Why Do People Take Hallucinogens?

The Reasons People Try Hallucinogens and the Potential Effects of Use

Male floating in clouds in landscape at sunset
Tara Moore Getty Images

For centuries, hallucinogens or psychedelics, have been used by people in many cultures for religious rituals, by artists to spark creativity or for recreation. The reasons people try hallucinogens are varied, but for most, they alter perception, thoughts, and feelings. Though most are not addicting, some may be, and there may be some risks and benefits involved with hallucinogenic use.

What Are Hallucinogens?

Hallucinogens are a class of drug that can cause hallucinations or sensations and images that seem real though they are not. Hallucinogens can be found in some plants and mushrooms or can be human-made. LSD, psilocybin, peyote (mescaline), DMT, and ayahuasca cause emotions to swing wildly and real-world sensations to appear unreal, sometimes frightening. Hallucinogens in the subcategory of dissociative drugs include PCP, ketamine, dextromethorphan, and Salvia.

How Do Hallucinogens Work?

Research suggests that hallucinogens work at least partially by temporarily disrupting communication between brain chemical systems throughout the brain and spinal cord.

Some hallucinogens interfere with the action of the brain chemical serotonin. Serotonin can affect mood, sensory perception, sleep, hunger, body temperature, sexual behavior, and muscle control. 

Other hallucinogens interfere with the action of the brain chemical glutamate. Glutamate regulates pain perception, responses to the environment, emotion and learning, and memory.

Why Use Hallucinogens?

Hallucinogens can be used in spiritual pursuits, like producing mystical "visions," or simply to induce a detachment from reality. Writers, poets, and artists have used hallucinogens and other drugs through the decades to find inspiration. In the past century, hallucinogenic and dissociative drugs have been used for social or recreational use.

People may use hallucinogens to deal with stress or to try to achieve an enlightened state of mind. Some may take hallucinogenic drugs simply to escape life's troubles or to relieve boredom. People who have mental or emotional issues might try hallucinogens simply to alter their state of mind.

Potential Risks of Hallucinogen Use

People who may not be well grounded in reality may experiment with taking trips into a world of hallucinations, but can potentially put themselves in a dangerous situation, psychologically or perhaps physically.

Hallucinogens, by definition, can cause people who use them to have extreme distortions of their perception of reality. They may have experiences that look, feel, and seem very real, but it fact, the situation is only in their mind. In other words, they completely escape reality. In extreme cases of being in a dissociative state, the person may partake in dangerous behaviors.

Little is known about the long-term effects of hallucinogens. Researchers do know that ketamine users may develop symptoms that include ulcers in the bladder, kidney problems, and poor memory. Repeated use of PCP can result in long-term effects that may continue for a year or more after use stops, such as speech problems, memory loss, weight loss, anxiety or depression, and suicidal thoughts. Overdose with PCP can lead to seizures, coma, or death especially when mixed with other drugs. Other potential long-term effects after long-term use can include psychosis or flashbacks that lead to perception problems.

Therapeutic Uses of Hallucinogens

Hallucinogens have been investigated as a form of therapy for some. Although presently not approved for such use, some hallucinogenic drugs have been scientifically tested to see if they might have therapeutic effects on who people who experience perceptual distortions, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and dementia.

According to the National Institutes of Health and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, anecdotal reports and small studies have suggested that ayahuasca may be a potential treatment for substance use disorders and other mental health issues, but no large-scale research has verified its efficacy.

View Article Sources