Psychedelic substances such as LSD have always been involved in the controversy about their use, but what is certain is that their effect on the body reveals interesting aspects about the human brain.

Many people who habitually use these drugs, in fact, claim that under their influence they notice that they access other planes of reality. It is not simply that they see strange things, impossible things; it is that they really believe that, in their own way, the world they can see, touch, and hear exists, and it remains hidden when they do not use these substances.

This phenomenon is very similar to what happens when we dream. After all, dream events, however surreal they may seem objectively, do seem valid to us at the time, and we rarely question them just when we perceive them. But recent research has revealed that the similarity between the effect of LSD and dreams goes beyond this resemblance.

The effects of psychedelic substances

The use of the psychedelic drug LSD, well known for its recreational use in settings such as concerts or music clubs, makes the user’s world change completely for several hours at a time. It changes everything you see around you, but it also changes the beliefs and ideas you have about yourself (i.e., your self-concept).

This powerful effect on people’s minds is, in part, a mystery to be unveiled. The interaction between drugs and the human brain is a very complex process, and it is very difficult to distinguish what exactly is happening in our brain when LSD is used .

Fortunately, a study conducted by a team of scientists at the University of Zurich has found the causes behind the dream-like states of consciousness that appear after consuming LSD.

This group of researchers has been working to understand the therapeutic potential of psychedelic substances known to generate hallucinations, that is, that cause altered states of consciousness . Specifically, they focused on the effects of LSD, which last between 12 and 17 hours, and those of psilocybin, another similar substance whose effects are felt for about 4, 5 or 6 hours.

Although we use the term “drugs” to refer to various substances, their mechanisms of action are often very different, and those of psychedelic substances, in particular, are easily distinguishable from those of consumables such as cannabis or alcohol. Now, what exactly makes dreams appear in a waking state after taking LSD?

The therapeutic potential of LSD

The study conducted by these Swiss researchers involved 25 volunteers, some of whom received only a placebo. Generating the phenomenon to be studied under laboratory conditions (the effect of LSD on the nervous system), these scientists analysed the data obtained and published their conclusions in the scientific journal Psychopharmacology .

Rainer Kraehenmann, a member of the team of researchers who conducted the study, says that the measurement of altered states of consciousness, comparable to the dream episodes we experience when dreaming , was measured from the marker called cognitive surrealism from real-time descriptions of what is experienced.

But what people who have taken LSD experience is not simply strange events. These experiences are much more vivid than what an adult without diagnosed mental disorders lives without the effects of a drug, and there also appears a clear pattern of thinking that is less relational, somewhat creative and less bound to rigid patterns.

It is precisely these latter properties that make LSD a potentially useful tool in some therapies , especially those that combat a pattern of thought in which perceived limits generate anxiety.

How do dream states with LSD appear?

It has been known for years that LSD acts by enhancing the effect on the brain of a neurotransmitter called serotonin . Neurotransmitters are microscopic elements that neurons use to communicate with each other, and LSD causes receptors on these nerve cells to pick up more of these tiny particles.

Kraehenmann and his colleagues have made this hypothesis about how LSD works in neurons more detailed by noting that a drug called ketanserin blocks the dream potential of LSD. Ketanserin inhibits the ability of serotonin 2A receptors to work , thus preventing the possibility of external substances from magnifying the effects of the neurotransmitter.