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The Potential of Psychedelics and How They Work

Author: Michael Helde

From: Washington State, USA


When I think about psychedelics, I think about one of many drugs, which more or less have the same effect, and which I have no interest in, since it’s been established that drugs are bad. However, with a better understanding of the science behind how psychedelics work, the history of psychedelics, and their effects, we can form a better, more informed judgment of psychedelics.

The Neurobiology of Psychedelics

To have a concrete understanding of psychedelics, one must know its definition: “a class of psychoactive substances that produce changes in perception, mood, and cognitive processes” []. They can be found in nature (in fungi or plants) and made in the lab. So what’s the unifying factor about psychedelics? All psychedelics activate the 2A serotonin receptor, which is what causes the cognitive effect they all have in common. You may be wondering what the “2A Serotonin Receptor” is. To understand this, we must know about some basic neurobiology which I’ve covered in a previous blog, “Neuralink: Elon Musk’s Company”. This rhetoric is important for understanding exactly what psychedelics do to neurons. So, the presynaptic axon neurotransmitters are sent across the synapse and taken by the postsynaptic dendrite. What do I mean by “taken”? There are protein receptors on the postsynaptic dendrite which are shaped in such a way that certain chemicals are accepted. This, in turn, results in a chain of events, ultimately leading to the spiking of the neuron and the feeling given by psychedelics. Serotonin is one type of neurotransmitter that basically gives the feeling of happiness. There are different concentrations of the 2A Serotonin Receptor throughout the brain, as shown by the high concentrations of them in the frontal cortex, visual cortex, and even the gut, interestingly. There are actually around 100 million neurons in your gut. Knowing the distribution of the concentration of this receptor protein can give us an idea of the feelings psychedelics cause.

The main takeaway here should be that since psychedelic molecules are similar in shape to serotonin, they can bind to the 2A- Serotonin Receptor. We can see the different types of psychedelics and look at their shape in comparison to serotonin. Below are shown the “Classic Psychedelics” which are as follows: LSD (made in a lab), Psilocybin (from mushrooms), Mescaline (from cacti), and DMT (from tropical plants).

The History of Psychedelics

Understanding the history of the use of psychedelics is important so that we can recognize how external factors have shrouded our judgment of psychedelics. Although it’s worthy to acknowledge that psychedelics were used by the Maya and Aztecs long before scientists discovered them, for our purposes, it is not of utmost importance. A Swiss scientist by the name of Albert Hofmann was the first person to synthesize and ingest LSD in 1943. He accidentally ingested some, and later intentionally took some when he had an acid trip on his some-what infamous bicycle ride back to his house, which was the first acid trip in the world. Before long, LSD was being distributed to scientists who performed research on it, including clinical researchers who sought it as a cure for mental illnesses. It was seen that there was much potential in psychedelics at this time, but that would change.

Eventually, LSD could be found outside laboratories, but when the Harvard psychologist, Timothy Leary fervently promoted LSD, he was fired from Harvard and continued to heavily support the use of LSD. It got to the point that President Richard Nixon called Leary the most dangerous man in America. It was Timothy Leary who coined the term, “Turn on, tune in, and drop out.” Leary knew that those who took LSD wouldn’t be contributing to the nation, the economy, or the Vietnam War, and so did President Nixon, which is why Nixon took strict actions against LSD, including the prevention of further research. This is where politics and science collided, which is something that must be prevented. No more research has been done until fairly recently, that we see a resurgence in the study of LSD.


Understanding the history of psychedelics shows us how politics interfered with its great potential in the clinical setting. We should keep this in mind in the future, as we lost over 30 years of research which could’ve had great ramifications. While there is potential for psychedelics to cure addiction and mental illness, they could also be used to boost creativity. Many famous people, including scientists, entrepreneurs, actors, authors, and singers, used psychedelics. Examples include the following: Steve Jobs, Aldous Huxley, The Beatles, Richard Feynman, Jack Nicholson, Bill Gates, Francis Crick (the discoverer of DNA’s structure), and Kery Mullis (the scientist who invented the polymerase chain reaction technique). On the last of the list, Kery Mullis has said, “What if I had not taken LSDS ever; would I have still invented PCR? I don’t know. I doubt it. I seriously doubt it.” In this way, he’s attributing his success to psychedelics. Author Ken Kesey of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” has said that people are afraid of “acid” because they’re afraid they’ll have less control:

“What is it about it that scares people so deeply, even the guy that invented it, what is it? Because they’re afraid that there’s more to reality than they have confronted. That there are doors that they’re afraid to go in, and they don’t want us to go in there either, because if we go in we might learn something that they don’t know. And that makes us a little out of their control.”


Author: Michael Helde

Michael Helde a high school junior in Washington. He has a wide range of interests including math, computer science, biology, and physics. He is currently doing research on computational neuroscience.



  1. World Science Festival. (2019, August 17). Revealing the Mind: The Promise of Psychedelics [Video]. YouTube.

  2. Austin, P. (2019, October 25). Famous People Who Have Used Psychedelics. Third Wave.

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