LSD May Help Reveal What Makes Music Meaningful

A woman listens to music through her headphones
(Image credit: Roman Samborskyi/Shutterstock.)

There's a good chance that there's a song that is particularly meaningful to you, and a new small study from Switzerland may explain what makes things we experience, including music, meaningful.

In the study, researchers asked people to take the drug lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, and then were able to pinpoint how people's brains ascribed meaning to specific factors, such as songs, in their environment.

It turns out that this connection to meaning may involve certain areas of the brain that previous research has tied to how people experience their sense of self, the researchers said.

The new findings show which cells, chemicals and regions in the brain "are involved when we perceive our environment as meaningful and relevant," study co-author Katrin Preller, a psychology and neuroscience researcher at the Zürich University Hospital for Psychiatry in Switzerland, said in a statement. [10 Things You Didn't Know About You]

"This is important to understand, since it can reveal potential targets for the treatment of psychiatric illnesses," Preller told Live Science.

Previous research has shown that taking LSD alters how a person ascribes meaning to his or her environment, Preller said. But it wasn't clear what chemicals or parts of the brain were involved in these changes, she said.

In the new study, the researchers performed a series of three brain scans on 22 people. For each scan, the participants were given a placebo, LSD or LSD plus a drug called ketanserin, which blocks some of LSD's effects on the brain. During the brain scans, the people in the study listened to some songs that had a special meaning to them, and others that were not particularly meaningful to them.

The researchers found that songs that were normally meaningless to the listeners became meaningful when the people listened to them under the influence of LSD. However, that effect was diminished when the people had taken LSD along with ketanserin, according to the study, published Jan. 26 in the journal Current Biology.

The brain scans showed that this change — from meaningless to meaningful — appeared to be induced by LSD acting on certain receptors and structures in the brain, according to the study. These receptors and structures have previously been linked to how people experience a sense of self, the researchers said.

These receptors may be potential targets for the treatment of people who have psychiatric disorders that alter the way they attribute meaning to their environment, Preller said. One example of such a disorder is psychosis, which involves losing touch with reality.

In addition to unveiling potential drug treatments, the new findings suggest that hallucinogenic drugs may have therapeutic potential on their own, Adam Halberstadt, an assistant adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego who was not involved in the study, wrote in a unpublished editorial.

For example, two studies published in 2016 showed that a single dose of the hallucinogen psilocybin, which is found in "magic" mushrooms, might help to reduce anxiety and depression in people with cancer, Halberstadt wrote in the editorial. [11 Odd Facts About ‘Magic’ Mushrooms]

Both psilocybin and LSD are known to provoke mystical experiences, Halberstadt wrote.

"The ability of hallucinogens to increase perceived meaningfulness and personal relevance could be one factor contributing to mystical experiences as well as to the beneficial therapeutic outcome," he wrote. "Patients who believe that death has profundity and meaning are more likely to peacefully accept the prospect of their impending death."

Originally published on Live Science.

Staff Writer