Before the drug was banned in the late 1960s in view of potential risks in taking it, a lot of research had been done in clinical settings. Many users also published reports of their experiences. Although the effects of LSD vary depending upon the dosage, the mood of the user and the setting, certain common trends have been observed.
Enhanced visual perception
The first prominent effect of the drug is an enhanced sensitivity of our perceptual faculties:
Strange shapes and patterns are seen even when the eyes are closed. When its discoverer, Albert Hoffman, first became intoxicated with it, he reported seeing fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors with his eyes closed. Ordinary objects and surfaces seem to ripple as if breathing.
Often, intense depersonalization is experienced in this early stage. A user realized that “she was unable to distinguish her body from the chair she was sitting on or from her lover’s body.” (Frosch, Robbins, & Stern, 1965). According to Dr. Gelpke, my own hands somehow were in my way: I put them in my pockets, let them dangle, entwined them behind my back . . . as some burdensome objects, which must be dragged around with us and which no one knows quite how to stow away.
Distorted sense of time
Time seems to be stretching, repeating itself, changing speed or stopping (wikipedia).
It felt like everything that was going to happen, everything that had just happened, and everything that was happening for about 3 seconds before and 3 seconds after where I was in time, was condensed into one moment. [http://www.erowid.org/experiences/exp.php?ID=4048]
Here is the experience of a 25-year old advertising agent, related by John Cashman, taken from Hoffman’s book:
I think it was several minutes before I realized that the light was changing color kaleidoscopically with the different pitch of the musical sounds, bright reds and yellows in the high register, deep purple in the low. I laughed. I had no idea when it had started. I simply knew it had. I closed my eyes, but the colored notes were still there. I was overcome by the remarkable brilliance of the colors. I tried to talk, to explain what I was seeing, the vibrant and luminous colors. Somehow it didn’t seem important. With my eyes open, the radiant colors flooded the room, folding over on top of one another in rhythm with the music. Suddenly I was aware that the colors were the music. The discovery did not seem startling. Values, so cherished and guarded, were becoming unimportant.
Finally, strange transcendence may be experienced involving ‘ego death’, sensation of ‘being born’ and ‘harmony with the universe’.
The 25-year old agent, quoted above, realizes the presence of a large, pulsating and luminous egg suspended in the room. Slowly the egg dissolves into a flower that, according to him, was like no flower I have ever seen. Its incredibly exquisite petals opened on the room, spraying indescribable colors in every direction. I felt the colors and heard them as they played across my body, cool and warm, reedlike and tinkling.
The petals of this flower are soon perceived as being eaten up by its own black, shiny center “that appeared to be formed by the backs of a thousand ants”. This is followed by the horrifying realization that the black thing was actually devouring me. I was the flower and this foreign, creeping thing was eating me!
Finally, I felt myself dissolving into the terrifying apparition, my body melting in waves into the core of blackness, my mind stripped of ego and life and, yes even death. In one great crystal instant I realized that I was immortal. I asked the question: “Am I dead?” But the question had no meaning. Meaning was meaningless. Suddenly there was white light and the shimmering beauty of unity. There was light everywhere, white light with a clarity beyond description. I was dead and I was born and the exultation was pure and holy. My lungs were bursting with the joyful song of being. There was unity and life and the exquisite love that filled my being was unbounded. My awareness was acute and complete.
In a bad trip, the experiences can be terrorizing. This is hell, I thought. There is indeed no Devil and no demons, and yet they were perceptible in us, filled up the room, and tormented us with unimaginable terror. Imagination, or not? Hallucinations, projections? – insignificant questions when confronted with the reality of fear that was fixed in our bodies and shook us: the fear alone, it existed. – The experiences of a painter.
Heavenly or hellish, the experiences are intensely meaningful for most users. The above-mentioned painter realizes: I realized that in the horror of the passing night I had experienced my own individual condition: selfishness. My egotism had kept me separated from mankind and had led me to inner isolation… Therefore everything had seemed strange and unconnected to me, so scornful and threatening.
According to Dr. Hoffman: “Such a variety and contradiction of reactions to a drug is found only in LSD and the related hallucinogens. The explanation for this lies in the complexity and variability of the conscious and subconscious minds of people, which LSD is able to penetrate and to bring to life as experienced reality.”
How does LSD bring about such changes?
LSD primarily affects by interfering with the normal activity of a chemical called serotonin in those areas of the brain concerned with transmission of visual information. Ordinarily when serotonin-containing neurons are activated, they release serotonin, whose action helps the brain to filter incoming sensory messages. Without the action of serotonin, the brain would be flooded by perceptual and emotional input-particularly visual input-and people would experience more sensations, see more details, distort visual images and even see things not actually there. (Comer, 1995).
Here are the two text references mentioned in this post.
1. Frosch, W. A., Robbins, E. S., & Stern, M. (1965). Untoward reactions to lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) resulting in hospitalization. New England Journal Medicine, 273, 1235-1239.
2. Comer, R. J. (1995). Abnormal Psychology, 2nd ed. New York: Freeman and Co. p. 461.
3. The explanation of LSD’s effects in Comer is referenced to Jacobs, B. L. (Ed.). (1984). Hallucinogens: neurochemical, behavioral, and clinical perspectives. New York: Springer.