Edited extract of article by Shayla Love, published 2 March 2018 in VICE magazine:
'One Saturday in 1964, neurologist Oliver Sacks took a bit of amphetamines, LSD, a “touch” of cannabis, faced a white wall in his home, and said “I want to see indigo now—now!”
“And then,” he wrote in the New Yorker in 2012, “as if thrown by a giant paintbrush, there appeared a huge, trembling, pear-shaped blob of the purest indigo. Luminous, numinous, it filled me with rapture: it was the color of heaven, the color, I thought…I leaned toward it in a sort of ecstasy. And then it suddenly disappeared, leaving me with an overwhelming sense of loss and sadness that it had been snatched away. But I consoled myself: yes, indigo exists, and it can be conjured up in the brain.”
Sacks did not experiment with mind-altering drugs until he was 30 years old, but did so regularly afterwards, experiencing a wide variety of hallucinations that he said gave him more empathy for his patients with disordered brains.
There’s a long history of academics and scientists experimenting with hallucinogens, not to “tune in and drop out,” but to push the brain to its limits and, like Sacks, see what it was capable of. Sacks wrote that when he first began taking drugs, our understanding of how neurotransmitters and chemicals run the show (and therefore experience and behavior) was just emerging. It was leading to questions like: “Why was LSD so enormously potent? Were all its effects explicable in terms of altering the serotonin in the brain?”
It's as if the brain is playing a musical piece, or it's like an orchestra. The fMRI data gives us the sounds then what we're doing is decomposing it into the musical notes; trying to find out which notes are combined in that particular time to create the fMRI sounds that we are 'hearing'. - Selen Atasoy
We’ve come a long way in understanding the effects of LSD, especially as it becomes used more frequently in mainstream research. A study from 2016 used three types of imaging to show that LSD causes changes in brain blood flow, electrical activity, and creates a brain that is much more connected—meaning various brain regions have more communication among them—than brains in the placebo group. The paper included striking images that showed brains on LSD ablaze with activity and connection compared to brains without it.
But there’s still much to be uncovered about the exact neurobiology of when a brain is on LSD, and what we can infer about the normal brain from it. A recent study published in Scientific Reports sought to do just that. An international team used a new kind of imaging that uses the literal shape of the brain itself to interpret the brain’s activity during LSD. What they found is that on LSD, the brain expands its behavior and connections in ways we didn’t know of before; it brings our brains right to the edge of chaotic behavior, without allowing us to topple over it.
The findings also point to potential explanations as to why hallucinogens are helpful in treating conditions like depression, and offer proof of a basic principle of chaos and order that exists in all of our brains, whether on LSD or not.
When I spoke to the first author of the paper, Selen Atasoy, a postdoctoral researcher at Oxford University, she said that before she explained any of that, we would need to take a step backwards. I discovered that the new method she’s using to read the brain is a head trip all on its own, and to explain it, we have to go back in time more than 200 years.