For a severe case of writer’s block, a dose of LSD might seem appealing.
The psychedelic is known for dramatically altering people’s state of consciousness in otherworldly ways. Now, new research suggests that the mind-expanding effects of LSD may also extend to language.
Under the influence of LSD, people seem to have easier access to related words, suggesting that the semantic networks in their brains are highly and widely activated, according to a study published Aug. 18 in Language, Cognition and Neuroscience.
In a picture-naming task, study participants who received a dose of LSD were more likely to accidentally say words that were similar in meaning. For example, they would say foot for hand, or truck for bus.
“This indicates that their semantic networks might be activated more strongly,” said the study’s lead researcher, Neiloufar Family, from the University of Kaiserslautern in Germany. “More words are highlighted and competing for production.”
In other words, if you think of words and concepts as parts of an interconnected web of ideas registered somewhere in the brain, LSD seems to bring this web closer to the surface of awareness.
Despite the fact that the drug has a unique ability to temporarily modify the workings of the brain, LSD has been scarcely researched due to strict regulations and cultural stigma. But in recent years, a few researchers have found ways to look into the enigmatic compound, with the goal of perhaps learning something about the bigger enigma that’s the brain. Meanwhile, the possibility that psychedelics could be beneficial in treating a wide range of mental illnesses has made these drugs all the more appealing to scientists.
“Even if regulatory boards are more open, the biggest bottleneck is funding―It is notoriously difficult to get a grant to work on psychedelics due to persisting preconceptions,” Family said. “That said, the network of researchers interested in the vast potential of the field is growing slowly but surely.”
So far, scientists have found that the drug seems to expand consciousness mainly by upping connectivity between brain networks that don’t normally interact. For example, when a person takes LSD, the brain areas for processing vision start to communicate with many other brain areas, which may explain why people experience vivid and complex visual hallucinations while on the drug.
In this study, the first examining LSD’s effects on language since the 1960s, researchers aimed to explore how by altering consciousness, the drug may give them hints into the way the brain’s language networks normally work.
“Language is one of the only ways we can describe what’s happening in our minds and one of the tools we can use to understand the psychedelic experience,” Family said. “Using LSD, you can find out more about the brain, the same way that a medical researcher may look at a dysfunction of an internal organ to better understand its healthy functioning.”
Family and her colleagues asked 10 volunteers to come into the lab twice and complete a picture-naming task. In one session, participants received a dose of LSD, while in the other they got a placebo. The dose of LSD was enough to cause psychedelic effects without producing a full tripping experience and the so-called ego-dissolution, Family said.
When under the influence of LSD, the participant made more errors than when they were given placebo. But not just any errors. “They weren’t fumbling around looking for words,” Family said. Instead, they would sometimes name the items in the pictures using words with similar meaning. Such errors, which in a way resemble Freudian slips, could be useful to researchers for understanding the different automatic processes involved in expressing thoughts via words, Family said.
The researchers also observed that people on LSD seem to monitor their speech less closely than normal. Often, we might start our answer with a wrong word, but quickly change it midway ― for example saying “trous ... shirt!” On LSD, however, people seemed more prone to making such errors without correcting themselves.
“They seemed to let errors slip by and not catch them before they were out there, Family said.
It may be that LSD reduces self-monitoring. But it’s also possible that it may have been difficult for the participants to focus on the boring picture-naming task while tripping, the researchers said. One participant, for example, told the researchers that “sometimes I’ll feel a bit slow because my brain has been off somewhere else.” Another said: “I was actually having a little experiment of how much I can think of other things while doing the task.”
Family plans to use an EEG (electroencephalogram) in a followup study to monitor the brain activity of participants, even when they are not fully focused on the task.