The Acid Test (Part One of Two)

Can lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) boost creativity?

When Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman first synthesized the chemical compound he would name LSD-25 (being the twenty-fifth compound in the series lysergic acid derivatives he was working on), his discovery of its powerful hallucinogenic effects was actually accidental.   As Hoffmann would later relate, he saw little value in what he had discovered in 1938 and set it aside for a few years as he moved on to other experiments.   His first LSD experience occurred in 1943 when he took another look at his discovery and unintentionally absorbed some of the drug through his fingertips.    What followed was a remarkable psychedelic state that he described as being:

"affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After about two hours this condition faded away."

Being a scientist (and a bit of a psychonaut), Hoffman then decided to study the full effects of LSD by taking 250 micrograms, which he regarded as being a threshold dose (he was mistaken).   What followed would become known in drug culture history as "Bicycle day", a.k.a., the first acid trip on April 19, 1943.   Hoffman experienced a bizarre change in perception within a few minutes of taking the LSD and asked his lab assistant to take him home. 

Traveling home by bicycle, Hoffman's condition deteriorated as his mind was filled with bizarre delusions that made him believe that he was going insane.   Though he was initially convinced that he had poisoned himself with LSD, the medical doctor who examined him found no evidence of any abnormality (aside from Hoffman's dilated pupils).   Reassured, Hoffman settled down and began enjoying the psychedelic experience.   As he would later describe what was happening, "little by little I could begin to enjoy the unprecedented colors and plays of shapes that persisted behind my closed eyes. Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in on me, alternating, variegated, opening and then closing themselves in circles and spirals, exploding in colored fountains, rearranging and hybridizing themselves in constant flux ..."

And so, "Bicycle Day" has passed into drug history as the dawn of the modern drug era and is still celebrated in psychedelic communities.   Within a few years of Hoffman's discovery,  his employer, Sandoz Laboratories, began public tests of their new product.    Not only was LSD seen as a way to mimic psychosis, this marking a radical new method of understanding mental illness, but psychology students and faculty members began taking the drug themselves as a way of exploring altered states of consciousness.  240px-Possible_physical_effects_of_lysergic_acid_diethylamide_(LSD).svg[1]

Though the recreational appeal wasn't immediately apparent, the value of LSD for research certainly was.  By 1949, Boston psychiatrist Max Rinkel began experimenting with LSD using a supply he received from Sandoz and numerous other researchers followed suit.  Hundreds of research papers on the effects of LSD were published in medical journals as the new drug was tested to treat a wide range of mental disorders.  In 1953, the first LSD clinic was opened in the U.K. under psychiatrist Ronald Sandison while Dr. Humphrey Osmond began using LSD to treat alcholics.   By 1955, the first scientific congress on LSD would be held in Princeton, N.J. and an international conference on LSD therapy was held in 1955.

Unfortunately, the potential role of LSD in brainwashing and interrogation meant that various governments would take an interest in LSD as well.  The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) began experimenting with LSD on involuntary test subjects as early as 1951 and Project MK-ULTRA would lead to an appalling series of experiments on campuses and clinics across North America.   Even as patients were eagerly trying LSD under strict medical control, countless others would be subjected to experimentation aimed at mind control.  The long-term consequences of these experiments are still being felt today.

As early writers such as Allen Ginsburg, Aldous Huxley, and Alfred Hubbard began building a drug culture around LSD, the rush was on to develop new psychedelics that could produce the same effects.   That search led to the rediscovery of "magic mushrooms" used in Central American cultures and the synthesis of mescaline and psilocybin, among others which were quickly added to the psychedelic arsenal.  Both Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert established psychedelic research projects at their universities (which would lead to both of them being fired in the early 1960s as the tide began to turn against LSD research).  

By this time, improvements in LSD production meant that the drug was now available in crystalized form and LSD-coated sugar cubes began to hit the streets.  It helped that the Sandoz patents on LSD had expired by this time and chemists could legally manufacture their own LSD.    Since Sandoz stopped producing LSD in 1965, supply became a major problem as the chemical quality of the LSD that was available was often suspect.   As more and more LSD was cooked up in homemade laboratories,  the risks associated with improperly-prepared psychedelics remained high.

Part of the appeal of LSD and newer mind-altering drugs such as mescaline and psilocybin was the promise of "unlocking" inner potential and making people more creative as a result.    Robert E. Mogar of San Francisco State College wrote in 1965 about how LSD boosted sensitivity to all stimuli and arousal but he also pointed out that people were often affected in radically different ways.  What might be a powerful religious experience for one person might prove to be a "bad trip" for another.   He suggested that this variability was due to the past history and personality of the user as well as how prepared the user is for what would be happening.  He also argued that, despite the uneven findings being reported so far, that LSD was a powerful tool for psychotherapy and could be used in treating a wide range of disorders.

More on that next week.

To be continued







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