How LSD Works? Semantic Activation In LSD: Evidence From Picture Naming

A recent experiment conducted by the German scientist Neiloufar Family of University of Kaiserslautern and five English scientists from University College London, has illuminated the fact that LSD expands semantic capacity and reduces self-monitoring skills that increase the propensity of lexis errors for semantically similar items.

Published in the journal Language, Cognition and Neuroscience, the investigation involved 10 participants who underwent two rounds of viewing subsequent images. Candidates had to come up with a name of the object in the image. Among the two tests which were held a week apart, one involved a candidate under the influence of LSD while in the other test he/she received a placebo.

How LSD works? The results showed that candidates when under the effect of LSD were less likely to precisely name the object they saw. However, the names they suggested were conceptually related to the original image they were shown, like calling out cat when shown the image of a dog. Researchers reported this as “spread of semantic activation around a target concept” in the LSD injected participants. The semantic process deals with the language, ability to reason on the basis of prior knowledge and problem solving.

With LSD the problem solving is not focused on the particular object, rather on the genera of the object that led to the enhanced or colorful effect of LSD. Impairment in semantic activity leads to Alzheimer’s diseases, autism and schizophrenia.

Exactly how LSD increases the linguistic capacity is unknown. However, the increase in lexical error is thought to originate from an overall decrease in attention. One of the test subjects reported “sometimes I’ll feel a bit slow because my brain has been off somewhere else and I have to bring it back to focus”.

The study disclosed that it had a secondary motive, to figure out the appropriate amount of LSD in further studies. In the current research, titled ‘Semantic Activation In LSD: Evidence From Picture Naming’, the investigators employed between 40 to 80 micrograms of LSD in the injection.

The authors are hoping that soon LSD research will be accompanied by brain scans. Not only will such studies reveal more about the substance under examination, the brain scans will possibly yield new insight into the semantic/cognitive functioning of the brain.

First author Neiloufar Family, a psycholinguist, remarked: “These findings are relevant for the renewed exploration of psychedelic psychotherapy, which is being developed for depression and other mental illnesses. The effects of LSD (also called acid) on language can result in a cascade of associations that allow quicker access to far away concepts stored in the mind.”

Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) is a psychedelic, meaning it enhances the user’s consciousness. The drug has a confused reputation in the US where it is used as an entheogen i.e., a substance used to provoke a spiritual experience and has been tested for possible brainwashing effects by the CIA in the Project MKUltra.

Maia Szalavitz, a neuroscience reporter at Time magazine, writes that the exact effect of LSD on any person depends on the personality, background and biology, summed up by the term ‘set’, and the condition and environment — ‘setting’ — where the substance is taken. Depending on these two, the results can vary from a moment of epiphany to delusions of danger resulting in panic.

How LSD Works? History Of LSD Research

In the in 1960s, there was a massive amount of research work initiated to probe the use of psychedelics like LSD in psychotherapies. However, due to the notoriety of such drugs amongst the general population and politicians, the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 effectively banned them, halting the research in the US.

The authorities ruled that drugs like LSD had “no currently accepted medical use”.

Meanwhile, the CIA’s Project MKUltra continued till 1974. Initiated in the 1950s, this operation was a result of suspicions of the agency that other countries were testing LSD in the hope that it could make interrogation of prisoners easy. However, because of serious ethical repercussions, the agency conducted these experiments in secrecy and is known to have used the US citizens themselves as Guinee pigs. The trials involved secretly mixing the drug in an unsuspecting citizen’s drink at a bar. In more extreme cases the agents would hire prostitutes and observe the intoxicated intercourse.

However, because of the very reasons these trials were held in secrecy and were highly contingent, no sound scientific data was obtained.

Although slowed by the US’s withdrawal, research on psychedelic effects of LSD elsewhere on the globe, continues. A leading insight came from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology when the meta-analysis by Teri Krebs revealed that sessions of LSD helped alcoholics in overcoming alcohol abuse.

The analysis used the data from trials conducted in the US and Canada in the 1960s, which were suspended in 1970. Individually these trials were not able to reach conclusions because they lacked a significant sample size. But when collectively considered, the sum of 529 participants shows a clear pattern of alcoholism after an LSD therapy.

Teri Krebs, after successfully exploiting the data from the 40-year-old US studies, remarked, “We were surprised that the effect was so clear and consistent.”

Robin Carhart-Harris, a psycho-pharmacologist, when speculating about the mechanism of how LSD impacts the brain, said: “Psychedelics probably work in addiction by making the brain function more chaotically for a period — a bit like shaking up a snow globe — weakening reinforced brain connections and dynamics.”

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