Experimental acid trip, ca. 1956

January 17, 2011 • 5:58 am

This video, from the mid-1950s, is pretty amazing.  A normal middle-class woman volunteered to be filmed after taking 100 micrograms of LSD as part of a research project conducted by Sidney Cohen at the Los Angeles VA hospital. The acid trip ends at 6:04, and then there’s a discussion with Gerald Heard, a philosopher.  Do listen to him, too.

If, like me, you came of age in the Sixties, you’re going to laugh.

“I wish I could talk in Technicolor.”

Put her in a beaded headband and a fringed vest, and it could be 1966!  The woman’s reactions are absolutely representative of what I saw in my friends so many times in college, and occasionally experienced myself.

It’s impossible to describe in words—though many have tried—the shifting of perception, the apprehension of  tremendous beauty in everything, and the feeling of oneness with the universe induced by this drug. Would that it were possible for everyone to try it, as this woman did, taking pure, commercially produced product under professional supervision.

Read more about Cohen and Richard Alpert’s studies of LSD here.

44 thoughts on “Experimental acid trip, ca. 1956

  1. “It’s impossible to describe in words—though many have tried—the shifting of perception, the apprehension of tremendous beauty in everything, and the feeling of oneness with the universe…”

    Yet this is exactly what happened to Francis Collins in the Cascades.

      1. “It’s impossible to describe in words—though many have tried—the shifting of perception, the apprehension of tremendous beauty in everything, and the feeling of oneness with the universe induced by this drug. Would that it were possible for everyone to try it, as this woman did, taking pure, commercially produced product under professional supervision.”

        Would that it were possible indeed.

        I have this hypothesis (don’t know whether it’s testable) that the Abrahamic religions generally and Christianity in particular, have a culturally evolved trait where, by insisting mind-altering drugs are just evil and while you’re under the influence you open yourself up to Satan’s influence, makes the experience of the numinous, the peak experiences, the “spiritual” experiences the sole property of religion.

        Religion seems to have this, usually unspoken, rule:
        “It is only through [religion of choice] that one can experience ecstatic feelings of oneness with the universe, and that feeling is God.”

        I don’t think that this was something intentionally built into religion by someone, but rather a sort of cultural mutation that has proved beneficial for religion. The insanity that is the War On Drugs keeps religion from having to compete with substances – particularly psychedelics – for access to numinous, transcendent, “spiritual,” etc. experiences. If religion has the market cornered on such experiences (which they technically don’t – meditation, sleep deprivation, etc. can produce such experiences), then those individuals in our society who feel that they need such experiences for a fully enriched life have generally no where else to turn except to churches. If psychedelics, as well as some other currently illegal euphoriants were legally available – the pure product, not street LSD where you never know what you’re getting – then such experiences would be much more easily accessed by the average person, without the lifelong commitment, the need to believe in nonsense, or the toxic effects on society that are an inevitable part of religion.

        Obviously there is much more to religion than such experiences, so I’m not suggesting that drug legalization=no desire for whatever it is that religion offers people. I’m merely stating that this may be one element of religion that keeps some people hooked – the seeming lack of access to these experiences in lieu of religion.

        What do you think?

  2. Why is LSD a banned substance, by the way? I mean, it’s basically harmless, and hey, pretty pictures.

    It seems like an autonomic reaction to a mind-altering drug that’s not alcohol. But surely there’s a less, ah, bullshit justification.

    (Watching Life of Brian while tripping, I had to turn it off, because I realised that it was a movie about how mean people are to each other. But I don’t think that’s a reason to ban it)

    (Mushrooms were banned here in NL because of dumb tourists jumping off balconies and stuff like that. We were not amused)

    (Uh, that doesn’t stop them being sold of course …)

    1. I believe “bad trips” can be a quite horrifying experience, and I wouldn’t be surprised if occasionally people are injured or killed while experiencing one. Note how Dr Coyne mentioned “under professional supervision”.

      But I agree that the default reaction to any new pleasurable drug is obscene. It’s even become part of English idiom: “That’s so much fun, it should be illegal”, which shows the Puritanical mind-set behind this attitude: “You’re not allowed to have fun, dammit!”

      1. I would love to see evidence that “bad” trips (as opposed to uncomfortable trips) with lasting psychological damage really exist.

        The Road to Damascus doesn’t count. We don’t know for sure that Paul was tripping.

        1. Try getting into your brothers stash when you are four and having giant insects attacking you non stop.

          That experience has never left me and certainly scarred me in my life.

  3. According to one of the Lost Gospels, Paul was seen copping some most excellent weed just prior to his vision. The dude got his money’s worth.

  4. The odd thing is that the woman speaks about “reality” while she’s having the experience. This is what things are “really” like. And the philosopher agrees. This is what it’s going to be like when we die?! What an odd conclusion to come to. We take an unusal experience, caused by a drug, and turn it into the real. The same thing happens to people who have near death experiences too. They think of those experiences, although they almsot certainly depend upon features of a dying brain, as the real. Very peculiar use of language. A religious use of language.

    1. I’m with you Eric. I personally have never taken LSD, but I have known several people who did. Some of these people (though not all), even when not tripping, seemed to think that they were somehow enlightened by the experience. Like somehow LSD helped them understand the universe better. I am not sure how a synthetic experience generated within a persons brain can logically lead to a better understanding of reality.

      I am however familiar with the story that Kary Mullis claims that without LSD he could not have invented PCR, so maybe it could help you think outside the box.

      But generally hallucinations and unexplained feelings of dysphoria or euphoria are considered a neural pathology (as seen in temporal lobe epilepsy or schizophrenia). So if your idea of a good time is to temporarily induce a neural pathology in your own brain, knock yourself out.

      But I think I am going to stick to the way I usually experience reality (though this is skewed by my own unique perception – at least when I see something it is actually there).

      1. You think that what you sense while not tripping is not synthetic? Have you never seen an optical illusion? Had visions while falling asleep? Watched a 3D movie? Seen things from the corner of your eye which didn’t show up when you turned to look?

        Tripping is not hallucination in the sense of seeing things which aren’t there; it’s more like getting the same visual inputs with different post-processing. I find the “I’ll take reality, thanks” a bit disingenuous, I think it’s a rationalisation of a learned response. I’m not saying you should try it; just that your reasons for not doing so are not reality-based.

        1. Well I guess that depends on how one defines hallucination doesn’t it. But I would argue that your “different post-processing” amounts to the same thing. Your brain, due to the influence of the drug, adds extra sensations to those which you would normally experience. Presumably this is the whole point in taking the drug in the first place. BTW Psychedelics are a class of hallucinogens by definition.

          I, personally, think that there are enough things in the world to experience without the use of such drugs. I am not opposed to anyone else who wants to have such drug induced experiences, it is just not something I am personally interested in.

          Then there comes the issue of “realness” if you will. Sure we have 5 senses, all of which filter though a single organ the brain which interprets data from these senses. The way a human being experiences the world is different from the way that say a fly does. So yes by its very nature perception is a flawed way by which to look at reality. But it is the best we’ve got. I don’t think that there is any reason to believe that LSD could somehow make human perception more accurate, if there were I might be interested.

          1. This is why LSD isn’t classified as a true hallucinogen – you don’t actually hallucinate.

            It does seem to me that it helps me think outside the box and seems to make me more creative in the short time. But your right that it doesn’t provide any new information about reality.

      2. I am not sure how a synthetic experience generated within a persons brain can logically lead to a better understanding of reality.

        All experience is synthetic, generated within the brain. Therefore all understanding is a result of synthetic experience.

        In particular, if the thing you’re trying to understand is your own brain and its perceptual mechanisms, then why shouldn’t controlled experiments with perception-altering substances yield greater understanding?

        1. I guess it depends what you mean. I meant synthetic, implying not natural. i.e. induced in response to a drug not normally present within the brain. Of course all perception is only as good as the tools used to perceive and interpret the environment. i.e. sensory organs and the brain. I am not trying to argue otherwise.

          I terms of studying perception: A person studying the effects of a drug on the perception of a human subject may lead to a better understanding of how the human brain works. Sure – no arguments here.

          Does it give the person who is taking the drug a better understanding of reality – no. The woman in the video said she could see the molecules in the air. This is a physical impossibility. The human eye is not capable of such perception. Her brain, altered by the drug, led her to believe that she could see the molecules in the air – i.e. an hallucination. i.e. an drug induced false perception. The philosopher then goes on to say that “this is what it is going to be like when we die.” This indicates that he believes that this drug gave him some sort of spiritual experience.

          The idea of using hallucinogenic drugs in order to reach god or gods has occurred independently in a variety of cultures. Does this mean that “drugs make me feel closer to god, help me to communicate with god, therefore there is a god.” or “I saw a white light in my near death experience therefore there is life after death and a heaven, and therefore a god.” These are the kind of experiences I am referring to.

          Just because a drug makes someone experience a sensation of enlightenment does not mean that one becomes enlightened by taking the drug. Just because ones experience on a drug feels more real than when not on the drug, does not make it more real. That was what I was trying to say.

          1. But by the same token, just because someone is on drugs when they experience a feeling of enlightenment doesn’t mean that the enlightenment must be illusory. Experiencing the same reality in different states of mind — including drug-induced states — can lead to a better understanding of reality and our perceptual relation to it.

            That doesn’t mean we have to take every drug-induced perception at face value. But to deny that such perceptions can have any value at all (especially when by your own admission you’ve never tried it) seems like going too far in the other direction.

  5. The Religious Right (which seems to be predominantly wrong) insists that we waste taxpayers money on a War On Drugs rather than spending much less money regulating the industry, so I doubt I’ll see those drugs available without prescription in the stores – not that I’d be interested in them. People who are tripping say the dumbest things – and I mean dumber than Dembski crossed with Comfort crossed with Ham. (Is that crossing or inbreeding?) Somehow feeling good (if that’s the case) while appearing to everyone else to be a babbling idiot just doesn’t appeal to me.

    1. So you haven’t read Aldous Huxley’s “The Doors of Perception” then?

      It would indeed be idiotic to sum up his writing as simply idiotic. Tedious maybe but not dumb.

  6. I remember a school scare film, where a hotdog turned into a readheaded troll doll on a hotdog bun. We laughed for weeks.

    It’s impossible to describe in words—though many have tried—the shifting of perception, the apprehension of tremendous beauty in everything, and the feeling of oneness with the universe induced by this drug.

    John Lennon tried. I don’t know how many other artists.

    Would that it were possible for everyone to try it, as this woman did, taking pure, commercially produced product under professional supervision.

    Kids, don’t try this at home. But it’s an experience that I sure feel was worth having.

    1. I pretty much have the same take-away message. The worst thing about today’s environment is that you have no way of knowing what is being ingested. Speed seems to be much worse for doing things like frying synapses, leading to obsessive-compulsive disorders – and that’s what today’s “acid” is cut with.

      BTW, here’s your hot dog, which looks suspiciously like the troll doll that came out the year before this Lockheed Corporation film was made.


      1. If that wasn’t the film, it was its twin brother. Too bad the colors are so faded. You miss out on the psychedelic experience.

        My very limited drug experiences were with trusted friends who knew a lot more than I did about it. I never had a bad time, and I never felt the need to continue experimenting.

  7. My experiences with LSD were mostly positive, and besides being fun I feel they were useful for me to get an understanding of some of the plasticity of subjective experience. (And my first visual conceptualization of evolution occurred while staring at a tide pool in Maine for about 4 hours, after reading The Selfish Gene for the first bio class I ever took in college.)

    However, I hate the idea that it exposes you to anything more “real” or “true”–it creates the emotional feeling of understanding, epiphany, insight, and certainty without the intellectual content of these states–i.e. any particular reasons for feeling that way. Its “depth” (for me) I found to be phony and illusory. Which is fine, but I hate when people get cosmic.

    1. I agree with you about the superficiality of the experience. After downing the sedimented third of the mushroom blender, I sat fascinated by life in a Brasilian mountain stream for four hours, but was too incapable to recognize the walking rock as a new species of turtle!

      As for the video, the sternocleidomastoids were amazing.

    2. Trips tell you nothing about the outside. What you see, hear, feel, it’s all about yourself. Entheogens are a form of masturbation.

      1. They can tell you plenty about the outside, specifically they can show you how much of your usual perception of “outside” is internally generated. Isolation tanks can do something similar.

        Also, I get the impression that you think calling something masturbation is somehow a pejorative. I also think you’re wrong about that.

  8. “Would that it were possible for everyone to try it…”

    That reminds me of the last line of Journey to the Center of the Mind, by the Amboy Dukes:

    How happy life could be
    If all of mankind
    Would take the time to journey to the center of the mind

    That was the song that neo-conservative Ted Nugent insists that he didn’t know was about drugs.

  9. “the apprehension of tremendous beauty in everything”

    I goy into my brothers stash when I was four and spent a horrible (seems like hours) time being chased by giant flies and other insects with huge stingers and such. the absolute terror I felt has never left me.

    So Sorry but I don’t see the tremendous beauty in it.

    1. Dale – perhaps that was because you were 4. Sorry you had such a bad experience. Given those circumstances, I’d have been very surprised if you

      In my opinion no one should try any drug (including legal prescribed and OTC drugs) without doing at least some research into what to expect.

      I did a considerable amount of library research (no internet when I was in high school) on psychedelic drugs in particular before ever trying them. I knew from everything I’d read about psychedelics – from their acute effects, side effects, their influence on certain (particularly Beatles) music – that it was the drug for me. Turned out, I was right. But then I also knew what to expect for the most part, which kept the experience within my control.

      1. oops. sorry about that sentence fragment. it should read:

        Given those circumstances, I’d have been very surprised if you’d
        had a pleasurable experience.

  10. Hmmm…nothing but good memories for me. BUT – watching that clip reminded me of how incredibly frustrating it was to try to articulate my experience.

  11. Would that it were possible for everyone to try it, as this woman did, taking pure, commercially produced product under professional supervision.

    I’m inclined to agree. They ain’t called psychotomimetic fer nothin’, and I suspect that we’d be depressed by an examination of the incidence of alcoholism and suicide among chronic trippers. Nevertheless, extraordinary experience is extraordinary experience. In a short life, I’d recommend it as something to know.

  12. Damn… she was very attractive in that state. I always saw everything in blueish-purple hexagons when I tripped on acid.

    Thanks for that one, Dr. Coyne!

  13. It does explain why the Grateful Dead were so popular. I loved my first show, it was truly a novel experience. I thought at the time the music was exceptional. However, 20 years, 100 + shows, and a few terabytes of MP3’s later reveal that my first show was truly lame. Without the enhancement from the Dancing Bear, I might never have gotten on the bus.

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