LSD on the brain: Happy Bicycle Day

It was 73 years ago on April, 19 1943 that chemist Albert Hoffman took the first ever intentional LSD trip. This came five years after Hoffman first synthesized the drug in 1938.

After obtaining his Ph.D in pharmacology at Zurich University, he went to work with Sandoz Company’s pharmaceutical-chemical laboratory in Basel, Switzerland. Their goal was to take natural products in chemistry to search for useful medicinal compounds, rather than synthetic chemistry.

Hoffman wrote in his book LSD: My Problem Child:

“The objective that Professor Stroll had set for his pharmaceutical-chemical research laboratories was to isolate the active principles (i.e. the effective constituents) of know medicinal plants to produce pure specimens of these substances.”

Because active compounds can be unstable and hard to accurately measure out doses in plants, it is more efficient to isolate the active principles in the purest form. It would then become possible to manufacture for pharmaceutical purposes.

Hoffman continued to study ergot alkaloids and was using micro-chemistry to break down and restructure the alkaloids in pursuit of finding new medicinal properties.

In the early 1930s, W.A. Jacobs and L.C. Craig influenced Hoffman’s work when they successfully isolated the nucleus common to all ergot alkaloids which they named lysergic acid.

Hoffman used lysergic acid to create a wide variety of different compounds in hopes of obtaining an analeptic, a circulatory and respiratory stimulant. It was his twenty-fifth production that lead to lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD-25) that would eventually shake society, but not for another five years. LSD-25 did not show a lot of promise at the time and so research stopped on the compound.

Continued work by Hoffman lead to him separating the starting material for lysergic acid, ergotoxine, into three separate components ergocristine, ergocornine, and ergocryptine. All three of these showed promise to Hoffman and the pharmacological field in improving peripheral circulation and cerebral function in the control of geriatric disorders.

Following this discovery, Hoffman decided to produce LSD-25 once more and submit it to the lab for further testing of possible medicinal properties that were once overlooked. It was April 16, 1943, as he was purifying the LSD-25, that his famous discovery occurred.

Included in LSD: My Problem Child is Hoffman’s account of the events:

“I was forced to interrupt my work in the laboratory in the middle of the afternoon and proceed home, being affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.”

Curiosity set in for Hoffman as he could not be certain how the effects came to be. Did he absorb it? Was it truly the LSD-25 causing the effects? The only way he could be certain would be to do a self-experiment and purposely ingest the LSD.

It was on April 19, 1943 when Hoffman intentionally dosed .25 milligrams into a glass of water and drank it. He chose .25 milligrans because he wanted to ensure he took the smallest amount possible that would have any chance of having any effect on the human body. What he experienced was nothing short of profoundly scary and enlightening.

As the effects from the LSD-25 began to get heavier, Hoffman felt the need to leave his research laboratory and head home. Due to war activity, cars were forbidden and so Hoffman bicycled home with his laboratory assistant. It was this journey home that sparked what is today known as Bicycle Day.

Symptoms from the LSD continued to intensify on the bike ride home and Hoffman became certain it was the LSD-25 that was causing what he believed to be poisoning. He even asked for milk to use as an antidote. Hoffman’s experience in the beginning can be understood today as a “bad trip.” Hoffman writes:

“My surroundings had now transformed themselves in more terrifying ways. Everything in the room spun around, and the familiar objects and pieces of furniture assumed grotesque, threatening forms. They were in continuous motion, animated, as if driven by an inner restlessness. The lady next door… She was no longer Mrs. R., but rather a malevolent, insidious witch with a colored mask.”

Paranoia overwhelmed Hoffman. He began to believe that he was under control of a demon.

“Was I dying? Was this the transition? At times I believed myself to be outside my body, and then perceived clearly, as an outside observer, the complete tragedy of my situation. I had not even taken leave of my family.”

Beyond the altered perceptions he was having, their lingered a constant worry about what was going to happen to him. His family was also far away from home. He continues:

“Would they ever understand that I had not experimented thoughtlessly, irresponsibly, but rather with the utmost caution, and that such a result was in no way foreseeable?…Another reflection took shape, an idea full of bitter irony: if I was now forced to leave this world prematurely, it was because of this Iysergic acid diethylamide that I myself had brought forth into the world…”

Hoffman’s bad trip came from the uncertainty of what was going on, how his body was going to be affected, and if he would live to see another day. His trip became a more positive experience once the doctor came and confirmed that nothing was wrong with Hoffman beyond having dilated pupils.

“Now, little by little I could begin to enjoy the unprecedented colors and plays of shapes that persisted behind my closed eyes. Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in on me, alternating, variegated, opening and then closing themselves in circles and spirals, exploding in colored fountains, rearranging and hybridizing themselves in constant flux. It was particularly remarkable how every acoustic perception, such as the sound of a door handle or a passing automobile, became transformed into optical perceptions. Every sound generated a vividly changing image, with its own consistent form and color.”

The end of the trip for Hoffman was cheerful and refreshing. He slept soundly. The next morning he reported having a sensation of renewed life, clear-headedness and well-being.

“The world was as if newly created. All my senses vibrated in a condition of highest sensitivity, which persisted for the entire day.”

It took testing from three others at the laboratory to conclude Hoffman’s reports. Psychic effects from such a small dosage had been unheard of at that time. Although they took even less than Hoffman did, they still had profound effects and any doubt of LSD-25’s potency was eliminated.

LSD has had astounding influences ever since.

From discoveries such as the periodic table and the double helix, LSD has influenced scientists and artists alike. Walt Disney took acid, as did Steve Jobs, Jerry Garcia, Timothy Leary, The Beatles, millions of curious youths, and the synthesizer himself, Albert Hoffman – on several occasions.

The drug helped ignite a revolution of hippies, anti-capitalism, and a renewal for spiritual discovery. Even before the 60s, LSD was being used for all sorts of psychological disorders including addiction, schizophrenia, and PTSD.

Although LSD-25 has been appreciated by so many, it is still highly illegal in the United States and has been since 1967. Federally, LSD is a schedule I drug having no medical value. However, it’s no secret that LSD has potential.

Hoffman saw it as a tool to better understand the “oneness” of our universe. Timothy Leary saw it as a tool to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” Others, such as the military, saw it as a brainwashing tool and a way to make people fuss up secrets without fully realizing they are doing so.

Several decades have gone by and LSD-25 is still illegal. But, is it really going away?
LSD is a common drug amongst music and arts festivals. Mentioning of the drug is becoming more common in music and movies. Even science is taking a step to revealing the truth about LSD.

A recent study funded by the Beckley Foundation finally gave us much needed insight into how LSD truly affects our neural system. Healthy adults were given a dose of placebo one day and 75 mcg of LSD-25 another.

They scanned the brain using three imaging techniques including arterial spin labeling, resting state MRI and magnetoencephalography. They measured blood flow, functional connections between brain networks, and the participants brainwaves. The results were groundbreaking.

Neroimaging from LSD versus placaebo in the

Neroimaging from LSD versus placaebo in the primary visual cortex. Credit: National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

The biggest discovery is that trippers appear to see with their eyes closed. While tripping, certain parts of the brain that are normally segregated in function begin to communicate with each other.

The greatest impact is seen in the primary visual cortex (V1 in the figure) which is “greatly expanded.” It is V1 that has the greatest affect in visual hallucinations, common amongst psychedelics. There is also an increase of the cerebral flow of the visual cortex, while alpha power was observed to decrease.

“We saw many more areas of the brain than normal were contributing to visual processing under LSD, even though volunteers’ eyes were shut,” stated researcher Carhart-Harris.

This may explain why people see audio waves, feel the invisible, and experience the dissolution of the ego. It is where the extra creativity and unique perspectives come from while dosed. These effects are similar to how a child is before growing up into society’s mundane.

It has been argued that the “oneness” of the universe is simply a feeling rather than a real thing, ‘it is just the drug’. However, this new imaging supports the idea that this oneness may be real.

The findings show that a “far greater proportion of the brain contributes to visual processing in the LSD state than under normal conditions.”

As humans we train our brain to see reality in a specific way, we compartmentalize our reality. LSD helps break that habit and open the doors to see what reality truly offers. Something children pick up and cherish throughout their youths before being forced into the “real world.”
With continued research on LSD it is likely we will continue to connect our understanding of science and the energies of metaphysics.

So is “seeing with your eyes closed” worth the supposed toxicity that comes along with LSD? Although LSD-25 is extremely potent and has caused respiratory deaths in animals, the comparative toxicity for humans is extremely low.

The supposed deaths “caused” by LSD are not because of the toxicity, but because of the mental disorientation of the users. An overdose on LSD has never occurred.

The common stories you hear about someone thinking they can fly, or believing they are a glass of orange juice, is simply a lie. These stories are propagated by those that want to hide something beautiful from you. Keeping something that is non-toxic, with medicinal value, away from the hands of the common people. It sounds like our marijuana fight all over again.

LSD came about while try to find medicinal compounds from the ergot fungus. Hoffman stumbled across one that has tremendous potential for psychological and spiritual healing.

Although the law still highly forbids use of LSD, the counter-culture has found a new way to incorporate LSD into their lives. The trend has been given the name ‘micro-dosing’. The purpose is to take a very small amount of LSD, or magic mushrooms, to heighten the senses. The amount is not enough to enter into a full psychedelic trip.

Micro-dosing will still carry the benefits of your brain working together, but will not overwhelmed the user with a constant flood of thoughts, colors, and altered perceptions.

Micro-dosers have full control over their body and mind. Instead of considering someone micro-dosing as being inebriated, it could be argued they are actually really sober. They can construct thoughts clearly, are more aware of their surroundings, and have empathetic tendencies. Colors, sounds, and vibrations from everyone around are felt and can be understood at a deeper level.

Although the drug is illegal and has a common perception to make people crazy, the thousands that micro-dose on a frequent occasion have proven that idea wrong. The only thing out of the ordinary you will notice from those who micro-dose is a little extra empathy and a grin that just will not go away.

Psychedelics have ample potential for a wide spectrum of problems including depression, PTSD, and schizophrenia. Beyond that, psychedelics offer opportunities for addicts and open doors for individuals to look deeper into themselves and their relationship with the rest of the universe.

It is time to advocate for more than just marijuana rights. Drugs such as magic mushrooms, DMT, MDA, and ketamine all need to be researched more thoroughly. They are illegal because they free minds and threaten the foundations of many of America’s institutions. This does not mean they are bad and have no use.

So, to those who quietly celebrated, happy Bicycle Day.


Carhart-Harris, Robin. “Neural correlates of the LSD experience revealed by multimodal neuroimaging.” PNAS. 11 Apr 2016. Online. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2016/04/05/1518377113.full?tab=author-info

Hoffman, Albert. “LSD – My Problem Child” McGraw-Hill Book Company 1980

Written by Brendan Smoker. smokerbr@msu.edu

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