Your Brain On LSD Looks A Lot Like A Baby's
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Picture yourself in a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies. Now picture yourself as a baby. You gaze up at your mother. She's got those kaleidoscope eyes. Pretty trippy, right? Turns out in a new study of brain scans, that the minds of people on LSD function in a similar way to babies' brains. Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris from Imperial College London's Center for Neuropsychopharmacology joins us from the studios of the BBC to talk about this study. Thanks so much for being with us.
ROBIN CARHART-HARRIS: Pleasure.
MARTIN: So I understand this was the first time that brain scans like this have ever been done, looking specifically at the brains of people who have used LSD. How much LSD had your subjects taken? I mean, what were the prerequisites for a brain that you were going to scan?
CARHART-HARRIS: Yeah, so they had to have had at least one experience with a psychedelic drug. So that includes LSD. It also includes magic mushrooms, other concoctions like ayahuasca, which is an Amazonian brew that has psychedelic properties. We gave them a moderate dose of LSD, roughly equivalent to what you might call a hit of LSD or one blotter of LSD if it was to be taken recreationally.
MARTIN: So what kind of vetting did you have to do of the participants in your study because we should say different people respond to LSD in different ways? There are risks associated with this drug.
CARHART-HARRIS: That's quite right. All drugs have risks, and LSD's no exception. One of the risks is that you might recruit someone who has a psychological vulnerability. So we're very, very careful when we recruit our volunteers to ensure that they have a solid mental health background. They don't have any personal or family history of any psychotic disorders - so those are things like schizophrenia. We have a psychiatrist assess them. We also evaluate their health. So they are very thoroughly screened.
MARTIN: Yeah. OK, let's get to the big revelation that apparently people who use LSD, their brain turns into baby brain. What does that mean (laughter)? And what does that look like?
CARHART-HARRIS: So let's think. What is it like to be a baby? What's it like to be a child? Our emotions go up and down. We might be in a sort of happy, sort of ecstatic state one minute, giggling, finding everything funny and silly - similar things happen on psychedelics - and then the next minute there's a sudden shift and we're bawling our eyes out, you know? Similar kind of emotional sensitivities and hyper-imaginative processes occur with a psychedelic.
Also something quite intriguing is that sense of wonder, that sense of awe that you certainly see with psychedelics. Sometimes it's framed in a sort of mystical or spiritual way. But it's interesting if you look at some literature, particularly someone like William Wordsworth who talks about the infant state as being a kind of heavenly state where we're sort of closer to what you would call God, in a way.
MARTIN: What do you do with this information? Is it just interesting? What can you do with this knowledge now?
CARHART-HARRIS: It is interesting. But we're not just doing it for the sake of finding out how LSD works in the brain. Let's think of psychopathologies or mental disorders. You know, we might think of something like depression or perhaps something like addiction. Certain patterns, certain configurations in the brain can become overly reinforced. And some of the range of brain activity becomes sort of narrowed and limited. If you have these very debilitating disorders, then perhaps you could introduce something like LSD, which works to introduce a kind of window of plasticity or malleability - conditions for change, essentially - to try and sort of dismantle these entrenched patterns.
And if done so with careful preparation, with attendant psychotherapy and then careful working through what is experienced under the LSD and talking through what is experienced, we've seen and others have seen that it can actually be used for good ends.
MARTIN: Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris of the Imperial College London. Thanks so much for talking with us.
CARHART-HARRIS: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.