My Kool Acid Test

Article excerpt

Byline: Marc Lewis

For most of my late teens and 20s, I tried to rewire my brain by ingesting every drug I could lay my hands on. Which probably helps explain why I became a neuroscientist, studying the brain changes brought about by drugs and addiction.

My drug-taking adventures began in the late '60s--when the world seemed wide open, waiting to reveal its wonders. I had just arrived in Berkeley, Calif., and my newfound friends and I were spellbound by the mind-expanding potential of LSD.

Blast Off: My first acid trip was both wonderful and terrifying. I was in a friend's apartment, among a rag-tag assortment of hippie types, and I swallowed a little purple pill during a prolonged Monopoly game. About 45 minutes later, the room started to disintegrate. I had to stop playing; I could no longer read the numbers on the dice. The dice, the plaster walls, the chattering voices, the facial hair of my compatriots--each perceptual gestalt broke apart into its constituent details, moving, changing, swirling, arranging themselves into patterns of geometric beauty or turgid ugliness. My senses and thoughts were out of control, and the world rushed in relentlessly.

So this is what they mean by "better living through chemistry." LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) goes to work in the brain by blocking serotonin receptors. Serotonin's job is to reduce the firing rate of neurons that get too excited because of the volume or intensity of incoming information. Serotonin filters out unwanted noise, and normal brains rely on that. So, by blocking serotonin, LSD allows information to flow through the brain unchecked. It opens up the floodgates--what author Aldous Huxley called the "Doors of Perception"--and that's just what it felt like the first time I took it.

Inner Spacemen: LSD was invented by the Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann in the 1930s, but its psychedelic properties were not apparent until he tried it on himself, in 1943, and thought he was going mad. Psychiatric researchers tried to treat disorders ranging from schizophrenia to alcoholism with LSD. The CIA and the U.S. military got into the act in the '50s and '60s, with the hope of manipulating potential informers or instilling mass confusion in enemy troops. But the effects of LSD remained elusive and unpredictable, and it was deemed more trouble than it was worth in government circles. …