Vanity Fair has a great article that charts the very early days of LSD. Before the drug became a symbol of hippy psychedelia, it was used by a select group of psychiatrists to facilitate ‘LSD psychotherapy’ and became popular among the Hollywood set of the 1950s.
To understand why LSD had such a grip on the American psychiatrists who had access to it, it’s useful to know some background about how psychiatry pictured the human mind in the mid-20th century.
Most importantly, it was the height of Freud’s influence when virtually all training was heavily influenced by psychoanalysis.
Psychoanalysis has a certain view of the unconscious that chimes very well with the effects of LSD. According to the Freudian model, the unconscious mind exists below the level of our awareness but still operates in terms of personal meaning.
Contrast this with the cognitive model of the mind in which the conscious mind is interpretable in terms of personal meaning but the unconscious mind is ‘subpersonal’ or only interpretable in terms of computation or neurobiology.
In other words, the conscious and the unconscious are connected but we can’t use the same concepts to understand the two.
In the Freudian model, the unconscious remains personally significant to the point where the mind may have to shroud this meaning in elaborate symbols to shield us from its unpleasant impact when any of it is revealed through thought or action.
To get to the true significance, psychoanalysis seeks to decode the protected symbols that have been put in place by our defence mechanisms.
Psychoanalysis says our thoughts, dreams, actions and perceptions are rich with hidden personal meaning. LSD reveals a world which seems rich with hidden personal meaning.
Therefore, it is not surprising that many of the psychoanalysts of the time thought the drug was a fast track to the unconscious where the normal route was years of painstaking therapy.
The Vanity Fair article traces the early years when it was used in therapy – a time just after LSD was invented and originally used by psychiatrists to see what madness might be like, and before it was taken up by Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert and 60s counter-culture.
Nevertheless, the influence of Freudian thought can be clearly seen in the psychedelic movement. The idea that you can ‘free your mind’ from ‘hang ups’ is almost a direct translation of the psychoanalysts creed that you need to ‘resolve’ your ‘neuroses’ in which society and the super ego play a similar role.
In fact, Leary, a psychologist himself, had extensive knowledge of psychoanalysis and, interestingly, couched the effects of psychedelic drugs in terms of Freud, neuroscience and computation.
This is from a lecture delivered to the 1961 International Congress of Applied Psychology, published as ‘How to Change Behaviour’.
Let’s assume that the cortex, the seat of consciousness is a millionfold network of neurons. A fantastic computing machine. Cultural learning has imposed a few pitifully small programs on the cortex. These programs may activate perhaps one-hundredth of the potential neural connections. All the learned games of life can be seen as programs which select, censor, alert and thus drastically limit the available cortical response. The consciousness expanding drugs unplug these narrow programs. They unplug the ego, the game machinery, and the mind (that cluster of game concepts). And with the ego and mind unplugged, what is left? ‚Ä¶ What is left is something Western culture knows little about. The Open brain. The uncensored cortex, alert and open to a broad sweep of internal and external stimuli hitherto screened out.