#129: LSD With Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris

May 20, 2016

In episode 129, Jesse interviews Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, Research Fellow at Imperial College London, about lysergic acid diethylamide, more widely known as LSD.

From counterculture symbol, to possibly solving climate change…  LSD is political in a way that few other substances are.  Turn on and tune into the episode, but don’t drop out just yet.

The Birth of LSD

LSD is the “prototypical” psychedelic.  It’s not the oldest psychedelic substance, but the term “psychedelic” was coined to describe the LSD experience.  It’s what catalyzed the systematic study of psychedelics.

Albert Hofmann, a Swiss chemist, was the first person to synthesize and take LSD.  While working in Basel for a pharmaceutical company searching for novel pharmaceuticals, he synthesized LSD on November 16, 1938.  However, it wasn’t until 1943 that Hofmann revisited the compound.

He accidentally (or maybe not…) ingested some — definitely not through his fingertips as you might have heard, since that would be impossible — and experienced the world’s first acid trip.  He described it as “dreamlike” with “intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.”  This first trip lasted about two hours.

The first intentional acid trip happened three days later, on April 19, 1943, when Hofmann took a massive dose of 250 micrograms — most people take 100 micrograms — rode home on his bicycle, and had a pretty rough trip.  Highlights (lowlights?) include thinking his neighbor was a malevolent witch.

Beyond Hallucinations

A friend once told Jesse, “talking about psychedelics is like dancing about architecture.”  Well, it’s not quite thaaat hard to describe an LSD trip, although it is certainly a profound and conscious-altering experience.  But what’s more interesting is what happens after the trip.  Steve Jobs called taking LSD “one of the most important things in my life,” and it wasn’t because of the cool colors.

People feel and behave differently after taking LSD.  Research has found a change in personality post-trip.  People become more open, more community-minded, and feel more connected to nature.

Paradoxical Effects

Here’s something weird:  despite Hofmann’s bad bicycle trip, the next day he woke up feeling fantastic.

It’s what Dr. Carhart-Harris calls the “paradoxical psychological effects of LSD.”  While tripping, people can experience symptoms approaching psychosis.  But in the days and weeks after dosing, people experience high levels of well-being, increased optimism, and greater cognitive flexibility.  Food even tastes better.  So what’s going on?

How Does LSD Work?

LSD stimulates a particular aspect of our serotonin systems.  Serotonin performs many roles, depending on which of 14 serotonin receptors are in play.  Serotonin 2A receptors are important for regulating mood, cognition, and plasticity — including memory, learning, flexibility of thinking.  LSD shows a high affinity for 2A receptors, which seems to explain its emotion and creativity-enhancing effects.

LSD changes your brain not only during a trip, but in long-lasting ways.  In studies on animals, researchers have seen markers of neuronal growth, including increased brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).  These effects are strongest in the cortex, the area of the brain responsible for cognition, suggesting that LSD can promote new, permanent connections in the brain.  New research shows increased neuronal connections in humans, too.

PS:  For more trippy news, join our list for a weekly Brain Breakfast.


  1. Jared K. says:

    I am blown away by how well put together and balanced this episode was. I’ve come to expect great things from you, Jesse, but this was perhaps your best yet. Well done to you and Dr. Carhart-Harris for a well thought out episode. There was enough science to educate, but not so much as to overwhelm. The rhetoric was definitely kept to a minimum, and it was a chance to learn about a substance without having too much bias one way or another. Thank you, and keep ’em coming!

    1. Jesse Lawler says:

      Thank you Jared. Very much appreciated. 🙂

  2. jeff says:

    wow what an interesting podcast! I’m fairly new to the smart drug scene, and i find your blog super helpful. Do you have any suggestions what the best supplements are on the market currently? Haven’t found a supplement review yet, but maybe I was looking wrong. I think LSD would be a little too intense for me 😀

    1. Jesse Lawler says:

      Hi there Jeff – We’re not endorsing LSD as a “smart drug” – although as a creativity drug I think we’d be on pretty safe footing. (But as Dr. Carhart-Harris said, despite millions of people’s worth of anecdotal evidence, the actual rigorous science hasn’t been done yet.) As for supplement recommendations, it sort of depends what you’re looking to improve/tweak? We’re of the mind that there is no one thing that’s right for all brains, all the time. (Except, that is, identifying and fixing nutrient deficiencies.)

  3. Mark A says:

    Really impressed by Dr. C-H. What a grounded approach to studying a compound that normally comes with more opinions than facts or evidence based theories. The neuroscience data from studying the huge effects of such a tiny addition to that party beyond the blood-brain barrier interests me more than, say, the spiritual discovery anecdotes I’ve heard.

    (Self indulgent conspiracy theory disclaimer) I feel like the scientific advancements from psychedelics have already been made–in secret– years ago, thoroughly understood, and used to further an agenda. Then outlawed by the same shadowy figures and used as leverage. It just seems likely that psychedelics were made schedule 1 and vehemently extinguished because they knew what all these studies are barely starting to implicate.

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