I See the Light

The prescribed benefits of LSD

by Charlotte Wall; photo by Katie Lawrie

Disconnected, no longer perceiving the world through your own senses, the world gleams brighter, seems more interesting and hums more surreally. You feel the energy of your surroundings as they move you and form brilliant waves, amplifying every process in your mind and dampening the air with a heavy, almost liquid consistency. You zip through the universe atthe speed of light. Lysergic acid diethlamide (LSD) is a psychedelic drug, commonly known as acid, that causes users to experience hallucinations—ones that vary drastically from user to user, and may even affect those with color blindness.

LSD was first synthesized in 1938 by chemist Albert Hofmann, but its effects were only discovered five years later after Hofmann took a tiny dose and saw an “uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, [and] extraordinary shapes with [an] intense, kaleidoscopic play of color.” The drug was popular during the 1960s countercultural movement for its hallucinogenic effects—users claimed the drug could expand consciousness. In the U.S., psychedelic drugs may be just as common now as they were in the 1960s, according to a new survey by the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs that indicates LSD use has spiked over the past two years.

Psychedelics increase activity between parts of the brain that typically don’t communicate in a process scientists call “cross-talk.” This may be why users hallucinate while on these substances. The brain’s visual-processing centers interact in strange ways with sections of the brain that control emotions and beliefs. Lead researcher Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris studied how LSD affects the brain and claimed that users in his study were “seeing with their eyes shut.” He found that “they were seeing things from their imagination rather than from the outside world.”

The ability to perceive images is due to optic nerves that carry electrical impulses to the brain. More specifically, the ability to see color is due to “cones”  which are photoreceptors that detect light and are responsible for vision. Eyes usually contain three types of cones that collaborate to see various colors. 

Those with color vision deficiency (CVD) have faulty or missing cones, meaning they see colors differently than the average person—colors less diverse, in fewer shades and in duller hues. On the other side of the spectrum, LSD oversaturates color and causes people to see things they may have never before noticed. When people with CVD takes hallucinogenic drugs, their perception is altered just as a “normal” person’s sight is. According to a 1963 study by renowned ophthalmologist, Alex E. Krill, in which he gave LSD to 24 completely blind people, hallucinations only occurred in blind subjects who had experienced prior visual activity. Hallucinations did not occur in those who have been blind since birth. Because no known scientific study has covered LSD’s effects on color blind people, it is difficult to gauge how LSD affects those with CVD. Instead, anecdotal evidence and conjecture may be the only current means to speculate how LSD affects colorblind people.

There are numerous accounts of alleged CVD individuals who have taken LSD on The Erowid Experience Vaults, a catalogue dedicated to recording the various reactions people have to “psychoactive plants and chemicals.” The site reports that “there are a handful of case reports of people with color blindness finding that LSD altered their perception of color for the duration of the effects.”

The website has 100,000 entries of experiences and claims that reports take about six months to be published after being reviewed for credibility and accuracy.

In one testimony, a user claimed “colors have become sharper and brighter and I can more easily distinguish similar shades in bright and pastel colors.” The same user reports that they did better on an optical colorblind test with their optometrist after LSD than they did before taking the hallucinogen.

In another account, a user who claims to be nearly monochrome and misinterprets all but the most vivid colors says, “For the first time in my life, I saw color…Under the influence of LSD, my color perceptions began to heighten.” The user says they had always relied upon grouping shades of objects to predict their color. On LSD, the user began to be able to distinguish “hues” of color, whereupon they hadtheir friend help them learn all of the colors from scratch.

Other anecdotal accounts report visual hallucinations, but no evidence that people saw different colors than usual. This brings back the example of how some completely blind people were able to experience dreams and hallucinations, but only those who had the reference of an ingrained, earlier memory of how shapes and colors look. However, those with CVD do not have the luxury of these memories since the condition is typically present since birth. 

There are some cases that report people with CVD seeing colors they previously could not while on LSD. Those who became affected with CVD late in life, such as those with Shaken Baby Syndrome, direct physical eye damage, degenerative eye diseases and side effects of some medications, could have been born with normal color perception but lost color vision without knowing. For this reason, anecdotal evidence is faulty because the individual believes they are seeing a color for the first time, but really had seen such color earlier in life, before they contracted CVD. These peoples’ brains have a reference point of certain colors, regardless of whether or not they are aware of it. That said, because the underlying cause for some individuals’ color blindness is due to their photoreceptors not functioning properly, LSD may make photoreceptors more sensitive—permanently or not—and more successful in detecting colors.

LSD makes colors seem stronger and lights brighter and objects may even appear to have a halo of light around them. In one case of a non-impaired LSD user, they claim they were able to see temperature, much like one would if infrared waves were a component of the human visible spectrum. Although human eyes do not have the capacity to process waves such as ultraviolet (UV) and infrared does not mean the brain cannot. The brain on LSD may recreate what it would expect such waves to look like and, therefore, allow the user to see these waves “with their mind.” 

The user may have suspected they were seeing temperature, but it is more likely they were detecting changes in air currents and the densities around a hot object (such as the vision of the air around a hot grill “waving” and bending), rather than seeing the actual infrared light directly. Because the eye is sensitive to the polarization of light, the lutein in human eyes will sense polarization and create a blue or yellow fuzz depending on the light’s angle.

Similarly, in color blind people who believe they are seeing a new color, they may be perceiving the memory of a color rather than the color itself. It’s impossible to say—are the colors really there or is it all in their heads?