. However, reports of insanity, suicide and even murder among users soon followed, and the federal government started shutting down labs in 1965. It was banned outright in 1970, and research was effectively shut down for the next four decades.
Nevertheless, the effects of an LSD trip can be so profound that people are willing to consume doses made in untested labs and risk felony convictions in order to take advantage of the therapeutic properties of the chemical.
Now, after 40 years, research is slowly starting to pick up again. A Johns Hopkins survey found that psychedelics like LSD had more success at stopping cluster headaches than prescription drugs. A non-psychedelic cousin of LSD called 2-bromo-LSD also showed promise in initial studies. However, researchers lament that follow up studies are difficult because the federal government considers LSD a drug of abuse with no medical value, and rarely grants permits for research no matter how many benefits the substance shows.
David Nichols, a pharmacology professor at Purdue University, says the molecule activates what’s called a serotonin 2A receptor in the brain’s frontal cortex, which helps visualize and interpret the signals that our senses collect.
“It’s as if the filters that we normally have in order to function are lowered so that literally more can be taken in,” says James Fadiman of the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. “More sensory impression, more emotional impression, more visual impression and more access to parts of the mind.”
Scientists don’t ignore the dark side of LSD, which in some circumstances can bring on bad trips, paranoia and delusions, with some people even entering a psychotic state or mimicking schizophrenic symptoms. But there too lies promise; researchers speculate that if they can discover what causes schizophrenia, they have a better chance of finding a cure.
And LSD and other psychedelics also are being used to help people experiencing trauma to find healing and see their life with new eyes. One Harvard study gave psilocybin to people facing terminal illness and found that it could calm their fear and anxiety.
“It’s about orchestrating, if you can, a single profound transformative experience that then results in an unfolding of behavioral change over time,” notes Roland Griffiths, a researcher at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
“They can experience a sense of close proximity to God, to the divine, and they report that they are infused with light,” says Charles Grob, a doctor at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. “These compounds are extraordinary probes, and if we are allowed to explore them under approved, safe conditions, I believe the potential is astounding.”