At the end of the Korean War, the New York Times published a gripping story detailing how returning American soldiers may have been converted by communist brainwashers. The story became widely popular that some troops were allegedly confessing to war crimes, while others adopted the communist ideology and even refused to return home.
This fear of brainwashing, or brain warfare, both terrified and fascinated the American public at a time when political tensions were rising in the early years of the Cold War. The CIA was convinced that the Soviet Union had discovered a drug or technique to control minds, and as a response, they launched a top-secret program called MK-Ultra. MK-Ultra’s main purpose was to conduct covert experiments centered around behavior modification. Human test subjects were exposed to electroshock therapy, hypnosis, polygraphs, radiation, and a mixture of drugs, potions and chemicals to see whether any of these would be successful in controlling the human mind. While the CIA believed that all these experiments could potentially be useful, there was one drug that stood out and became MK-Ultra’s obsession in the 1950s and ‘60s.
The alleged race for manipulating the human mind had just begun, and the drug at the heart of it was actually discovered by accident.
In 1938, Albert Hofmann, a researcher working for a Swiss chemical company called Sandoz, accidentally formulated a psychoactive hallucinogenic that would alter the course of history. Hofmann initially wanted to synthesize a chemical compound that would stimulate the respiratory and circulatory system by combining lysergic acid with other molecules. On his twenty-fifth attempt, he inadvertently created Lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD – 25. While this new discovery was useless to his research at the time, Hofmann noticed that there was something interesting about this new compound. The animals that were exposed to it showed strange levels of excitement and behaved peculiarly.
Not thinking too much of it, though, Hofmann shelved his new discovery for five years until the results of his testing piqued his interest again and he decided to synthesize it in his lab once more. While in the final stages of synthesizing LSD during the height of the Second World War in 1943, Hofmann accidentally absorbed some of the substance. He soon experienced restlessness, dizziness and a state of extremely stimulated imagination that prompted him to abandon his work for the day and go home.
The next morning, he returned to his lab with a burning desire to discover what had affected him the previous day. After ruling out all possible contaminants, he came to the conclusion that he must have somehow ingested LSD, and that what he experienced was similar to the animals he observed in his lab five years prior. To verify this hypothesis, Hofmann decided that there was only one thing to do. Self-experiment. So on April 19th, 1943, Albert Hofmann embarked on the world’s first acid trip.
Forty minutes after taking the drug, Hofmann began feeling dizziness, anxiety, visual distortions and a sudden urge to laugh. While riding his bicycle home, he also reported that everything in his field of vision wavered and was distorted as if seen through a curved mirror. When he finally reached the safety of his home, he collapsed on his sofa. LSD’s psychedelic effects locked him in a frenzy of hallucinations that manifested in a continued animated motion driven by an inner restlessness.Hofmann was so frightened that he thought he was going to die. But soon the effects subdued and the horrors softened, giving way to a feeling of good fortune and gratitude magnified by an unprecedented display of colors and shapes behind his closed eyes. “Everything glistened and sparkled in a fresh light. The world was as if newly created,” he wrote the following morning. “All my senses vibrated in a condition of highest sensitivity, which persisted for the entire day.” Today, April 19th is celebrated by recreational LSD users as Bicycle Day because of Hofmann’s colorful ride home. And acid and psychedelic are two terms that are forever linked thanks to Hofmann.
Psychedelic is a combination of the Greek words “psyche”, which means mind, and “delos”, which is to reveal. Clinically, a psychedelic experience refers to a class of compounds that induce a mind-manifesting state in its users, sending them on a journey that often provides unique insights and emotions that they were otherwise oblivious to. This feeling can last for up to 12 hours and can be very dramatic. Most individuals report a distorted sense of time, an altered sense of self, and dramatic changes in feelings and sensations. Some experience synesthesia where their senses intertwine to add another dimension to their perceptions of the world, such as tasting music, seeing sounds and hearing colors.
An acid trip is a journey into one’s own mind and can provide its users with deep and profound realizations. But it can also be very unsettling, with the ability to push the mind into dark and unexplored places that could have some horrific effects. Scientists believe that LSD influences the receptors in the brain responsible for regulating serotonin, which is a chemical that carries messages between nerve cells and plays a key role in regulating mood, happiness and sexual desire, among other things. While there was, and still is, no research that connects LSD with mind control, in the late 1940s, the CIA received reports that the Soviets were engaged in intensive efforts to produce LSD, believing it to be the key to controlling an individual’s mind.
So when the U.S. government found out that Hofmann had created this mind-altering drug, they approached his employer Sandoz and paid $240,000 to purchase the world’s entire supply. What followed was reported by investigative journalist Stephen Kinzer as the “most sustained search in history for techniques of mind control.” The CIA and MK-Ultra began distributing LSD to hospitals, clinics, prisons and other institutions, asking them to carry out research projects on patients and prisoners so they could understand what LSD was, how people reacted to it, and how it could potentially be used as a tool for mind control.
Whitey Bulger, a prisoner who volunteered for the program in exchange for a shorter sentence, was told that the drug was being tested as a cure for schizophrenia. As part of the experiment, he was administered LSD every day for over a year. He later realized he was a guinea pig in an experiment aimed at testing the long-term effects of LSD and understanding whether it could make a person lose their mind. Bulger wrote about his experience that he was closely monitored by physicians who repeatedly asked him leading questions such as “Would you ever kill anyone?” that eventually drove him to the brink of insanity.
The experiments were the most extreme trials conducted on a human being by any U.S. agency, and Bulger claimed that he was never the same after. He was continually haunted by auditory and visual hallucinations, violent nightmares and anxiety so severe that he couldn’t even sleep. The CIA and MK-Ultra believed that LSD had the potential to blast a person’s mind, which would open up the opportunity to reprogram it to either help extract people from alleged Soviet mind attacks, or more likely, to make their enemy an enemy of himself. During the Cold War, the race for mind control was believed to be the most crucial of victories, so the CIA and MK-Ultra basically had a license to kill from the U.S. government. They had the authority to requisition humans from all over the country and around the world and subject them to all kinds of abuse, even if it were fatal.
Enemy agents captured in Europe and East Asia were subjected to all sorts of tests, from electroshock and sensory isolation to temperature extremes.These were not designed to understand the human mind, but rather to destroy it in order to build it again from the ground up. Perhaps the most notorious experiment of that era was Operation Midnight Climax. Government-employed prostitutes lured unsuspecting men to CIA safe houses where LSD experiments took place. The prostitutes dosed the men with LSD while CIA officials watched their minds unravel through a two-way mirror. As all this was underway, the agents themselves were also getting high and indulging in some unscrupulous behavior. The agent heading the program, George White, later wrote: “Of course, I was a very minor missionary, actually a heretic, but I toiled wholeheartedly in the vineyards because it was fun, fun, fun. Where else could a red-blooded American boy lie, kill and cheat, steal, deceive, rape, and pillage with the sanction and blessing of the All-Highest?”
Ultimately, after dosing countless people, MK-Ultra concluded that LSD was too unpredictable to be used for mind control, and the program was axed following an inspection of its unorthodox and unethical methods.Throughout its course, the program allegedly involved more than 150 experiments, with many casualties and lives permanently ruined. The actual number remains a mystery because most of MK-Ultra’s files were destroyed.
Ironically, the drug the CIA hoped to be their key to mind control ended up freeing people’s minds, sparking an anti-government rebellion dedicated to destroying everything the CIA held dear. The movement focused on protesting the Vietnam War in addition to advocating for equal rights and environmental awareness. As the spread of LSD grew, it became the unofficial symbol for this movement. It was heralded as a means for people to connect to nature and bring about positive changes in society.
Counterculture activists rebelled against the establishment and its participation in the mind-expansion experiments that acid was thought to provoke. Pressure created by the movement is also widely credited for the creation of the Clean Air Act in 1963, which was the United State’s first and most influential environmental law to regulate emissions. It also played a major role in conceiving the first Earth Day in 1970, which helped bring environmental concerns to the forefront of youth culture.
Sadly, although the movement sparked a lot of positive change, its overuse of acid, coupled with the U.S. government’s war on drugs, divided the nation and eventually hindered the positive experimentation of these hallucinogens. And so, after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration concluded that LSD was one of the most dangerous drugs to have ever been created, possession of this psychedelic was made illegal in 1968. Still, there is no doubt that the counterculture movement at that time wouldn’t have prevailed without it, making LSD one of the most influential drugs in human history.
More than 80 years after its discovery, LSD is still somewhat of a mystery. The fact that it’s illegal in many countries makes it hard for scientists to conduct appropriate research to determine its long-term effects. That being said, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, or MAPS, began to conduct basic safety studies. And in 2014, researchers initiated the first scientific studies on human subjects in decades. While acid’s ability to control minds is still in question, researchers have hinted that the use of psychedelics could help people stop smoking, deal with post-traumatic stress disorder, fight depression and even help terminally ill patients deal with their fear of death.
The uses of LSD in psychotherapy have also intrigued scientists and psychoanalysts. The drug was found to assist patients uncover previously repressed memories from their subconscious, while also stimulating their imagination in a way that lowered their customary defenses and made them more accepting of treatment. Acid’s therapeutic applications could be the beginning of a new era of openness as scientists keep testing its effects on the human mind. But despite these new studies, we still don’t have conclusive evidence on its long-term effects.
Cary Grant, an American actor popular in the 1950s, took over 100 doses of LSD, claiming that it allowed him to connect with his subconscious while breaking free from the usual disciplines one imposes on themselves. Similarly, Syd Barrett, a founding member of Pink Floyd, experienced waves of inspiration while using LSD that propelled the band to fame at the end of the 1960s. But the same forces that unleashed Barrett’s imagination led him down a path of self-destruction as overuse of the drug slowly drove him to insanity, becoming a shell of the man he once was. Albert Hofmann wrote that his psychedelic experiences left him with feelings of ecstatic love and unity with all creatures in the Universe.
However, he also did not shy away from the fact that the unpredictability of its effects was the major danger of LSD. The good mood and positive expectations of a trip could quickly turn to horrendous depression if the setting is not properly controlled and monitored closely. From being a tool for mind control to becoming the symbol of freedom, today LSD has undergone yet another public image shift with some involved with Silicon Valley advocating micro-dosing to boost creativity. With this new revival of the psychedelic in the era of technology, one can’t help but ponder on Hofmann’s words upon his discovery of the drug.
“I did not choose LSD; LSD found and called me.”