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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