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Ancient Dreams, Modern-Day Dreamers

Medical Experiments

Since the late 1800s, doctors and scientists have studied hallucinogens to determine whether they might be useful in medical treatment. They began creating synthetic versions of the substances. A Swiss chemist, Albert Hofmann, developed LSD in 1938 and believed it could be a cure for headaches. But when he took it, headaches became the least of his problems. He felt nauseous and unsteady, as if drunk. As the drug took over his system, he saw weird shapes and colors in changing patterns. Experimenting with stronger doses, he saw people and objects as distortions, like crazy mirror images at amusement parks. He felt unable to move. He seemed to float outside himself, looking down at his motionless body. He babbled foolishly. Activities around him seemed to occur in slow motion.

During the 1950s, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency reportedly experimented with LSD to learn how it might affect suspects under interrogation. Other researchers thought LSD might be useful in treating certain physical ailments and controlling alcoholism and mental disorders. One problem they quickly discovered is the unpredictable nature of hallucinogens. These substances do not affect everyone in the same ways.

Certain designer drugs were also developed with noble intentions. Pharmaceutical researchers in the early twentieth century studied ecstasy, for example, as a possible appetite control medication. It was later used to treat psychiatric patients. It was outlawed in the United States in 1985.

PCP came under study in the 1950s because doctors believed it, too, might be useful. Besides being a hallucinogen, PCP is an anesthetic. People think of anesthetics as medications that deaden pain—obviously helpful for patients undergoing surgery; or suffering from major injuries. Anesthetics don't exactly kill pain, though. They block pain signals from the affected area before the brain receives the signals and reacts. You don't feel pain unless your brain tells you there is pain.

Anesthetics do what doctors want them to do, but they can also make a patient drowsy. They slow down breathing and heartbeats. PCP, doctors learned, does more than that. As a hallucinogen—not just an anesthetic—it affected patients like other hallucinogens do. Patients had “out-of-body experiences.” They felt fearful, sad, or angry. By the mid-1960s, doctors stopped using PCP as an anesthetic for human patients. (Some veterinarians began using it on animals.) They decided its negative risks were not worth its benefits.

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Science EncyclopediaCommon Street DrugsAncient Dreams, Modern-Day Dreamers - Natural Hallucinogens, Synthetic Hallucinogens, Hallucinogens Throughout History, Medical Experiments, From Medical Practice To Peace Rallies