The science behind the transformative experience and psychedelic visions.
An LSD trip is certainly not a light experience — the drug’s effects can last anywhere from 8 to 12 hours, and users often report profound, transformative thoughts and visions throughout the trip.
As shown in the hippie revolution of the 60s, LSD has the ability to promote feelings of peace and a sense that we are all one. Users report profound thoughts and epiphanies that lead them to a better understanding of themselves and the world, all while seeing colorful swirls and having kaleidescope visions due to the drug’s visual effects.
As with any drug, LSD affects everybody differently. Although some users (like Steve Jobs) say that LSD was one of the best and most important experiences in their lives, others can spiral into bad trips that bring out feelings of anxiety, sadness, and fear, and dormant mental disorders like schizophrenia can even be triggered.
So, what’s actually going on in the brain and body during an LSD trip?
1. The activity in the thalamus winds down
The thalamus is the area of the brain that plays a key role in controlling the motor systems which dictate voluntary bodily movement and coordination. It’s located right in the middle of the brain on top of the brain stem and acts as a gatekeeper that sends off signals for most sensory impressions.
According to Andrew Sewell, a Yale psychiatrist and one of the few U.S.-based psychedelic drug researchers, when LSD takes over the thalamus, unprocessed information can get through to an individual’s consciousness, which doesn’t happen in a regularly-functioning brain.
"Colors become brighter, people see things they never noticed before and make associations that they never made before," Sewell told Live Science.
2. You can experience synesthesia
Since sensory perceptions can get all mixed up when an individual is on acid, sometimes synesthesia can occur. Synesthesia is a blending of the senses that happens when stimuli that are typically perceived through one sense get perceived by a different sense. For example, people on LSD might see sounds or hear smells.
3. Your brain becomes more connected
During an LSD trip, blood flow to the control centers of the brain becomes reduced and therefore weakens their typical activity, leading to enhanced brain connectivity. Brain regions that usually function distinctly start to communicate with each other, which explains why LSD users report thinking about things in a way they never had before.
4. Your creativity flares
Since the brain becomes more connected during an LSD trip, researchers think this could explain why people tend to become more creative.
"A particular feature of the experience is ... a general increase in complexity and openness,” said psychiatrist Ben Sessa of the University of Bristol in a paper advocating psychedelic drug research, “such that the usual ego-bound restraints that allow humans to accept given pre-conceived ideas about themselves and the world around them are necessarily challenged.”
5. You put together new meanings
Another result of the brain being more connected is that people can make new connections and experience epiphanies about themselves, their relationships, society, the world, and the universe.
“Another important feature is the tendency for users to assign unique and novel meanings to their experience together with an appreciation that they are part of a bigger, universal cosmic oneness,” Sessa explains.
It’s these new cognitive associations that encourage the feelings of peace, free love, and communal oneness that LSD is so strongly known for.
6. You can hallucinate in a number of ways
LSD trips are often accompanied by hallucinations of many kinds — visual, auditory, olfactory (smelling things that aren’t there), tactile (feeling things that aren’t there), and gustatory (tasting things that aren’t there).
The most common hallucinations that occur during an acid trip are the visual distortions, and hallucinations can come and go in an instant.
Researchers have observed that LSD stimulates an increase in blood flow in the visual cortex located at the back of the brain, so this change in activity could explain the visual hallucinations and transformations of perception.
7. Feelings of fear, paranoia, and a loss of control may occur
These side effects are typically tied to a “bad trip,” but sometimes LSD can cause users to essentially freak out due to feelings of anxiety, paranoia, and a loss of control. This often happens when the trip becomes too intense and the user feels a complete disconnect from reality, which can understandably be downright scary.
Because of the possibility of losing control, it’s recommended to use LSD in groups instead of alone. That way, others can be around to try and help an individual who has spiraled into a bad trip.
8. Your neurons fall out of synchrony
Researchers at Imperial College London used fMRI to scan the brains of people on LSD, and they observed that the neurons that are supposed to fire together within a network fell out of synchrony. This is why LSD users can experience confused or distorted thoughts at times.
9. Your ego gets broken down — which can be bad or good
Since LSD changes a person’s thought process, it can encourage individuals to see themselves in a completely new light, which is described as a “breakdown of the ego.” What an individual previously thought about him or herself can forever be changed — in either a positive or negative way.
Either an individual might get in touch with inner strengths, feel more spiritually connected, or come to understand and love unique traits about him or herself, or it can go the opposite way. This breakdown of ego can also be negative, causing a person to feel worthless or focus on his or her weaknesses, feeling alienated and depressed.