Robin Carhart-Harris is the first person in the UK to have legally administered doses of lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) to human volunteers since the Misuse of Drugs Act of 1971, and his presentation climaxes with a slide showing something no one else has seen before: an as-yet unpublished cross-sectional image of the brain of a volunteer who was in an fMRI scanner while tripping on acid. Blobs of colour indicate changes in blood flow, from which can be inferred changes in levels of activity in specific brain regions – notably, in this case, the hippo-campus, which is involved, among other things, in making memories and giving them context.
“I personally think it has a great deal of potential for treating addiction,” says Carhart-Harris. “It’s slightly hypothetical, but it’s based on what we know about the way the brain works, which is that it settles into configurations of activity that seem to underly certain psychopathologies.”Depression and addictions rest on reinforced patterns of brain activity, and a psychedelic will introduce a relative chaos. Patterns that have become reinforced disintegrate under the drug. I’ve used the metaphor of shaking a snowglobe. And there’s some evidence that psychedelics induce plasticity, in terms of neural connections in the brain, such that there is a window of opportunity in which connections can either be broken or reinforced. New things can be learnt at the same time that old things can be unlearnt. It induces a kind of suppleness of mind.”