Psychedelic drugs are all the rage among scientists. But not for the reasons you might think. From the early, rudimentary research on psychedelics in the 1950s and 1960s to today’s sophisticated technology, there is a deep interest in understanding how psychedelics affect the brain.

Scientists are looking for meaningful answers, whether to learn psychedelics’ effects on human consciousness or their potential as therapeutic agents. But what exactly are psychedelics?

What are psychedelics?

Psychedelic drugs (also known as hallucinogens or hallucinogenic drugs) are a group of psychoactive substances that cause changes in a person’s sensory perception, emotions, and thoughts. They can be in natural or synthetic forms.

Classic hallucinogens: Short-term psychedelic effects on the brain

First, consider the classic hallucinogens and their effects on the brain. Psilocybin, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), peyote (mescaline), and dimethyltryptamine (DMT) are some of the most common “classic hallucinogens.” They usually change the way someone thinks and feels. Therefore, they are also the focus of most research.


Psilocybin is too known as magic mushrooms. It is a natural hallucinogenic component found in mushrooms around the world, including in the United States, South America, and Mexico.

People who use psilocybin experience paranoia, panic attacks, hallucinations, and “spiritual experiences.” Although it may seem contradictory, they also feel relaxed. For users, the latter effect has been compared to low doses of marijuana.


Peyote is a cactus with mescaline as an active ingredient and a naturally occurring hallucinogen. The psychedelic effects of mescaline have been compared to LSD.

Peyote users experience an increase in their heart rate as well as their body temperature. They sweat profusely and experience hallucinations, flushing and ataxia.


DMT is a naturally occurring psychedelic found in certain trees in Central America and the Amazon. DMT is the main component of ayahuasca tea, but people can also use its synthetic form (as a white powder).

DMT users suffer from agitation, increased heart rate and hallucinations. In addition, DMT’s hallucinogenic “trips” result in a person seeing distorted bodies and environments.


LSD is a highly hallucinogenic chemical produced from an acid found in ergot, a fungus that grows on rye grains. In 1938, Albert Hoffman, originally a Swiss pharmaceutical chemist synthesizes it as a stimulantbut he was unaware of its psychedelic effects, which he found out a few years later.

experience of LSD users numbness, tremors, sweating, loss of appetite, dizziness, impulsivity, hallucinations that have been compared to “drug-induced psychosis” and increased heart rate and blood pressure.

Read more: Exploring Psychedelics and How Mushrooms Can Help Fight Depression

Dissociative drugs

There is also another group of psychedelics called dissociative drugs. These substances make a person feel as if they are separate from their body or surroundings. This includes hallucinogens such as:

  • Phencyclidine (PCP) – formerly used as a general anesthetic.
  • Ketamine – surgical anesthetic; also known as the infamous “date-rape drug.”
  • Dextromethorphan (DXM) – used in cold medicine as a cough suppressant.

People consume these psychedelics in many forms, from pills to teas and injections, inhalation or smoking. The short-term effects on the brain, which users tend to call “trips,” vary and can begin as early as 15 to 20 minutes and last for about 12 hours.

Long-term psychedelic effects on the brain

As well as the short-term effects, scientists are still looking for more robust data on how psychedelics affect the brain in the long term. But their research shows that several hallucinogenic drugs can cause tolerance (LSD, psilocybin, and peyote) and can be addictive (PCP).

Other recognized long-term effects of psychedelics are persistent psychosis and hallucinogen persistent perceptual disorder (HPPD) – or flashbacks. While a person with persistent psychosis experiences paranoia, visual problems, mood swings, and disorganized thinking, HPPD causes hallucinations, visual problems, and symptoms that emulate those of brain tumors and strokes. Experts attribute these conditions mainly to people with a history of mental disorders.

Psychedelic therapy

For centuries, psychedelic drugs have had their place in the religious and healing ceremonies of indigenous people in Central and South America. But in recent years there has been a strong interest in their research as psychotherapeutics (psychedelic therapy).

Because the effects of hallucinogens and psychotic symptoms intersect, scientists have studied these substances and ways they may shed light on psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia.

They are also interested in the potential benefits of these substances as effective treatment of other mental illnesses, including major depressionanxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

The problem is, scientists know little about how psychedelics affect the brain—or the exact neurobiological mechanisms. And whatever is known is still the subject of much debate among the research community.

Read more: Do Psychedelic Drug Therapies Really Require Oversleeping?

A study of psychedelic effects on the brain

Several studies have shown that hallucinogens make brain activity more erratic. Research shows that psychedelics affect brain connectivity, affect serotonin receptors, create withdrawal, and of course, cause hallucinations.

Brain connectivity

For example, in two different ones studies with psilocybin, one using positron emission tomography (PET) and another functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers found that psychedelics change the brain’s connectivity areas, causing parts that are normally connected to become disconnected. Conversely, sites that are barely connected start to connect.

Serotonin receptors

What’s more, researchers have also found that psychedelic substances, such as psilocybin and LSD, trigger serotonin receptors in the brain – especially serotonin 5-HT2A receptors. This occurs mainly in the areas that control cognition and self-awareness (the cerebral cortex) and sensory information (the visual cortex). When users hallucinate, some tend to see distorted images or distort their senses, which is consistent with scientific research.

Tearing off

Some theories also try to explain the action of psychedelics more specifically, such as c well-known research by Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris and Dr. David Nuttpsychopharmacologists at Imperial College London.

In this study using fMRI, participants who used psilocybin showed lower brain activity in the “default mode network” – interconnected areas of the brain said to be responsible for consciousness or self-esteem. Yet brain imaging also shows a high level of “ego-disintegration,” or the “spiritual” feeling that comes from being detached from the self.


When you hear psychedelic users talk about their “trips” or mystical experiences, this is what they mean. They experience various sensations that can feel good or unpleasant (“bad trips”).

Carhart-Harris explains“You can go to heaven and hell in one trip.”

The researchers suggest that the phenomenon is “cognitive flexibility” with altered consciousness – or when the brain is free to operate in an unconscious or disorganized way.

Although these studies have made significant progress, scientists still don’t you know how the brain processes information or communicates changes domains of the same cognitive processwhile under the influence of psychedelics.

For this reason, there is a critical need for more research.

Read more: Psychedelics may be the future of psychotherapy

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