Mind

LSD Helps Explain How Our Brains Assign Meaning to Experience

A study on the psychedelic drug offers insights into the neurological underpinnings of meaningful experiences.

We all understand the feeling of being moved, an intense, uplifting mood where we find meaning through experiences like hearing a great song or taking in a stunning painting. But what explains that feeling?

That sensation may feel like a spiritual experience to some, but it has a chemical basis in the brain, finds a group of Swiss researchers who studied the effects of the psychedelic drug lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) in the brain. Their research is available in the journal Current Biology.

It all comes down to neurochemicals in the brain binding to serotonin receptors. While the research certainly helps put meaningful experiences into a scientific context, perhaps more importantly findings from research such as this can lead to the development of new psychiatric therapies.

Meaningful experiences aren't just positive ones after all. Certain stimuli, such as spiders, can elicit strong, fearful responses in our brains. These experiences all may share the same neurological underpinnings.

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"Attribution of meaning and personal relevance is important for our everyday lives," lead author Katrin Preller of Zürich University Hospital for Psychiatry told ResearchGate, a social networking site for the scientific community. "In psychiatric disorders, the attribution of meaning is often altered, and the mechanisms causing this were unknown."

"LSD has also been shown to alter the attribution of meaning and personal relevance to the environment and our sense of self," Preller added.

For their study, researchers brought in 22 participants and asked each subject to provide a list of songs that they felt particularly attached to. The participants were randomly given a placebo, a 100-microgram dose of LSD or LSD and ketanserin, a drug that affects a certain kind of serotonin receptor in the brain known as 5-HT2ARs.

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Once each participant had been administered their assigned treatment, the researchers played clips of songs selected from the participant's playlist, songs similar to those that the participant selected and free form jazz, which held little personal relevance to anyone across the study.

Participants who received LSD reported that songs which had held no meaning for them previously, suddenly became meaningful. This didn't happen, however, for those who received both the LSD and the ketansarin.

"[T]he results suggest that LSD increases the attribution of personal relevance to previously non-meaningful stimuli and that this effect is attributable to 5-HT2AR stimulation and associated with activity in brain areas related to self-relevant processing," the researchers wrote.

Targeting the serotonin receptor in the brain that creates a sense of meaning could hold promise for the treatment of illnesses such as schizophrenia or paranoia, where people react strongly to what might be otherwise innocuous cues or stimuli. Doing so, however, will require a pharmaceutical approach that mimics some of the more uplifting effects of LSD without the hallucinogenic effects.

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