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Researchers in the United Kingdom now have a better understanding of how the psychedelic drug LSD, also known as acid, affects how the brain processes language.
The researchers took 10 participants and brought them in for two sessions, one on LSD and one on a placebo. The participants looked at pictures and had to identify certain images.
Sometimes the images were paired with similar items, like a hand shown with a glove. Other times the images were unrelated. When the images shown were all closely related, the participants were more likely to say an incorrect but similar word than if the images were not related. So someone on LSD asked to identify a hand may say “glove” by mistake when a glove is next to it, but they were more likely to correctly say “hand” if the hand was shown next to a train. The study is available online in the journal Language, Cognition, and Neuroscience.
In a statement, the researchers said that this may be scientific evidence confirming the idea that LSD enhances creativity. Neuroscientists think that language is stored and access in “semantic networks.” Words that are related to one another are neurologically connected, and when we retrieve a word to identify a picture, we activate a part of that semantic network. So when you look at a dog and say, “dog,” you may also activate a network of words like, “canine,” and “pet.”
LSD seems to widen the network that gets activated when we look at a picture. So under normal circumstances, you might see that dog and just think “dog, canine, pet.” But with LSD, you might reach out a little further and think, “cat,” or “fish.”
The research can also tell us more about how language works in general. LSD and other psychedelics like psilocybin (the active ingredient in ‘shrooms) look and act a lot like the brain chemical serotonin. In particular, these two drugs activate a particular receptor for serotonin in the brain called the 5-HT2A receptor. Knowing that, researchers can now come up with new questions to answer that look at how serotonin interacts with this receptor in the production—and dysfunction—of language.
Of course the major issue with this whole study is that it only involved 10 people, nine of whom were men. Part of the issue with studying psychedelic drugs is that in both the U.K. and United States, they are illegal and highly regulated. Researchers have to jump through many more hoops to use them in a study than they would for other types of drugs. But this research is important because it can help us understand how the brain works, and if these drugs could potentially have a therapeutic value.
Cynthia McKelvey covered the health and science for the Daily Dot until 2017. She earned a graduate degree in science communication from the University of California Santa Cruz in 2014. Her work has appeared in Gizmodo, Scientific American Mind, and Mic.com.