The weird and wonderful world of LSD

The bizzarre and nuanced history of LSD

by Oliver Callaghan

LSD is a drug which has had a bizarre inception and nuanced history. What began as a pharmacological experiment rapidly evolved into a substance which was used for a wide range of uses. From groundbreaking psychiatric work all the way to abuse in mind control military projects, let’s dive into some of the most significant examples of psychedelics’ use in society since its creation.

Hofmann’s Accidental Ingestion

Dubbed as the father of the psychedelic movement due to his work on the synthesis of LSD, Albert Hofmann was the first to produce and ingest LSD. Albert Hofmann first synthesised Lysergic Acid Diethylamide (LSD) in November 1938 when studying the medicinal properties of the ergot fungus and the Mediterranean squill. Ergot is a fungus which grows on rye and can infect the grain causing muscle spasms, delusions, hallucinations, gangrenous symptoms and ultimately death to those who consume it. This process has been linked to plagues and famines which have killed hundreds of thousands of people in the past. 

Hofmann’s boss, Arthur Stoll, managed to isolate the toxic compounds in ergot: ergotamine and ergobasine. By utilising Aotamine, the medicinal compound in ergot, Stoll was able to produce medicines for his Swiss pharmaceutical company Sandoz. 

Hofmann originally intended for LSD to be used as a respiratory and circulatory stimulant. However, when he accidentally absorbed the drug in his lab in 1943, he discovered that it had a far more powerful impact on his state of consciousness. Hofmann originally was unsure of how he had experienced the effects, and believed that LSD couldn’t have been the cause for his symptoms as he had been meticulous in avoiding contamination due to his knowledge of the lethality of ergot. However, he attempted to reproduce his effects by consuming what he believed to be a miniscule dose of LSD to test whether it was the cause.

On April the 19th 1943, Hofmann intentionally ingested a 0.25 milligram dose of LSD in his lab to study its effects. A few hours later, he asked his lab partner to escort him home on a bike as he grew aware of the changes in his perception and consciousness. During his ride home, he began to feel anxious and experienced colourful kaleidoscopic hallucinations. Believing that he had been poisoned by the drug, he sent for a doctor to visit him for evaluation, yet he was reassured that he was not presenting any abnormal vital signs. 

After he was cleared by the doctor, Hofmann began to enjoy the effects LSD was having. He started to appreciate the hallucinations he was experiencing and the impact it had on his state of mind. Afterwards, Hofmann recognised the psychiatric potential that LSD could possess, and became obsessed with studying its properties and effects. 

This experience has since been coined as “Bicycle Day” by Thomas B Roberts in commemoration of Hofmann’s discovery and exploration of psychedelics on human consciousness. 

Following this, Hofmann conducted tests on numerous animals, studying LSDs lethality and potential for side effects. During this research, Hofmann discovered that cats would salivate under the influence and not attack mice when they were introduced to their environment. In small doses, spiders would even construct webs in a more precise and efficient method. 

After realising that the lethal dose of LSD was significantly higher than the dose needed to replicate the effects he experienced, Hofmann began to use LSD informally with his colleagues to further investigate its impact on the mind, and became captivated by its ability to shift perception in such a profound way. 

Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert: the Psilocybin Research Project

Timothy Leary has become renowned as one of the most infamous figures of the psychedelic revolution. A psychology professor working for Harvard, Leary was informed of a psychedelic experience his colleague Anthony Russo had while in Mexico. In August of 1960, Leary travelled to Cuernavaca Mexico with Russo and consumed psilocybin mushrooms for the first time.

This became a transformational moment for Leary, who teamed up with Richard Alpert (later known as Ram Dass) amongst other researchers on a program named the Psilocybin Research Project. Upon conducting these studies, Leary and Alpert argued that psychedelics had untapped potential to improve many aspects of society and became deeply immersed in this field of work.

One of these infamous experiments conducted by Leary along with Michael Hollingshead, Ralph Metzner et al was a study named the Concord Prison Experiment. This study aimed to reduce recidivism rates in prison. The findings from this study claimed that upon release, participants who took part in this study had a recidivism rate of 20% as compared to the 64% expected recidivism rate of the general prison population. The study also found a measurable change in prisoner’s attitude using a variety of personality tests conducted before and after the study.

While many have criticised the methodology and ethics of some of these studies, particularly those that broke university policy by including undergraduate students, there is a body of evidence and follow up analyses that have provided insight into the positive relationships between the clinical administration of psychedelics. 

These experiments conducted by Leary and Alpert consequently resulted in their termination from Harvard in 1963, however both continued to advocate for psychedelics’ spiritual and therapeutic benefits as part of the countercultural psychedelic movement, gaining notoriety in the process. 

In total, Leary was arrested 36 times, and was notoriously labelled by Richard Nixon as “the most dangerous man in America”. While some have blamed Leary and Alpert for propagating the recreational and irresponsible consumption of LSD, Leary stated in a 1966 Senate hearing on the prohibition of countercultural drugs that criminalising these substances would exponentially increase the usage of these drugs while removing the provisions which provide a suitable set and setting for responsible drug use.

Sir, the motorcar is dangerous if used improperly…Human stupidity and ignorance is the only danger human beings face in this world” (Timothy Leary on whether LSD use is extremely dangerous)

LSD’s Influence on Creativity

Many of the researchers studying the psychiatric benefits of LSD also came to notice the other effects that LSD had on brain function. One of the most prominent examples of this concerned its influence on artistic expression and creativity in subjects. 

Sidney Cohen was one of the first researchers to examine LSDs impact on creativity, alongside its viability in treating alcoholism and personality disorders. Cohen first tried LSD in 1955, expecting to experience unpleasant symptoms. However, he noted that LSD reduced his anxiety about everyday life, and provided a sense of peace and tranquillity within him.

Cohen went on to study LSDs effects on creativity with a range of fellow psychiatrists. When Cohen examined LSDs impact on artists with Aldous Huxley-  he expected LSD to cause mental deterioration and impact their creativity and coordination as the effects intensified. Yet Huxley argued that in smaller doses, LSD could significantly enhance creativity in artists and musicians due to its introspective effects on the mind. 

Oscar Janiger was also fundamental in spearheading research on the relationship between LSD and creativity. Between 1954 and 1962, Janiger provided a 2 microgram per kilogram dose of LSD to around 900 patients to examine its effects. This dose was smaller than the doses used in therapeutic contexts, and was aimed to study the phenomenological effects of LSD. A month later, subjects were asked to fill out a questionnaire, and took part in focus groups to share their experiences.

Rick Doblin conducted a forty year follow up analysis of the results from these studies with colleagues from the MAPS association, interviewing both Janiger and many of the subjects of the original study to reflect on the impacts it had. When interviewing Janiger about his sub project on artists, Janiger expressed his findings on LSDs fascinating effect on artists:

“This guy was an artist, and during the experiment he said to me, ‘I want to paint something.’ Well, I was totally taken by surprise. For one thing, I didn’t know that anyone could paint under LSD. And since he had a standard dose, [two micrograms per kilo] along with everybody else, I assumed that he would have a reasonable amount of incoordination. But, no. He said, ‘No, I want to paint.’ His training must have allowed him some ability to keep control, even under the acid. I happened to have a Kachina doll–by accident, it was just that I had been interested in Kachina dolls–so I took it down and I showed it to him. He went right to town! He had some stuff in his briefcase, and he started to do some painting, a drawing of the thing. And when it was over he was so taken by the experience, such that I’ve never seen, he said, ‘Every artist should have this experience!’” – Oscar Janiger in MAPS forty year follow up study

LSD was also renowned for its recreational use amongst many prominent musicians including Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, and the Grateful Dead amongst many others. For many of these artists, LSD provided a radically new perspective on the world which provided them with idealistic perspectives- which were echoed through their work, philosophy, and ideologies. 

The Beatles albums Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Revolver were legendary examples of the inspiration provided by psychedelics. When dentist John Riley introduced John Lennon and George Harrison to LSD without their knowledge in 1965, it permanently changed their perspective. The pair later introduced LSD to the other members, which Paul McCartney originally refused, but later admitted to consuming when questioned by the media. This transparency proved to vilify them in the media, but undoubtedly inspired many songs featured on their creative endeavours. 

“LSD was the self-knowledge which pointed the way… I was suddenly struck by great visions when I first took acid. But you’ve got to be looking for it before you can possibly find it. Perhaps I was looking without realising it. Perhaps I would have found it anyway. It would have just taken longer” – John Lennon in a 1967 interview with Hunter Davies

Some of the lyrics on the song Tomorrow Never Knows featured lyrics from Leary and Alpert’s book The Psychedelic Experience. The Beatles’ musical style was drastically shifted as a result of their experience, ultimately resulting in the production of the widely successful Lonely Hearts album in May of 1967.

This album was widely accredited by critics for its high production and songwriting value, as well as its ability to bridge vastly different genres seamlessly. LSD and other psychedelic drugs provided an experimental lens for artists which contributed to a radically different form of music known by many as psychedelic rock. The culture which LSD inspired provided a new age of experimentation and artistic expression which was admired both by those consuming psychedelics as well as those outside the counterculture. You can read more about LSDs inspiration on the Beatles here.

Alcoholics Anonymous

As mentioned earlier, the therapeutic effect of LSD on addiction was also a topic which many psychiatric researchers were optimistic about. Humphrey Osmond was an English psychiatrist who had personal experience with the drug, consequently being the first to describe its effect as “psychedelic” or mind manifesting at the New York Academy of Sciences in 1956. 

Osmond conducted research on roughly 2,000 alcoholics between 1954 and 1960 with colleague Abram Hoffer. They reported that 40% to 45% of subjects did not consume alcohol over the next year, rates which were unmatched by other forms of therapy. Osmond determined that LSD could be highly effective as a tool for addiction therapy as a result. 

Bill Wilson, one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), was intrigued by LSDs viability in treating alcoholism and supported Osmond and Hoffer’s work. Wilson had also experienced a number of LSD trips, and related to the spiritual encounter that many of the subjects of Osmond’s work had described. While this may appear strange given AAs insistence of sobriety from all drugs in their twelve step treatment plan, Wilson felt that the spiritual experience emulated by LSD could be key to reconnecting alcoholics with a higher power (one of the steps of the AAs twelve step framework). 

Many conservative medical professionals were sceptical of these findings, other studies backed up these findings, and Osmond remained optimistic about the potential of LSD in treating alcoholism up until prohibition prevented further research in this topic

Fortunately, modern research on this topic has provided promising findings which correlate with Osmond’s work. A double blind study conducted by researchers at NYU Grossman School of Medicine found 83% of the 93 participants reduced their heavy drinking, and 48% of participants had quit drinking after eight months- mirroring the earlier findings from Osmond and Hoffer. 

Work by Johns Hopkins School of Medicine has also produced a body of promising findings relating to psilocybin’s use in addiction therapy, with one 2019 study finding 83% of the 343 participants no longer meeting the criteria of alcohol use disorder following a high dose of LSD or psilocybin.

Charles Manson and Project MKUltra

Unfortunately, research on the effects of LSD have not always been used for good, and many have sought to abuse LSDs properties on the mind for more malicious purposes. Project MKUltra is often cited as one of the most egregious cases of experimental research conducted on LSD. Here is a brief overview of Project MKUltra and how infamous cult leader Charles Manson became implicated in it.

Shortly after the end of World War 2, hostilities between the West and Soviet Russia and China began to boil. Disagreements over border disputes resulted in the Communist backed KPA  (Korean People’s Army) forces invading the South, resulting in the Korean War- the first conflict of the Cold War. The Cold War was characterised by proxy wars and battles of a political, social, and psychological nature rather than the typical forms of war seen in the past. 

After the conflict was frozen in 1953, prisoners of war (POWs) were exchanged between the North and South. While America never officially joined the Korean War, American military personnel made up around 90% of the United Nations forces sent to fight in Korea. American generals speculated that American POWs demonstrated signs of being interrogated and brainwashed by communist forces, and directed the CIA to use the covert Operation MKUltra to investigate how psychedelic compounds could be used alongside interrogation tactics to brainwash and alter a subjects state of mind. 

Previous work on this topic had been conducted, such as the development of a “truth serum” using barbiturates, mescaline or morphine derivatives by the Nazis in concentration camps in World War 2. The US had also funded Project CHATTER, an earlier use of LSD in interrogation tactics by the CIA. However, MKUltra was the most extensive program aimed at studying psychoactive substances on the coercion or psychological manipulation of the mind. MKUltra was originally known as project Bluebird, then project Artichoke, before becoming MKUltra in 1953 as we know it today.

One of the key personnel behind MKUltra was Louis Jolyon West (also known as Jolly West), a psychiatrist who was given grants to conduct tests on LSD and other psychedelic compounds on memory dissociation and mind control. West was one of the psychiatrists tasked with “deprogramming” American POWs at Lackland Air Base after the Korean War, and claimed that Communist forces primarily used sleep deprivation to gather false testimonies about the US’s use of biochemical warfare in Korea and coerce prisoners into conformity. 

West never officially admitted any involvement in MKUltra, however work by author Tom O’Neill was transformational in linking West to many of the projects which are now known to the public in his book CHAOS: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties– a project which took twenty years to complete due to Project MKUltra’s obscurity from the public eye.

After West’s work at Lackland Air Base, West was appointed as the chair of the Department of Psychiatry, Neurology and Biobehavioral Sciences at the University of Oklahoma School of Medicine in 1954.

West continued to conduct tests as part of Project MKUltra, with the aim of implanting false memories in vulnerable and often unknowing subjects under the dose of psychedelics with hypnotic techniques. West also used laboratories hidden as “hippie pads” in the Haight-Ashbury Project in 1967 to observe the suggestibility of subjects under the influence of LSD. West did this by attempting to reverse subjects’ belief systems without their knowledge, using six graduate students which he had recruited. In correspondence discovered by Tom O’Neill between West and Sidney Gottlieb (the chemist who ran MKUltra and arranged the possession of LSD for the CIA) the pair discussed their work on inducing amnesia in unknowing subjects and to influencing actions or beliefs. The Haight-Ashbury Project and Project Midnight Climax (a project involving prostitutes drugging unknowing men to investigate the effects of LSD through a one-way mirror) are the most prominent examples of this work.

O’Neill frequently refers to West’s involvement in a number of prominent cases relating to LSD and counterculture. O’Neill stated that while West claimed to be one of the few who predicted the outbreak of violent LSD cults, West had previous knowledge of LSDs use in suggestibility and had worked previously with subjects to direct them how to influence individuals thoughts while on LSD by using Dr Donald Ewen Cameron and Gordon Thomas’ work on de-patterning (exposing subjects to incredibly high doses of psychedelics then breaking down belief systems into new ones) and psychic driving (using hypnotic techniques to create a suggestible state of mind then manipulate this to plant agendas or coerce behaviour which could be forgotten after the fact).

Charles Manson, responsible for the infamous Manson Family cult which killed at least nine people including pregnant actress Sharon Tate in 1969 had many suspicious ties to West and his work. Manson had a traumatic childhood, and had spent most of his life incarcerated from an early age. Manson was known to use LSD regularly, and capitalised on his followers’ suggestibility while on the drug to take part in criminal and sexual activities with complete obedience. Evidence discovered by O’Neill indicated that Manson was extensively monitored by Federal authorities, and that Manson was provided immunity from prosecution by his parole officer and criminologist Roger Smith for numerous crimes he and his cult had committed in the two years prior to the 1969 murders. 

Manson lived in Haight-Ashbury during the time of West’s work, and was known to frequently visit Roger Smith’s clinic for parole visits. Manson and his followers were well known by many of the staff working there. Saliently, West was known to recruit subjects for his work at Smith’s clinic during this time; circumstantially linking West’s work on manipulation and mind control with Manson’s ability to run his cult to the point of murder.

As an interesting side note, Charles Manson and Timothy Leary were placed in adjacent cells for a time in Folsom prison. Manson was bewildered at why Leary didn’t use his research to control his subjects, and had reportedly told Leary: 

“They put you in jail so I could continue your work” – The Raw Story 

The MKUltra Project spanned for twenty years in total, and most records of its activities were erased upon its closure. The operation is largely cloaked in secrecy and was notorious for its lack of informed consent and malicious aims. Many who were staffed in the project were too afraid to speak out, and those who were subjected to its studies were often permanently scarred from its effects. 

Two years after the Manson murders had occurred, LSD was prohibited by the 1971 United Nations Convention on Psychotropic Substances. LSD’s reputation corroded shortly afterwards, shifting from a substance that was fascinating to medical professionals and transcendent for recreational users to an illegal, dangerous substance that had demonstrated its potential to unhinge society.

In my opinion, Project MKUltra was the black swan event of psychedelic research. In retrospect, it should be no surprise that those in positions of unconstrained power with an almost infinite access to funding would be willing to use the emergence of a newly synthesised psychedelic substance to experiment with its utility in moulding consciousness. However, it is imperative that this project is separated from other forms of research during this time. 

The MKUltra Project highlights how LSD and drugs in general can be used in a wide range of settings, and can be used for good and bad depending on the context and intentions of its use. Data on the harm of drugs repeatedly demonstrates that psilocybin and LSD are not addictive substances, and are some of the least harmful substances to users or wider society. However, the lack of information about these drugs can lead many to stigmatise them. 

Drug harms in the UK: a multicriteria decision analysis – The Lancet


I believe that both the historical context and contemporary use of psychedelics in clinical settings demonstrates their utility as catalysts for medical professionals in transforming many people’s lives for the better. Furthermore, I am optimistic that more research on the topic will continue to build evidence for their application in treating depression, PTSD, and addiction issues.

Given the complicated and nuanced history of psychedelics, I can understand why substances like LSD have generated concern and scepticism for many. The prospect of a substance that can profoundly alter consciousness and perception can be alarming to those who do not have experience or knowledge about it. 

It will require significantly more research on the topic before more can be convinced about its clinical application. Furthermore, the effective dissemination of information about the rigorous work by institutions like Johns Hopkins will be essential in disarming the stigmas that have been generated over the years.

Hopefully, unethical programs like Project MKUltra will not continue to muddy the waters concerning this promising form of research in the future.

The piece was written by Oliver Callaghan, Intern at Volteface. X @Oliver1331556

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