Understanding psychedelics

What is psychedelics?

Psychedelics are usually regarded as a class of stimulants – or drugs – that will have a psychoactive effect when they are taken. In certain contexts, the term psychedelics will also refer to visual effects – such as those in art or part of films – where the images reflect the sort of psychoactive 'trip' these drugs often bring about. LSD is one of the best-known human-made psychedelic drugs around, but there are perfectly natural psychedelics that grow in the form of fungi – so-called magic mushrooms. In many parts of the world, the recreational use of psychedelic drugs is outlawed.

 When were psychedelics first used?

People have known about the psychoactive effects of certain plants, animal poisons and fungi for centuries and, in some societies, these psychedelics have been revered and even used as a part of worship and ritual. That said, it was not until LSD was discovered by a Swiss chemist in 1938, apparently by accident, that the power of very strong psychoactive stimulants began to be known about. With such strong 'trips' now possible, psychedelics moved away from the often mysterious spiritual or religious contexts they had hitherto been associated with and into the realm of altered consciousness. This made them of interest to some psychoanalysts who thought they might help with addressing subconscious issues.

How do psychedelics affect the brain?

All three drug classes that constitute psychedelic stimulants - tryptamines, phenethylamines and lysergamides – work in the same manner when they reach the brain. They provide a chemical activation for serotonin receptors, known as 5-HT2A. It is known that 5-HT2A receptors modulate the activity of certain neural pathways. Those most impacted tend to be brain circuits associated with sensory perception and cognition. Nevertheless, the exact nature of how psychedelics alter these circuits is still a mystery.

How have psychedelics impacted on culture?

In 1941, the animated movie Dumbo featured a famous psychedelic scene which broke new ground culturally. By the 1960s, the use of LSD and magic mushrooms became popularised among certain sub-cultures, notably the hippy movement. When rock bands like the Beatles began referring to psychedelic experiences in their lyrical content – often using imaginative allusions to Lewis Carroll and Aldous Huxley – so their visual imagery began to change, too. Psychedelic visual culture takes many forms, but it tends to highlight bright, repetitive decorative effects, such as paisley designs, often a feature of psychedelic rock album covers in the 1960s and 70s. From the 1980s, a disembodied yellow smiley face represented the 'acid' scene for a whole new generation of psychoactive thrill-seekers.

Can psychedelics be used as a therapy?

Although the medical use of psychedelics is not widespread and not without its detractors, it is still in use to help treat addiction, anxiety, depression and psychosis in some parts of the world. Other conditions which have been treated with them include cluster headaches and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Research is ongoing into so-called psychedelic micro-dosing which has been popularised in certain medical quarters in recent years.

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