For decades, every town had its spin on the story: the distant cousin or friend of a friend who took a bunch of acid and never came down from their trip. Rumour had it that many of these people were consigned to state asylums, unshakably convinced that they’d morphed into tall, precariously balanced glasses of orange juice—at least, that was the one that I heard. The dreaded “permatrip”: an urban legend sourced equally in Just Say No paranoia and teenage idiocy/credulousness.
Still, for those who bought the story at a young-enough age, the fear of it can be hard to shake—there is something primally terrifying about the idea of a quarter-inch piece of paper permanently warping, or wiping, your mind. As so—just to be absolutely sure—for this Giz Asks we reached out to some top psychedelic researchers.
Professor Emeritus, Pharmacology, Purdue University, and the founding president of the Heffter Research Institute, which promotes research with classic hallucinogens and psychedelics
I’ve never heard of anything like that before—I think it’s mostly an urban legend.
It is possible that someone could get something called HPPD—Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder. It’s related to what they used to call flashbacks, but only a small number of people suffer from it. The disorder involves LSD-like effects that occur after the drug has been cleared from the body. Usually visual effects—illusions, distortions of visual space—and sometimes with anxiety. There’s no known cure, and there’s no understanding of why it happens. But it only affects a very small number of people.
Psychedelics can, in rare cases, catalyse the onset of schizophrenia, if taken in adolescence or early adulthood. But that would generally happen only in someone who is predisposed to develop that mental disorder to begin with—it wouldn’t cause it.
“There is no evidence one can get stuck in a certain state forever, although there is a risk psychedelics could unleash a psychosis in those predisposed to it or with a family history of schizophrenia.”
Executive Director of the Beckley Foundation, a drug policy organisation which scientifically investigates the effects of psychoactive substances on the brain and consciousness
There is no evidence indicating that classical psychedelics can fry anyone’s brain—they are remarkably non-toxic substances, and they have not been associated with any kind of neurotoxicity or organic brain damage. There is no evidence one can get stuck in a certain state forever, although there is a risk psychedelics could unleash a psychosis in those predisposed to it or with a family history of schizophrenia. But this is screened for in all research studies being conducted, to eliminate any risk of this.
However, a very small proportion of psychedelic users may experience Hallucinogen Persisting Perception Disorder (HPPD). This affects a very tiny proportion of psychedelic users, and less users of this proportion report troubling effects with it. Sometimes symptoms dissipate in time, in other instances it can be longer lasting. It seems more likely to affect heavy users of psychedelics, and notably it has not been reported once among any participants of psychedelic studies that have been conducted in modern times. No one knows the mechanism behind HPPD. Pharmacologist and psychedelic expert Prof David Nichols hypothesises that HPPD may result from the brain’s visual system becoming sensitised by the psychedelic somehow, but at the present time we can only speculate as to how it occurs. While there is no single recommended course of treatment for HPPD, there are two case reports where two people experiencing long-term HPPD symptoms were successfully treated with antiepileptic drug lamotrigine and tranquilliser drug clonazepam, respectively.
“They are remarkably non-toxic substances, and they have not been associated with any kind of neurotoxicity or organic brain damage.”
Professor of Psychology and Cofounder, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, and the author of The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide, among other books
Permatripping, as far as we know does not exist—period.
People who have taken high doses and had an extremely bad experience (or more likely very bad treatment for a bad experience) will for some months feel mentally upset and disturbed, just as they would for any other trauma, like a sexual assault or a kidnapping. But LSD and other psychedelics leave the brain after a few hours, and as far as we we know from the research we’ve done, they do not leave residues. They do lead to changes in behaviour and attitude over time—which you could probably call learning—but there’s no staying in the tripping state.
There were experiments done by Leary and Alpert in the 1960s where they tried to stay in a permatripping state by taking more and more LSD each day, upping the dose as necessary. The fact that this experiment failed suggests that even overdosing on a daily basis does not lead to permatripping. Psychedelics are actually anti-addictive: when you take a psychedelic, it will have an effect; if you take the same amount the next day, it has much less effect; and on the third day, if you try again, it has no effect at all. So it’s self-cancelling, physiologically: the system simply rejects the effects of whatever they psychedelic may be.
At least 26 million Americans have taken LSD since the drug was listed in schedule I in the late ‘60s. If permatripping existed, we would have noticed it by now.
“Hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD) ...can occur after hallucinogen use, and could involve ongoing perceptual disturbances like seeing auras or halos around bright lights, or re-experiencing of hallucinogen-like effects months or years after taking the drug (sometimes called ‘flashbacks’).”
Instructor and Research Associate, Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences, John Hopkins School of Medicine, who studies the effects of psychedelics in humans, with a focus on psilocybin as an aid in the treatment of addiction
As far as I know, “permatripping” is an urban legend. There are psychiatric conditions like catatonia and psychotic disorders that can be chronic and persist across the lifespan, and there is evidence that in some rare cases these types of conditions can be triggered or exacerbated by hallucinogen use. Typically this is believed to occur in individuals who may have a personal history or genetic predisposition to these conditions. Symptoms of a psychotic disorder such as schizophrenia could include delusions (believing things that are untrue, and often unusual, for instance that people are plotting against you or that you have special powers), hallucinations (seeing, or more commonly hearing, things that are imperceptible to others), and disorganised speech, or behaviour, which may seem incoherent to others, interfere with communication and functioning, and can be linked to the aforementioned delusions and/or hallucinations.
Catatonia, which can occur in conjunction with or separate from psychotic disorders, can involve a number of symptoms such as stupor, immobility, and grimacing. These types of symptoms tend to occur as part of brain disorders, but can also be associated with extreme trauma, traumatic brain injury, and in some instances have been observed to happen after hallucinogen use.
Other drugs such as cocaine, amphetamines, and cannabis have also been linked to onset of psychotic symptoms, so hallucinogens like LSD and psilocybin are not alone in this regard. There are other potential hallucinogen-related conditions such as hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD) that can occur after hallucinogen use, and could involve ongoing perceptual disturbances like seeing auras or halos around bright lights, or re-experiencing of hallucinogen-like effects months or years after taking the drug (sometimes called ‘flashbacks’). This could cause distress or impairment in daily function, but does not seem to be highly prevalent or problematic among the majority of people who have used hallucinogens, and this is very rarely reported after controlled administration in medical settings.
Featured illustration: Angelica Alzona (Gizmodo)