Hallucinogens are natural and human-made substances that often cause people to believe they see random colors, patterns, events, and objects that do not exist. The hallucinatory experiences can either be very pleasant or very disturbing. Many different types of substances are classified as hallucinogens because of their capacity to produce such hallucinations. These substances come in the form of pills, powders, liquids, gases, and plants that can be eaten. In the body, hallucinogens stimulate the nervous system. Effects include the dilation (widening) of the pupils of the eyes, constriction of certain arteries, and rising blood pressure.
Hallucinogens have long been a part of the religious rites of various cultures throughout history. Tribal shamen or medicine men swallowed the hallucinogenic substance or inhaled fumes or smoke from a burning substance to experience hallucinations. They believed that such a state enhanced their mystical powers. Separated from reality, they were better able to communicate with the gods or their ancestors. These hallucinogens were mostly natural substances. Among the oldest are those from mushrooms or cactus that have been used in Native American rites since before recorded time. The use of such compounds still forms a central part of tribal ritual in some Native American tribes.
Certain species of mushrooms have been used for centuries by medicine men to bring about hallucinations. Although artifacts remaining from ancient cultures show mushrooms surrounded by human figures, the significance of such statues remained obscure for many years. Scientists were not aware of the existence of hallucinogenic mushrooms and their part in tribal rituals until the twentieth century.
Words to Know
Hallucinations: Images, sounds, or odors that are seen, heard, or smelled by a person, but do not exist in reality.
Neurotransmitter: Chemical substance that transmits impulses between neurons (nerve cells) in the brain.
Synesthesia: A mixing of the senses so that one who experiences it claims to be able to taste color, or hear taste, or smell sounds.
After collecting and analyzing these mushrooms, scientists found that their active ingredient had a chemical structure similar to serotonin, a neurotransmitter in the brain. (A neurotransmitter is a chemical substance that transmits impulses between neurons [nerve cells] in the brain.) They named this ingredient psilocybin (pronounced sigh-luh-SIGH-ben).
In rituals, hallucinogenic mushrooms are either eaten directly or boiled in a liquid, which is then consumed. A user experiences enhanced colors and sounds, perceives objects or persons who are not present, and sometimes has terrifying visions that predict dire circumstances to come.
Peyote is another ancient, natural hallucinogenic substance. It comes from the cactus species Lophophora that is native to the southwestern United States and Mexico. Peyote is the flowering mushroomlike head or button of the cactus. It contains a potent chemical substance called mescaline. Peyote is either chewed, boiled in a liquid for drinking, or rolled into pellets that are swallowed. The uses of peyote parallel those of the hallucinogenic mushrooms. Mescaline produces visions and changes in perception, and users experience a state of intoxication and happiness. Native Americans of the Southwest often use peyote in their tribal rituals. It is an especially important part of the Native American Church.
LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide; pronounced lie-SIR-jic A-sid die-ETH-a-la-mide) is a synthetic substance first made in 1938 by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann (1906– ). While seeking a headache remedy, Hofmann isolated lysergic acid from the ergot fungus that grows on wheat. In the laboratory he added the diethylamide molecule to the lysergic acid compound. While Hofmann was working with the new compound, a drop of the material entered his bloodstream through the skin of his fingertip and Hofmann soon experienced intense hallucinations.
In the 1950s, American chemists conducted a series of experiments in which the drug was given to mice, spiders, cats, dogs, goats, and an elephant. All of the animals showed dramatic changes in behavior. Experiments on human subjects were then conducted. Researchers hoped to find a use for LSD as a treatment for disorders such as schizophrenia, alcoholism, and narcotic addiction. However, it soon became evident that the drug had no therapeutic (healing) use, and research on it was abandoned.
LSD, an illegal drug, is one of the most potent hallucinogens known. It is 5,000 times more potent than mescaline and 200 times more potent than psilocybin. Just a tiny amount of the drug can produce a dramatic effect. The drug can be swallowed, smoked (mixed with marijuana), injected through a needle, or rubbed on the skin. Taken by mouth, the drug will take about 30 minutes to have any effect and up to an hour for its full effect to be felt. The total effect of LSD can last 6 to 14 hours.
An LSD user will experience blurred vision, dilation of the pupils, and muscle weakness and twitching. Heart rate, blood pressure, and body temperature all increase. The user's perception of colors, distance, shapes, and sizes is totally distorted and constantly changing. Some LSD users claim to be able to taste colors or smell sounds, a mixing of the senses called synesthesia. Hallucinations are common. Mood swings are frequent, with the user alternating between total euphoria and complete despair.
Users have been known to jump off buildings or walk in front of moving trucks because they have lost their grasp of reality. Repeated users of LSD who then stop taking the drug often experience flashbacks, or vivid past hallucinations. How LSD produces all these effects in the body remains unknown. Researchers know that the drug attaches to certain chemical binding sites widely spread throughout the brain. What occurs thereafter is not known.
[ See also Addiction ]