Tripping on LSD Makes Mental Time Travel Possible, but Only to the Future

Dropping acid helps the brain focus on the future and quit dwelling on the depression-inducing past.

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Time travel could be as easy as dropping acid — but only if you want to jump forward in time. New research from the University of Dundee and Imperial College London shows that tripping on LSD alters our perception of time, creating room for us to think about the future but making it harder to return to the past.

The research team — which included David Nutt, Ph.D. and Robin L. Earhart-Harris, Ph.D, prominent champions of modern LSD research — aimed to explore acid’s neurological and psychological effects on mental time travel.

As described in a new Journal of Psychopharmacology article about the study, dropping acid quiets the default mode network, an interconnected matrix of brain regions that turns on when we daydream about the past. Specifically, the default mode network is associated with “autobiographical memory recollection” and “ruminative thought.” When this network is less active, we’re less likely to time-travel to the past — giving us more space to mentally travel to the future.

For the study, the researchers hooked up half of their 20 volunteer participants to an IV drip of LSD, while the other half was given plain saline. As the acid trips unfolded over the next two hours, the researchers scanned participants’ brains using functional magnetic resonance imaging, a technique that allows them to see the regions being flooded with blood — that is, the ones that are the most active. In this case, the parts associated with the default mode network lit up.

While they were still tripping, the participants were interviewed about their thoughts, and the researchers took note of specific words they used to refer to the past, present, and future. Corroborating what the researchers discovered about the active brain regions, all of the participants on LSD spent significantly less time discussing the past than their sober counterparts but paid just as much attention to the present and future.

Time traveling backwards rarely ends well: as sci-fi series like 11.22.63 repeatedly point out, you can’t change the past. And yet many of us can’t help but mentally travel back in time to attempt to grapple with our personal histories, even though we know doing so will only make things more confusing. It’s an especially common trait in people with depression, who not only spend more time than usual rehashing unchangeable memories but have been shown to have more active default mode networks. It’ll still be a while before psychiatrists start playing BTTF2-era Doc Brown and handing out tabs of blotter paper to their patients, but the research, like so much of the current work focused on hallucinogens, is itself a glimpse into the future of mental health treatment.

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