The Long, Hard Road to a Science of Bad Drug Trips
As more studies gain funding into medical research of substances like LSD, mushrooms, and MDMA, the question about how to scientifically define a "bad trip" is a necessary major building block for progress.This article originally appeared on Motherboard
If we’re going to use psychedelics for therapy, we’re going to have to figure out the proverbial bad trip.
In 1968, Thomas Ungerleider and Duke Fisher, two psychiatrists from UCLA, traveled to the suburbs of Los Angeles to witness the rituals of an LSD cult.
Two years earlier, Ungerleider and Fisher had authored "The Dangers of LSD," a paper that documented the rising incidence of admissions to the UCLA psychiatric ward by people reporting adverse effects while tripping on lysergic acid diethylamide. The doctors had recently given a lecture on the subject of what's come to be known as the "bad trip," a catchall term for the difficult experiences some psychedelic users report, from mild anxiety to full blown psychosis and persistent delusions.
At that lecture, a particularly riled-up audience member had attempted to read a manifesto advocating for unlimited LSD use during the post-lecture Q&A. After the lecture, the same audience member approached the psychiatrists and insisted that plenty of people took LSD and were just fine. In fact, he was part of a religious group that called themselves the "Disciples" and claimed they ate acid every weekend without issue.
The researchers were intrigued. After some of the Disciples screened them to make sure they weren't cops, Ungerleider and Fisher were cleared to visit the group's compound to observe their ritualistic use of LSD. As the researchers detailed in their paper, at the compound they found:
...about a dozen of the group living in a large house on spacious grounds. They were literally tilling the soil and had decorated the house in psychedelic fashion. There were pictures of Buddha and Jesus on the walls. Every Wednesday night the group gathered to have a non-LSD religious experience consisting of prayer and meditation. The drug-taking sessions were scheduled for the weekends.
By observing and interviewing participants in these "love sessions," the researchers learned that many of the Disciples were ex-cons and drug addicts who were using LSD to facilitate their recovery. Many of these individuals reported to have found God through the ritual use of LSD. Importantly, not one of the Disciples reported having a bad trip while on acid in the group.
For the psychiatrists, this was a perplexing observation. What separated this cohort from those who were being admitted to psychiatric wards after taking the same drug? In other words, what were the contributing factors to a bad trip?
To answer this question, the researchers ran a study that compared 25 Disciples with 25 patients who had been hospitalized following adverse reactions to LSD, including "hallucinations…anxiety to the point of panic…depression, often with suicidal thoughts or attempts, and…confusion." In 1968, the researchers published their results in the Journal of American Psychiatry in the first scientific attempt to identify the causes of negative psychedelic experiences.
As the researchers found, there were no significant differences between the two groups in terms of race, sex, age, education, or "early parental deprivation." Forty-four percent of the inpatients (compared with only 24 percent of the Disciples) had previous psychiatric history, but this also wasn't a guarantor of a difficult psychedelic experience. None of those in the religious group with previous psychiatric history had ever encountered difficulty from taking LSD.
"In all of our comparisons there were no historical elements or current clinical aspects that were unique to either group," the authors concluded. Interestingly, Ungerleider and Fisher were some of the first to predict that LSD could interact with "schizoid trends," a hypothesis that would be bolstered by later research. Even so, the authors realized that "such a complex interaction—which is difficult to anticipate even with the best of clinical and test data—would predict that adverse LSD reactions will be with us for some time to come."
If psychedelics are ever going to properly graduate from the lab to the clinic, then we're going to have to have some science that can explain the underlying mechanisms of the proverbial bad trip.
Read the full story by Daniel Oberhaus at Motherboard