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How the Brain Processes Language on Acid Is a Trip

A new study found that LSD's activation of semantic pathways has implications for creativity and psychedelic therapy.

by Madison Margolin
Aug 26 2016, 2:15pm

Neon brain bug. Image: Surian Soosay/Flickr

The Beatles' Revolver. Steve Jobs' innovations in developing Apple. A Canadian architect's quest to design an "ideal mental hospital".

Lysergic acid diethylamide, colloquially known as LSD or acid, has been the catalyst behind an endless number of creative ventures, and the vivid colors and patterns, exotic ideas, and fresh modes of consciousness associated with the LSD experience have become common knowledge. But the mechanism behind acid trips is perhaps less understood.

In a recent study published in Language, Cognition and Neuroscience, David Nutt, professor of neuropsychopharmacology at London's Imperial College, led a team of researchers from the University of Kaiserslautern in Germany to explore the relationship between LSD and language. The study's findings provide evidence as to why acid and other psychedelic substances can enhance creativity and psychotherapy.

To explore the effects of LSD on lexical, or word, retrieval, the researchers gave ten participants doses of 40 to 80 micrograms of the drug—a noticeable bump up from the 10 to 20 microgram range behind microdosing, an increasingly popular practice among Silicon Valley techies—or a placebo, and then asked them to name a series of pictures. By this point in the experiment participants reported that the effects of the drug "were on average less than one point less than the maximum reported effects," the researchers wrote, at which point they had to name the pictures almost immediately after seeing them.

"Results showed that while LSD does not affect reaction times, people under LSD made more mistakes that were similar in meaning to the pictures they saw," said lead author Dr. Neiloufar Family, a post-doc from the University of Kaiserslautern.

For example, participants who were dosed with acid would more often say "bus" or "train" when asked to identify a picture of a car, compared to those who ingested the placebo. These lexical mixups shed some light on how LSD affects semantic networks and the way the brain draws connections between different words or concepts.

"The effects of LSD on language can result in a cascade of associations that allow quicker access to far way concepts stored in the mind," said Family, discussing the study's implications for psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. Moreover, she added, "inducing a hyper-associative state may have implications for the enhancement of creativity."

"The effects of LSD on language can result in a cascade of associations that allow quicker access to far way concepts stored in the mind"

Such insights can help the medical community better understand not just LSD but classic psychedelic drugs in general, all of which bear structural similarities in chemical composition.

"The primary experience of noticing your consciousness is shared across psychedelics, but not shared by other drugs," said psychotherapist Dr. Neal Goldsmith, author of Psychedelic Healing. Psychedelics illuminate connections the sober mind may not notice, and may even spark entirely new connections that weren't already present, added Goldsmith, who was not involved with the University of Kaiserslautern study.

Take psilocybin, or magic mushrooms. Ingesting psilocybin has been proven to expand brain plasticity and personality openness. "Personality" is comprised of external, defensive traits acquired through interactions, Goldsmith said; technically, it can be defined by neuroticism, extroversion, openness, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. One's personality usually solidifies by adolescence, according to Goldsmith, so it's counter to common psychological theory that a substance could make it malleable again.

"We have a tendency to settle into tried and true pathways [of thought]," he said. "It is a revolutionary finding that something could open up the openness scale."

LSD molecular structure in 2D and 3D. Image: Benjah-bmm27/Wikimedia Commons

Openness relates to language in psychedelics' ability to help individuals notice or create new connections, as demonstrated in the University of Kaiserslautern study. Softening the barrier between conscious and subconscious thought has important implications for psychotherapy, said Goldsmith, allowing people to recall repressed memories.

But when it comes to the practical use of LSD in assisted psychotherapy, such a study on the interplay between psychedelics, language, and word associations merely highlights what we already know, according to Rick Doblin, director of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.

"It may not help people be better psychotherapists, but it can explain to skeptics why LSD can be helpful in psychotherapy," Doblin said.

Still, the real and most necessary proof in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy relates to whether people are actually getting better. After all, for research purposes and pharmaceutical drug development, the FDA requires evidence of a drug's efficacy and safety, not its mechanism of action, Doblin explained.

"The most important message is that this study also demonstrates that in careful, clinical research LSD can be studied safely," he added. "It helps normalize psychedelic research and puts bounds on fears people have about LSD."

For now, having demonstrated safety and semantic activation, the research team behind the University of Kaiserslautern study have determined that further work is necessary to test the "reliability and specificity" of the effects they observed.

"This may be be achieved by using more naturalistic approaches or looking at changes in electrophysiology," or the study of abnormal heart rhythms, the researchers concluded. "However, the current findings are broadly consistent with the notion that psychedelics alter the breadth and flexibility of cognition."