The History of LSD
The discovery of Lysergic Acid Diethylamide is a compelling and fascinating story. Its history is full of serendipitous events, curious research, and impassioned scientists. Essential to its astute application in the field of psychotherapy is the respect and passion demonstrated by researchers and intellectuals for the power and potential of LSD. Many scientists, aware and fully conscious of its great power to open the mind to new spaces, understood the importance of using it in a controlled, therapeutic setting. The eventual popularization of LSD as a party drug in the 1960s prompted a deep social fear that created a discourse of demonization and ignorance. Social scientists attribute this fear to the fact that LSD reframes the way the user sees the world, prompting a deep incentive to question and change systems of authority and government institutions. By the 1970s, the culture of fear built around LSD was enough for the US government to classify it as a Schedule I substance, the most restrictive categorization, characterizing it with a high potential for abuse and no legitimate medical purpose. The most unfortunate result of this is that important, responsible, and potentially healing research into the benefits of LSD was halted while its short-sighted use continued without any safety or support structure for the user. Today, there are strong efforts to change the erroneous narrative on LSD and the global drug policies that prevent its responsible use for psychological treatment.
Ergot Research, Arthur Stoll, and Albert Hofmann
Stumbling upon LSD began with research into the isolated compounds of ergot, a fungal disease that appears on rye grains and other types of cereals. Consumption of ergot-plighted grains causes severe poisoning, gangrene, and symptoms of psychosis. In 1917, Arthur Stoll was working at Sandoz pharmaceutical laboratories in Switzerland and found that the isolated compounds of ergot: ergatomine and ergobasine, in controlled doses, could be used to constrict blood-vessels without any of the deleterious symptoms of ergotism. Further research showed lysergic acid as the common thread in all derived compounds of ergot. More than a decade later, Albert Hofmann began work at Sandoz. Hofmann synthesized the active compounds in ergot with several other organic molecules. On the twenty-fifth synthesis, he combined lysergic acid with a derived compound of ammonia –diethylamine. What started out as research into migraine treatment resulted in the discovery of a drug that would change the way we think about our minds and the way we approach therapy and healing. On April 16th, 1943, while handling a synthesis of LSD-25, Hofmann accidentally ingested a small amount. He asked an assistant to accompany him home because he began to feel “a peculiar restlessness.” The tale of his bike ride home is probably the most popularly cited anecdote of the day the power of LSD was discovered.
Psychological Research: Schizophrenia and Alcoholism
Shipments of LSD-25 were sent to psychotherapy research centers in England, Canada, the US, and Czechoslovakia. Perhaps the most salient story of LSD research takes place in Saskatchewan with doctors Humphry Osmond and Abram Hoffer. Osmond and Hoffer found that LSD attributes immense significance to things that otherwise seem mundane. It highly magnifies one’s awareness of energies and makes accessible new ways of considering our existence. Osmond comments that LSD gives “special significance” to all textures and colors, problematizing all things, in a sense. Humphry relocated from England to Saskatchewan to work at Weyburn mental hospital, serving patients with schizophrenia. The main incentive behind supplementing therapy for deeply ill schizophrenia sufferers was the theory that LSD allows one to feel a semblance of what the schizophrenic patient experiences when going through an episode of what Osmond describes as losing the ability “to hold the world constant.” Perhaps the most interesting part of Osmond and Hoffer’s experimentation with LSD is that their main objective was to produce Schizophrenic-like symptoms in themselves to catalyze greater understanding and empathy for their patients. This point further bolsters the idea that LSD forms palpable emotional links among human beings, endowing people with better abilities to exert compassion and motivating them to help others. Both Hoffer and Osmond attest to the fact that taking LSD made them much more aware of what happens in the minds of schizophrenic patients, allowing them to consider the accounts of their experiences more seriously.
Next, Hoffer and Osmond, along with Professor of Psychology Duncan Blewett, conducted a study of 500 patients with severe alcoholism. While their initial intention was to correlate the alcohol with an extremely unpleasant and terrifying experience produced by LSD, Osmond and Hoffer found something altogether different and pleasantly unexpected. Instead of helping patients develop a disdain for alcohol, the LSD did something much more effective at producing lasting change in the alcoholic’s frames of thought and behaviors. LSD was able to prompt fundamental shifts in the alcoholics’ deep seated resignation to their drug of choice. Osmond illustrates the similar way in which LSD magnifies, and thus provides easy access to, different ways of viewing one’s existence. The LSD treatment managed to draw the alcoholic patient out of their harmful, petrified modes of thinking, and helped them see, making them very aware of the shortcomings caused by their prioritization of alcohol. The substance, supplemented with guided therapy, inspired the patients to feel “a powerful incentive” to change their habits.
Projects of Spiritual Realization
Sometime after Hoffer and Osmond were conducting studies on LSD supplemented therapy, an entrepreneur and self-described visionary named Alfred Hubbard began championing LSD for the purpose of spiritual growth and self-knowledge. Hubbard strongly believed that LSD was meant to change mankind because of it helped people “resolve inner conflict” and reach deeper levels of self-understanding. Hubbard’s main focus in establishing a foundation dedicated to investigating LSD was more subjective in comparison to the psychological research carried out in Saskatchewan. Nonetheless, Hoffer and Osmond formed part of the foundation’s board. Later, Aldous Huxley was inspired to write his famous book The Doors of Perception after befriending Humphry Osmond and having experienced an LSD session. Huxley was also inspired by Hubbard’s endeavor to set up LSD treatment centers around the world. The idea was that a candidate would write down a short summary of their lives and relationships before ingesting LSD in a controlled setting, with people nearby for support and music playing in the background. This kind of approach was specifically designed to catalyze the spiritual wisdom sought after by the participant. Hubbard, as well as Huxley, emphasized the importance of intention. The benefits of exploration on LSD are tapped into if the person consciously desired to try LSD for its potential to expand understanding. This idea of preparation and intention, and the feeling that LSD self-exploration should be seen as a “serious, experimental ritual,” is what marks the difference between the scientific and spiritual use of LSD and the forthcoming popularization of the substance.
Misguided Use of LSD
The common sentiment underlying statements by scientists and researchers is that the use of LSD for pleasure and partying, or, as in the case of the US army –as a weapon, is a gross misuse of something powerful, with great teaching potential. Again, the importance of set and setting is highlighted to remark on the fact that careless use of LSD is not effective for someone to truly grasp what the substance may teach them, but it can also be extremely unpleasant without a non-threatening setting and people around that are meant to provide support should someone need it. In 1961, members of the Harvard psychedelic club began conducting research on psychedelics with a broad array of projects. However, the institution cancelled their project after becoming concerned over the growing media attention now widely attributed to Timothy Leary. Stanislav Grof and Abram Hoffer both expressed that they hold Leary partially accountable for the eventual prohibition of scientific LSD research and its subsequent proliferation as a common street and party substance.
By the mid-1960s, the widespread use of LSD and the counter-culture movements going on simultaneously, made it easier to place culpability on the drug itself for the civil unrest propelled by the civil rights, feminist, anti-war, and ecology movements. The US government grew weary of LSD’s capacity to foment profound incentive in young people to question and speak out against government actions. In 1970, Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act, placing LSD as a Schedule I drug –prohibiting its use for medical and scientific research.
The Future of LSD in Psychology
Recently, perhaps the most exciting news is the founding of a non-profit organization called EmmaSofia in Norway. Neuroscientist Teri Krebs and clinical psychologist Pål-Ørjan Johansen started the project in hopes of building a global cultural understanding of the healing value of LSD and other psychedelics. Their objective is to allow doctors, and the general public, access to regulated, quality controlled LSD and psychedelics for a variety of beneficial purposes. Mainly, the goal is to treat people with post-traumatic stress, anxiety, depression, and drug addiction –but there is also cultural value in allowing some kind of regulated access to society in general. The driving point is that current global drug policy in fact harms public safety and hinders the ability for so many people to heal from debilitating emotional and psychological afflictions. There are so many previous studies that attest to the enormous benefits of LSD and the hope is that highlighting these benefits will change the popular discourse on LSD to one that views it as a human right for those suffering needlessly. This could be the start of a promising forthcoming chapter in the history of LSD.
- Sofia Vidal
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