FROM THE ARCHIVES: down the rabbit hole

ArtistejenlucIt's madness preparing for a book launch (August 31, y'all), which means it's time yet again for a trip to the cocktail party archives. This week's offering is inspired by Annalee's post over at io9 reporting on two new papers published this week, in Science and Nature, confirming that hallucinogenic drugs stimulate healthy brain activity — possibly even promoting the growth of neurons. I happen to have blogged about the possible useful purposes for LSD back in November 2007, inspired by a Dali exhibit in Los Angeles.

While vast numbers of Angelenos stormed the malls in search of holiday shopping bargains over the weekend, the Spousal Unit and I attempted to inject a bit of culture into our Saturday evening by meeting local pals at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to take in the new Salvador Dali retrospective. Dali is my favorite of the Surrealist painters, but the experience proved even more surreal than expected. Also shorter. I never made it past the halfway point of the exhibit, thanks to a sudden onset of illness. (Yes, I'd been feeling odd earlier. I just didn't realize I was getting genuinely sick.) I was standing there, taking in the dream-like imagery of early sketches and paintings and intermittently watching dueling film screens showing Un Chien Andalou (really disturbing stuff!) and L'Age d'Or, when there was a roaring in my ears and the images started blurring together into a kaleidoscope of color. I barely made it to the ladies' room without passing out. The Spousal Unit gallantly took me home shortly thereafter, whereupon I proceeded to sleep for the next 14 hours.

In retrospect, it was rather fitting that I saw the exhibit (okay, the first half of it) in what amounted to a semi-fugue state, since Dali incorporated his own dream-like imagery in his paintings — clearly much more Freudian and twisted than my own dreams, which tend to focus on more mundane frustrations, like trying to pack in time for a flight. (This might explain why I am a science writer with a practical bent, rather than a famous Surrealist painter.) The only thing that might have been more appropriate would have been to view the exhibit while under the influence of LSD or magic mushrooms. Speculation about Dali's possible use of LSD or 'shrooms abounds, but LSD didn't appear on the scene until the late 1930s,  and didn't become popular until the 1960s. Dali's paintings were weird long before that. The artist liked to experiment, but didn't advocate habitual drug use: "Everyone should eat hashhish, but only once," he observed. He didn't need drugs to be creative. As he once wrote to LSD advocate Timothy Leary, "Why do you need LSD, when you have Salvador Dali?" Leary himself admitted that Dali was "the only person who can paint LSD without having to take LSD."

Personally, I have never dropped acid, or eaten magic mushrooms, or ever done much in the way of drugs apart from a few exploratory puffs of marijuana in college — not for moral reasons, it just didn't interest me. I was more about exploring and experiencing reality than escaping it, and I suspect Dali was, too. This was a man with a powerful lust for life — maybe a bit too powerful at times. But his passion and appetites extended beyond the physical to the intellectual: early on, he was devoutly Freudian, clearly evidenced in his paintings from that era, but he was also fascinated by mathematics, geometry, and physics. The famed melting clocks in The Persistence of Memory may have been at least partially inspired by Einstein's theory of relativity (time is relative, not absolute), and in the 1950s, Freud was supplanted by Werner Heisenberg (particularly the Uncertainty Principle) as Dali's intellectual father-figure: Disintegrationofpersistence Dali painted The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory in 1954 to symbolize that transition from his early to his later work. (The painting almost looks like it's being quantized.) He was one of the first modern artists to incorporate holography into his work, and also experimented with visual representations of a fourth spatial dimension.

And if his comments about hashhish are to be believed, he also had an interest in chemistry. I wasn't able to find any record about whether Dali ever tried LSD, but I wouldn't be surprised if he had — just once. It's a fascinating substance in its own right. Technically, it's lysergic acid diethylamide, a member of the tryptamine drug family. It's derived from ergot, a grain fungus commonly found on rye, and was first synthesized in 1938 by a Swiss chemist named Albert Hoffman. He wasn't looking for psychedelic drugs; initially, at least, he had hopes that it could be used as a circulatory and respiratory stimulant. (He did eventually develop another ergot derivative that became a widely used medication in obstetrics, called Methergine.) However, animal tests showed no such effects — although he did notice that the animals became "restless" under the compound's influence.

Hoffman didn't realize what he'd synthesized for another five years, when he accidentally absorbed some of the compound through his skin. He became dizzy (just like me in the Dali exhibit… hmmm…), went home to bed, and experienced a "dreamlike state" filled with intense, kaleidoscopic colors and "extraordinary shapes." Those effects were just from trace amounts of the stuff. Three days later, Hoffman repeated the experiment with a much larger dose of 150 micrograms (20-30 micrograms is sufficient to cause mild effects).

That day — April 19, 1943 — became known in his journals as Bicycle Day, because Hoffman was so incapacitated by the dosage that he had to ask his lab assistant to give him a ride home on the latter's bike. Hoffman had a pretty bad trip to start with, becoming convinced he was demon-possessed, that his next-door neighbor was a witch, or that he had gone insane, but after a few hours, the pleasant pretty images and psychedelic colors returned, along with a bit of synesthesia: he wrote that every sound was transformed into optical perceptions. And far from being hungover the next day, he was a bit tired, but cheerful and optimistic, with heightened senses.

Hoffman's discovery was initially embraced as a possible drug treatment for mental illness, most notably schizophrenia, but by the 1950s this proposed connection had been disproved. The CIA notoriously — and controversially, since the subjects didn't know they were participating in such a trial — experimented with LSD as a possible mind control drug during the Cold War, eventually concluding that it was of little practical use in that application. (So did the British government; in fact, one 19-year-old British test subject reported seeing "walls melting, cracks appearing in people's faces… eyes would run down cheeks, Salvador-Dali-type faces…")

It wasn't until 1961 that Leary, then a psychology professor at Harvard, and his colleague Richard Alpert, brought the substance into the popular culture at large. They conducted a study of 400 test subjects who were administered LSD, and noted that 90% wanted to repeat the experience, 83% said they had "learned something or had insight," and 62% believed the experience had changed their life for the better. As Leary and Alpert delved deeper into the drug's effects, they became less about the science, and more about spiritual enlightenment, turning into hallucinogenic gurus of the Flower Power movement with their slogan, "Turn on, tune in, drop out." By 1971, LSD had been banned in the US, even for scientific study, and many other countries followed suit.

And yet, LSD has, if not exactly flourished, done a pretty brisk business over the years, maybe because it's pretty easy to make. You just take the liquid solution and spray it onto a substrate of some kind. Initially, people soaked sugar cubes in the substance, and then started encapsulating the LSD in pill form. Next came thin squares of gelatin, dubbed "windowpanes," and finally, makers hit on the idea of using blotter paper: sheets of paper soaked in LSD, which is dried and cut into small individually dosed squares that the user could simply pop onto his/her tongue, or swallow. This approach appealed artistically, as well, since the various distributors could print their own unique designs on the blotter paper — kind of a trademark, or signature. LSD-related blotter paper is kind of an art form all its own

For all its reputation, LSD isn't particularly addictive. Most users are young (18-25), and their interest quickly wanes, especially if they have a bad trip. Tobacco, cocaine, and alcohol produce far more addictive behaviors. True, LSD is powerful stuff: a single dose between 100 and 500 micrograms, about one-tenth the mass of a grain of sand, is sufficient to induce several hours of psychedelic visions. But while people may be injured while under its influence, there are currently no fatalities on record directly attributable to an overdose of the drug. We always hear about LSD-related flashbacks, but there is evidence that these tend to occur primarily in those already prone to some psychological problems. And the tales that LSD crystallizes in spinal fluid or in fat cells where it can dislodge and cause nasty flashbacks many years later isn't supported by medical evidence. LSD breaks down completely in the body within hours, and any metabolites are purged within a few days.

In fact, there is evidence that it might be an effective treatment for cluster headaches. (This was actually featured in an episode of House, wherein magic mushrooms were used to treat the cluster headaches of a young chess champion.) Cluster headaches are like migraines, only much, much worse: they are characterized by excruciating pain that can last from 15 minutes to three hours, and attacks can occur anywhere from two to eight times a day in the midst of a cycle. Peter Goadsby, the world's leading researcher on cluster headaches, has described the pain as being "worse than natural childbirth or even amputation without anesthetic." Given that, and the profound ineffectiveness of most conventional drug therapies to date, it's not surprising that chronic sufferers are turning to illicit substances like LSD and magic mushrooms (technically, psilocybin).

The Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) supported one of the first scientific studies of this reported efficacy, conducted by Andrew Sewell and John Halpern of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Research Center at McLean Hospital in Belmont Massachusetts. It's affiliated with Harvard, where Leary and Alpert did their controversial LSD research in the early 1960s, but the similarities end there. Sewell and Halpern show no signs of turning into New Age gurus of any sort; they're interested in the science. They interviewed over 50 sufferers of cluster headaches who admitted to self-treating with psychedelics to alleviate their symptoms (medical records verified that those studied did indeed have the condition). And they found that ingesting psilocybin or LSD reduced cluster headache pain, and even could interrupt cluster headache cycles to that no more headaches occurred. Eighty-five percent said that the illegal drugs aborted attacks, stopping them altogether in 52% of those surveyed.

The study is admittedly flawed in its design, since there are so many potential sources of bias, but Sewell and Halpern think their findings warrant greater study, and applied to the FDA for permission to conduct a randomized, double-blind, carefully controlled experimental study of the effects of LSD and psilocybin on cluster headaches. No one is quite sure why the drugs might be effective, but the working hypothesis is that LSD and psilocybin are both tryptamines, with chemical structures very similar to natural neurotransmitters like serotonin. MAPS is partially funding the study, as well as investigations into psilocybin as a treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder, or ecstasy as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. Not surprising, MAPS describes itself as "a nonprofit alliance of scientists and campaigners that funds research into the benefits of psychoactive drugs, and lobbies for changes in US laws." I guess we'll all have to stay tuned in to see what transpires next.

All that research into LSD from my sickbed (*cough, moan*) made me grateful that I don't suffer from cluster headaches, and placed my own mild discomfort and general wooziness into proper perspective. And I'm almost feeling back to my normal self, although that might partly be due to euphoria over the shiny new iPhone the Spousal Unit purchased for me as an early Christmas present. That, and plying me with bowls of chicken soup and pomegranate juice, seems to have kicked that nasty ol' virus to the curb. We have the bestest Spousal Unit ever. Now I can answer email, make calls, and download nifty YouTube videos, like this clip of the incomparable Grace Slick performing "White Rabbit" with Jefferson Airplane — a song she has publicly admitted is in part about LSD, albeit mostly inspired by (and openly alluding to) Lewis Carroll:

One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you
Don't do anything at all
Go ask Alice
When she's ten feet tall

And if you go chasing rabbits
And you know you're going to fall
Tell 'em a hookah smoking caterpillar
Has given you the call
Recall Alice
When she was just small

When men on the chessboard
Get up and tell you where to go
And you've just had some kind of mushroom
And your mind is moving low
Go ask Alice
I think she'll know

When logic and proportion
Have fallen sloppy dead
And the White Knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen's "off with her head!"
Remember what the dormouse said:
Feed your head*

*Actually, the Dormouse never said that, per Chapter XI of Alice in Wonderland: "'But what did the Dormouse say?' one of the jury asked. 'That I can't remember,' said the Hatter." So the Divine Ms. Grace took some artistic liberties.

15 thoughts on “FROM THE ARCHIVES: down the rabbit hole”

  1. This was a great article — thanks! I continue to be amazed at what can be done with pharmacology. Did you see the article in the NY Times this week about using Ecstasy (MDMA) to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

  2. Was it really “Feed your head”? I always heard “Keep your head”. That would be the end result of remembering what it was that the dormouse said, seeing as the Mad Hatter is condemned to beheading at the end of the trial. The implication being that if he had remembered he might have been spared. But sadly all that analysis must now be jettisoned.

  3. The lyrics of White Rabbit say, “Remember what the dormouse said.”
    That’s without cheating. I was all grown up and a highly responsible member of the Young Republicans in 1969, so I am able to remember everything. Like the rest of the song, this line is a reference to Alice in Wonderland.
    As you mentioned,the dormouse never said “Feed your head” in the story. Only Grace Slick said that. And perhaps it was you who installed a colon after “Remember what the dormouse said.”
    In my interpretation, when she sings “remember what the dormouse said” she was referring to this segment of the story (yes, I figured this out long ago, on an acid trip with my friend Kevin, who supplied the drugs and made me take them)
    “I wish you wouldn’t squeeze so,” said the Dormouse, who was sitting next to her. “I can hardly breathe.”
    “I can’t help it,” said Alice very meekly: “I’m growing.”
    “You’ve no right to grow here,” said the Dormouse.
    I think this was a cautionary about what could be expected from “The System” as a result of out-of-step behavior, folllowed by personal, GraceSlickian advice to “feed your head.”
    Loved your website!
    Best to you,

  4. Great post, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate reading a post about LSD, psilocybin (and Dali) that not only avoids spreading the common misinformation but actively debunks lots of it! Still though, the line “I was more about exploring and experiencing reality than escaping it” bothered me, as I know from personal experience that interest in these substances does not have to go together with “escaping from reality”. Sometimes it helps to see the knowledge you think you have around the world from a fresh perspective (or as close as you can get in this world), which can aid in re-evaluating the things you take for granted. I’m not implying that it’s necessary or even positive for everyone to have experiences of this sort, but there are lots of us that claim to have had them and gained immensely from it, while still being productive members of society that puts no one (including ourselves) in any kind of danger.
    But everyone to vis own, you and everyone who does not wish to use certain mind-altering substances (including psilocybin, caffeine and theobromine, which is present in chocolate) are certainly free not to. Don’t get me started on the hypocrisy of the current legislature though, that forbids certain substances based on fear and ignorance when there are drugs of much higher toxicity (both acute and long-term) sold everywhere – alcohol comes to mind.

  5. I tend to believe drug use is more about coping with reality, and most of those I know who have used drugs did so because the drugs made them feel great and helped them get things done. The avoiders tend to stick with the legal drugs like alcohol, for whatever reason.
    The psychedelics are more for experimenting with alternative views of reality. You can get the same effect by not sleeping for several days. A psychotic state is pretty much guaranteed after a week or so without sleeping.

  6. Oh, I agree Dali was a miserable human being… that’s got nothing to do with his artistry. I don’t confuse the artist with the man.
    As for the comments on escaping reality and such, I think we can all cite anecdotal evidence for both sides of the equation. Truth is, not all of us need to take mind-altering drugs to gain a fresh perspective; others find it helpful; for still others, it’s an escape, and ends up hurting them in the long run. Depends on the individual. I was very careful not to make moral judgments in my post, because as mind-altering substances go, LSD doesn’t strike me as any better or worse than pot, alcohol, nicotine, etc. I have always had zero interest in taking drugs because that’s just not my style, not out of any sense of misguided “morality.” Know thyself, and be true to that self…

  7. Great post, very interesting stuff. I really hope that there are more studies about the effects psilocybin on cluster headaches. I knew someone a while back who suffered from it, and to hear him describe it, it sounded like pretty much the worst pain imaginable. I imagine that this could be very controversial, much like medical marijuana, but I hope it happens anyway. Those kind of moral objections always seemed very odd to me, since the drugs would only be prescribed by licensed physicians who deal with drugs far more dangerous and addictive than LSD and marijuana, and if there is a genuine medical need, what’s the problem? (I guess this isn’t like a wholly original viewpoint amongst science-people and might seem like a superfluous comment, I just thought I’d throw that out there).
    Too bad you didn’t get to see all of that Dali-exhibit, I can’t get enough of the crazy dude. Anyway, I hope you get well soon! (your illness wasn’t by any chance some really obscure syndrome from the jungles of Peru only transmitted by the ground-up bones of a panther, or something? ‘Cause I would love to read a blog-post about that!)

  8. “Hofmann” has one F.
    This post was a bit of a “flashback” for me (heh heh) — back when I was doing a whole bunch of Wikipedia work, I put some time into overhauling their LSD article. The stuff about Methergine, the poor kid who saw “Salvador-Dali-type faces”, cluster headaches. . . I wrote those!
    (Of course, anything I wrote the spring before last has probably been overhauled since, but it’s still pretty freaky.)
    I’ve had some wicked hallucinations from sleep deprivation, particularly when I’d been staying awake to write science fiction. The brain is a remarkable thing. There’s even a physics connection: Jack Cowan (U. Chicago) and his colleagues have cooked up a “toy model” of the visual cortex which uses statistical-physics techniques to predict what kinds of shapes people see in drug- or migraine-induced hallucinations.

  9. I recall reading that Ergot poisoning was cited as a possible reason for the beliefs in lycanthropy and witchcraft as mass hallucination. Any incite anyone?

  10. I recognized the art on the blotter acid right away. That’s from the dream sequence in the Disney film Dumbo. Probably inspired by psychedelics, although in the movie it was just champagne.

  11. Jacinto C. Malido

    While ergot poisoning was, indeed, likely the source of many such “hallucinatory beliefs” in lycanthropy, I’m starting to believe more and more that it was likely episodic cluster headaches that gave birth to that particular legend. Please don’t get me wrong – ergot and other alkaloids played their part in plenty of those beliefs.
    It’s really a fairly well-known (or well-suppositioned) “fact” that that the legend of witches “riding brooms” is borne of the application of a heavily-alkalyzed paste (most likely a belladonna/rendered animal fat product)to, errr, ummm……more sensitive and absobant parts of the female anatomy.
    As to lycanthropy, however, I’ve suffered from cluster headaches for years and I can certainly see where the two cross paths in some crucial areas:
    Firstly, the biggest seasonal onset of ECH for many seems to be in the months of Oct and Nov…….which also seems to correspond with the Luna di Cacciatore, or “Hunter’s Moon”.
    The second largest contributing factor, I believe, is the nature of the affliction and its onset in the average sufferer. Anything that can take you from no pain to unbearable pain in less than five minutes and then disappear in exactly the same manner would have likely been viewed as as “transformation” by dark-age humanity.
    Lastly (for now), is the fact that the symptoms of ECH mimic those of clinical and traditional lycanthropy……I, personally, look like a deranged animal, have trouble making sense to people, snarl, growl, howl, scream and destroy anything in sight. If I were near a chicken, rabbit, or some other small animal, I have no doubt I may very well break its neck, take a bite out of it or worse… least at the height of a cycle………….oh, wait – cycle. Hmmmm. The connection deepens.
    It’s “feed your head”, but the author is correct – the doormouse never actually said that.
    He muttered something, but I killed and ate the little f***er.

  12. Some years ago, my old chum Bonzo received an envelope bearing his address and containing a small quantity of mescalin…and the note within, apart from identifying the contents, simply said “Enjoy!”. This left him with a very large problem, as he had no idea of the correct dosage level – and the interweb wasn’t even a mote of an idea in the mind of Tim Berners-Lee. His quandary was that, if he took, say half of it and it had no effect, he would have wasted it all…so, he took the lot. In one hit. He ended up in the park having conversations with squirrels…and to this day, he still hasn’t been able to be sure whether this was an illusion , or if the substance truly enabled interspecies conversations…..

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