Many people think of hallucinogens as relics from the hippie generation, i.e., the drug culture of the 1960s, or as something that’s taken by ravers and music festival-goers. However, after a 50+ year hiatus, hallucinogenic drugs are undergoing a research revival and are now being touted as a game-changing intervention for mental health. So what are hallucinogens anyway?
Hallucinogens, also known as psychedelics or psychedelic drugs, are chemical substances that cause hallucinations and other sensory disturbances. Perhaps the most well-known and notorious hallucinogenic drug is LSD (Lysergic Acid Diethylamide). Other well-known hallucinogens include mescaline, which comes from the peyote cactus in the Southwest United States and Mexico. Another example is psilocybin, which naturally occurs in certain wild mushrooms – commonly known as shrooms or magic mushrooms.
Hallucinogens work by targeting specific areas of the brain to alter its understanding of sensory input.
While under the influence of hallucinogens, users may see images, feel sensations, or hear sounds that seem to be real but aren’t. Just about all hallucinogenic drugs contain nitrogen and are classified as alkaloids. Many have chemical structures that resemble neurotransmitters (serotonin-, acetylcholine-, or catecholamine-like).
Hallucinogens work by targeting specific areas of the brain to alter its understanding of sensory input. For example, a person may be staring at a blank wall, but their hallucinating brain interprets the wall as swirling and moving, or maybe covered in insects.
What Are the Effects of Using Hallucinogens?
The effects felt as a result of using hallucinogens can be both desired and undesired. For most people, the desired effect is feelings of euphoria and exhilaration, as well as enhanced insight and awareness, which is achieved through hallucinations. However, hallucinations can also be traumatic and outright frightening. Hallucinogens affect everyone differently, and a person could have different experiences on different occasions.
The reasons people use hallucinogens vary, but for most, they alter thoughts, perceptions, and feelings. While most aren’t addictive, some may be, so it’s important to be cautious when exploring hallucinogens. Ultimately, the effects depend on the type of drug, the dosage strength, the functioning of the person using them, and their state of mind.
Here are the most common effects of hallucinogens:
- Hallucinations of sound, sight, taste, and touch
- Distortions of distance, time, and direction
- Accelerated heart rate
- Blurring of the senses, such as colors being “heard” or sounds being “felt”
- Dilated pupils
What Are the Different Types of Hallucinogens
Hallucinogens can be found naturally in some plants and mushrooms (or the extracts) or can be man-made. Generally, they’re divided into two groups; classic hallucinogens (such as LSD) and dissociative drugs (such as PCP).
It’s important to understand that there are many different kinds of hallucinogens, and each has its own unique effect on the brain. Moreover, although both hallucinogenic categories can cause hallucinations, dissociative drugs are more likely to result in an individual sensing a loss of control or detachment from their own body and surroundings.
Below, we will look at a few hallucinogen examples.
Types of Drugs That Cause Hallucinations
While the exact way in which hallucinogens and dissociative drugs cause their effects aren’t yet properly understood, researchers have some kind of an idea. Studies suggest that they work at least partially by temporarily disrupting the communication between neurotransmitter systems throughout the spinal cord and brain. These are the systems that regulate sleep, mood, sensory perception, muscle control, hunger, and body temperature.
The most well-known and common hallucinogenic drugs are:
- D-lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD): LSD is a man-made chemical created from ergot – a fungus that grows on certain grains. It’s arguably the most powerful hallucinogen out there.
- Dimethyltryptamine (DMT): DMT, also known as Dimitri, it’s a natural chemical found in certain Amazonian plant species. However, it can also be chemically synthesized.
- Ketamine: Used by medical practitioners and veterinarians as an anesthetic, ketamine is also widely abused for its dissociative effects. It can be made into pills or tablets or dissolved in liquid. It’s usually snorted, swallowed, or injected.
- Psilocybin: Also known as shrooms, this is a natural substance found in hallucinogenic mushrooms that contain psilocin and psilocybin. In large enough doses, it can produce very similar effects as LSD. They are often eaten, mixed with food, or brewed in tea for drinking.
- Phencyclidine (PCP): A dangerous man-made substance that was first developed as an aesthetic. However, it was discontinued in 1965 due to its side effects. It’s now an illegal street drug sold in a liquid form or as a white powder.
Aside from the above well-known hallucinogens, there are also quite a few natural psychedelics that come straight from the earth – many of which may surprise you. Here’s a list of natural hallucinogens.
- Angel’s Trumpet: Brugmansia, known as Angel’s Trumpet because of its large, fragrant white flowers, can cause auditory and visual hallucinations, which are typically described as being terrifying rather than pleasurable.
- African Dream Root: Native to South Africa, this plant, also known as Silene capensis, is used by Xhosa people to induce prophetic and vivid dreams.
- Colorado River Reed: Growing up to 8 meters tall, this reed-like grass is found alongside rivers and lakes. It’s known to contain DMT – a well-known hallucinogenic agent.
- Intoxicating Mint: This small shrub contains agents in its branches that are hemostatic, hallucinogenic, antispasmodic, hypotensive, and sedative. It’s made into tea.
- Salvia Divinorum: Part of the mint family and originating in Mexico, Salvia divinorum contains the very potent psychoactive agent, salvinorin A. It’s long been used as a divinatory hallucinogenic.
How Are Hallucinogens Used?
Hallucinogens are a class of drugs that change a person’s perception of reality. They make people feel, hear, and see things that aren’t real or may distort their perception of what’s going on around them. Some are quick-acting, while others take longer to take effect. Being under the influence of a hallucinogen is commonly referred to as tripping.
Hallucinogenic drugs have been used for many years for a variety of reasons. Historically, they were used for religious rituals to induce states of detachment from reality and to bring on visions believed to provide mystical insight or enable contact with a “higher power” or the spirit world.
Historically, hallucinogens were used for religious rituals to induce states of detachment from reality and to bring on visions.
More recently, though, people are using hallucinogens for more recreational and social purposes, including to help them deal with stress, have fun, or enable them to enter what they perceive to be a more enlightened sense of thinking or being.
Furthermore, hallucinogens are now being investigated as therapeutic agents that could assist in the treatment of diseases associated with perceptual distortions, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, dementia, and schizophrenia.
Ultimately, how hallucinogens are used all comes down to the hallucinogenic effects that an individual is after. If they don’t like the idea of being “out of touch with reality,” so to speak, then hallucinogens probably aren’t for them.