A Brief Introduction to Psychedelics, pt. I: The Chemistry

"Eclipse Engaged" by Android Jones

“Eclipse Engaged” by Android Jones

If you’ve heard the term “psychedelic” before, chances are you’ve heard it in connection with the hippie subculture of the late 1960’s and the artistic style that bloomed within it. You may also be familiar with the fact that a certain family of mind-altering drugs and their effects on users played a key role in the formation of the hippie movement. Despite knowing this, you may still be wondering: just what does “psychedelic” refer to?

Today, the term is generally used to refer to one or all of the following:

  • Psychoactive (mind-affecting) drugs with hallucinatory and “consciousness-expanding” effects
  • A visual art movement that started in the mid-1960’s, distinguished by vivid colours, intricate patterns and surrealistic images
  • A musical movement that originated in the rock scene of the mid-1960’s and later grew out into several different genres; distinguishable by hypnotic and experimental soundscapes
  • An international culture (also referred to as psychedelia) that spawned in the mid-1960’s and includes all of the above

What all of these points have in common is that they are based on the use of a number of drugs collectively known as “psychedelics”. Perhaps most famous of all these drugs is LSD, or “acid”. However, some other famous psychedelics include psilocybin and its close relative psilocin, the active ingredients of “magic mushrooms”; mescaline, the active ingredient in Peyote and San Pedro cacti; and DMT, the active ingredient in Ayahuasca.

In order to understand how these chemicals affect human consciousness, it helps to have a basic understanding of how brain cells communicate using “messenger chemicals”, or neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are a vital part of the brain’s communication systems, and in short, what they do is transmit messages between the connection points (synapses) of brain cells. If you imagine that a brain cell (neuron) is a computer, and that the whole brain (neural network) is the internet, then neurotransmitters are the e-mails, instant messages and hyperlinks that share information between the computers connected to the internet.

Two of the most important neurotransmitters that scientists have found in the brain are serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin is involved with regulating mood, appetite, and memory in the human brain. Dopamine, on the other hand, is involved with regulating reward-motivated behavior and muscle control, amongst other things.

Neurotransmitters and psychedelics

Diagram showing the structural similarity between selected neurotransmitters and psychedelic drugs. At the top are three tryptamines (serotonin, DMT and psilocin), with the serotonin base shown in red. At the bottom are two phenethylamines (dopamine and mescaline), with the dopamine base shown in blue. In the middle is a lysergamide (LSD), whose more complex structure incorporates both dopamine and serotonin bases.

The common trait that all “classic” psychedelics share is that their molecular structure – the shape and composition of their molecules – is remarkably similar to that of serotonin and dopamine. This matters because of the way that neurotransmitters are converted into information after being passed from one neuron to another. Neurotransmitters are essentially molecules shaped in a specific way that fit perfectly into a specially shaped slot – similar to the way that a key is shaped to fit into a lock – and are sent from the “outbox” (axon) of one brain cell to the “inbox” (dendrite) of another. When they arrive, they drop into specially shaped holes (neuroreceptors), in the same way that a key fits into a lock. This “unlocking” creates a specific electrical pulse that the nervous system – which operates using electrical signals – can make use of.

Brain cells are, in a sense, bilingual; they operate using an electrical language, but communicate with each other using a chemical language. Because of how similar psychedelic molecules and neurotransmitter molecules are in both shape and composition, the brain’s chemical systems are able to interpret the psychedelics using the same language that it normally uses for its own neurotransmitters. After all, the psychedelic molecules are so similar to the neurotransmitter keys that they fit into the neuroeceptor locks, yet different enough to produce a different electrical signal upon unlocking. These minor differences, and the variety of electrical signals they produce, are what cause the changes in consciousness that users experience after taking a psychedelic drug.

So now we understand that the experienced effects of these drugs are produced because humans are born with a neural system for interpreting the same kinds of molecules that psychedelics are based on. But what kind of psychological effects does this type of neurochemistry produce?

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