The Hacking of the American Mind Report #8—Picking the Lock to Nirvana

The Hacking of the American Mind by Dr. Robert Lustig

Remember the 1967 Beatles song, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds? As soon Lustig referenced this song at the start of the chapter, I knew this chapter had something to do with LSD, a hallucinogenic drug.

LSD was first manufactured in 1938 in a Swiss lab by the pharmaceutical chemist Albert Hoffman. He tried out his new drug on himself in 1943. At first LSD was used to treat convicts and to try a cure for autism. The first commercial product hit the European market in 1947 under to name Delysid.

Native Americans have used Mescaline in religious ceremonies. Psilocybin is found in “magic mushrooms” used by indigenous people in Mexico. These hallucinogens have been used for a long time in their ceremonies. However, their hallucinogens had not been used in the mainstream culture.

However, LSD was a game changer concerning the use of hallucinogens in mainstream society. Hoffman’s LSD discovery opened up Pandora’s box and scientists wanted in.

Drinking the Electric Kool-Aid

In the early 1950s Scientists discovered incredible structural similarities between serotonin and these hallucinogenic compounds, LSD and psilocybin in particular. Please refer to pages 110 and 111 for more details. Here is the key part:

One set of scientists started altering the molecular structure of these compounds to increase their potency, while another set of scientists labeled them with radioactivity to look at their binding sites in the brain and their mechanisms of action. After years of trial and error, they discerned that these compounds acted as a serotonin agonist, meaning that they mimicked serotonin and would bind to specific serotonin receptors in the brain.; namely the -1a and -2a receptors.

Lustig recalls the turbulence of the latter 1960s, meaning the Viet Nam War protests, disillusionment with the U.S. government, and the civil rights movement. Many young people tuned in to Dr. Timothy Leary’s mantra, “Turn on, tune in, and drop out.” Needless to say, turning on with LSD became a popular thing to do in many circles, particularly middle-class young adults.

Lustig mentions that some users had “bad trips” and others had “good/mellow trips.” The bad trips involved unwanted fear and paranoia. His key point is that in general, hallucinogens magnify the emotional and mental state of the user at the time.

Later research showed that few users of psychedelics demonstrated either dependence or withdrawal upon quitting. Most were able to walk away.

The Feds Raid the Party

Congress passed the Controlled Substance Enforcement Act in 1970 and established the Drug Enforcement Administration in 1973. They were charged with regulating “all dopamine, opioid, cannabinoid, and serotonin agonists. Heroin, marijuana, and all psychedelics were classified as Schedule 1.

Lustig asserts that during this time President Nixon was concerned about the spreading use of drugs among American youth. He continues by saying that Nixon’s concern was that America needed healthy soldiers to fight in the Viet Nam war, and young men spaced out on drugs wouldn’t be of much use to the military.

Lustig makes another reference to the Beatles’ Lennon and his song Imagine. It told young people to “lay down their guns, part with their worldly possessions and learn to live as one.” Lustig asks a rhetorical question, “Why did Lennon believe this?” Because he was singing Kumbaya with Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds?

Lustig poses another question: Can hallucinogens make you happy or, at a minimum, content? Answer: Not always.

A New Death with Dignity?

Lustig explains that there is ongoing research to see if psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, will be of beneficial value for hospice patients. The studies are showing a reduction in long term anxiety and depression.

Special on Receptors—Buy One, Get One Free

Lustig poses this question: What ties serotonin, hallucinogens, and contentment together?

He makes this key comment:

…Through painstaking experiments on animals and humans, the mind-altering effects of all psychedelic compounds has been traced to the stimulatory effects on the serotonin -2a receptor.

My Comments; This section gets very technical and clinical. Please read pages 117-119 for his complete explanation.

Continuing:  …virtually the entire tryptomine class of psychedelics to which psilocybin and LSD belong, bind to both the -1a and -2a receptors. Mescaline only binds to the -2a receptor, so the user doesn’t have the afterglow as with the two afore-mentioned drugs.

Lustig asks another rhetorical question: Can this extra effect really treat alcohol and tobacco addiction? He expresses his doubt.

The Psychedelic Hangover

Recent studies suggest that LSD administration in normal volunteers suggests that the drug induces profound perceptual changes in the way these subjects see the world around them.

Lustig makes further comments:

The big issue with all centrally acting drugs is the concern over tolerance and either withdrawal or dependence—in other words their addiction potential. Despite demonstrating tolerance, these serotonin agonists have rarely been shown to lead to withdrawal or depression . . . they do not appear to be classically addictive.

He states that these serotonin agonists are not completely safe. There is no doubt that repeated daily dosing of LSD leads to reduction of effect.

Some of the new designer hallucinogens can still elicit the occasional bout of agitation, rapid heartbeat, and combativeness that requires an ER visit and IV sedation until the drug wears off.

Better Living Through Biochemistry

Lustig quotes research that suggests that our emotions are just the inward expression of biochemical processes in the brain.

In the case of hallucinogens, signaling of the serotonin -1a receptor drives contentment whereas signaling of the serotonin -2a receptor drives the mystical experience.

He concludes by saying in our modern society the role of mind-altering drugs to achieve heightened consciousness and/or contentment has yet to be determined.

Lustig says that we are our biochemistry and that this biochemistry can be manipulated, and this manipulation can be done for good or for ill.

My comments: My take is that Lustig does not wholesalely condemn the use of hallucinogenic substances. I think it’s safe to say that he holds that there may be some therapeutic value for some of these drugs in certain situations. One example is using these substances to ease anxiety for hospice patients.

On the other hand, he referred to the Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Timothy Leary as being public enemy number one due to his mantra of “Turn on, tune in, and drop out.” We can assume that since Dr. Lustig is a pediatric endocrinologist by training, he has seen countless young people’s lives ruined by drugs. We certainly can imagine that this drug use includes LSD and/or other psychedelic drugs. Many of the “drop-outs” are now living on the fringes of society, particularly as homeless and in many cases, just bums.

There’s one final point I’ll make. When I studied for my Master’s degree in education at the University of Montana, a requirement was to take a drug class. This was taught by the pharmacy department. We learned that drugs such as alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine and other more potent controlled substances like marijuana and opioids, were mood-altering drugs. Hallucinogenics, such as LSD, were mind-altering drugs. The takeaway for us is that in general the mood-altering drugs deal with our dopamine receptors and mind-altering drugs deal with our serotonin receptors. End