1955 Psychology Experiment Sees What Happens When You Ask an Artist to Paint Under the Influence of LSD

A few months ago, we fea­tured the increas­ing­ly abstract por­traits drawn by an artist after peri­od­ic dos­es of LSD. It hap­pened in the late 1950s, a time when you might well imag­ine such an activ­i­ty going down in, say, a bohemi­an quar­ter of New York, but also a time when hal­lu­cino­genic drugs rode a wave of pop­u­lar­i­ty among legit­i­mate sci­en­tists. Those osten­si­bly straight-laced researchers (some­times fund­ed by CIA mon­ey) had a fas­ci­na­tion not with the tak­ing of hal­lu­cino­genic drugs — not nec­es­sar­i­ly, any­way — but with what, exact­ly, these hal­lu­cino­genic drugs did to those who do take them. Par­tic­u­lar­ly artists draw­ing por­traits. Those por­traits drawn on LSD came out under the close watch of Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia, Irvine psy­chi­a­trist Oscar Janiger. Above, you can watch the fruit of anoth­er, much more ver­bal 1950s exper­i­ment con­duct­ed just down the coast by the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Cal­i­for­ni­a’s Nicholas A. Ber­cel, M.D.: “Schiz­o­phrenic Mod­el Psy­chosis Induced by LSD 25.”

Here we also have an artist exam­ined: this time, a Los Ange­les painter named Bill. As Bill floats through his altered state, Ber­cel asks him to describe, in as rig­or­ous detail as pos­si­ble, his per­cep­tions of objects in the room, of items of food and drink brought in, and of their inter­ac­tions them­selves. This 24-minute film of the four-hour process, punc­tu­at­ed by elec­troen­cephalo­graph­ic scans, comes as a pro­duc­tion of San­doz, the Swiss phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal com­pa­ny who orig­i­nal­ly iso­lat­ed LSD and who appar­ent­ly had an inter­est in bring­ing a form of it to mar­ket. (One pro­posed phar­ma­co­log­i­cal des­ig­na­tion: “Phan­tastium.”) Though that did­n’t hap­pen, the Hun­gar­i­an-born Ber­cel went on through­out his long career to con­duct more research of the kind that ulti­mate­ly earned him a lega­cy as a pio­neer in neu­ro­phys­i­ol­o­gy. He also, when not in the lab, wrote over a dozen nov­els and film treat­ments. Clear­ly he had an impres­sive cre­ative streak, whether or not he ever per­son­al­ly had his doors of per­cep­tion opened by the sub­stances his sub­jects like Bill so enjoyed.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Artist Draws Nine Por­traits on LSD Dur­ing 1950s Research Exper­i­ment

Ken Kesey’s First LSD Trip Ani­mat­ed

Beyond Tim­o­thy Leary: 2002 Film Revis­its His­to­ry of LSD

Aldous Huxley’s Most Beau­ti­ful, LSD-Assist­ed Death: A Let­ter from His Wid­ow

Watch The Bicy­cle Trip: An Ani­ma­tion of The World’s First LSD Trip in 1943

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (4)
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  • Mateo says:

    Bill seems to be enjoy­ing the whole thing, but God that Dr. Nicholas A. Ber­cel is a pain in the a**. He might have tried lsd at some point but I’ almost cer­tain he had­n’t by the time he did this exper­i­ment.

  • Shaun says:

    Worst acid part­ner ever.

  • Jared says:

    Hi, I love this video. I was won­der­ing if you knew who owned the copy­right? I would like to use snip­pets in a song (I’m a begin­ner artist) and want to make sure I’m not going to run into any trou­ble. Thanks!

  • pete veilleux says:

    there is no men­tion that the painter in this film comit­ted sui­cide two years lat­er. dont you think that is rel­e­vant? i sure do!

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