Here’s How LSD Actually Works, According to a Bunch of Really Tripped-out Research Subjects


Okay, so: Picture yourself in a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marshmallow skies.

Sound familiar? It’s not 1967 (at least we don’t think)—but scientists are partying like it is.

Research into psychedelics—those trippy drugs touted to encourage enlightenment, erase all feeling of self, and make the walls melt—has been expanding far beyond even where Ken Kesey and Jimi Hendrix might have imagined it would be. (Which is to say, far out.)

Studies have found that magic mushrooms can decrease depression, and that LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) can help battle alcoholism. But researchers didn’t really know how the drugs worked on the brain or how they can so easily dissolve the ego and alter perceptions of reality—until now.

Thanks to a recent study from the Zürich University Hospital for Psychiatry in Switzerland on the workings of LSD, scientists are getting an understanding at what the Beatles figured out back in the day: namely, how LSD acts on the brain to create more meaningfulness out of everyday things. For the experiment, the researchers gave subjects either a placebo, a dose of LSD, or LSD and a drug that blocked LSD’s ability to work on serotonin receptors. The researchers then asked the participants to listen to music—no Pink Floyd, but rather free jazz or folk music—and judged how “meaningful” the pieces were to them. The participants who took both LSD and the anti-serotonin drug derived much less “meaning” out of the songs compared to their LSD-only counterparts.

“Our results increase our understanding of how personal relevance attribution is enabled in the brain,” said study co-author Katrin Preller, Ph.D. “[We now know] which receptors, neurotransmitters, and brain regions are involved when we perceive our environment as meaningful and relevant.”

In the future, learning how LSD breaks down ego boundaries and changes perceptions of experiences may help scientists better understand how psychiatric disorders work—and even give them new tools to treat them.

Oh, and just ignore that pink elephant sitting on your couch. She’s a doctor.

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