The following first appeared on Substance.com:
“Everything is alive. This is reality. I wish you could see it. I wish I could talk in Technicolor,” a young woman tells psychiatrist Sidney Cohen in this film clip recording her experience on LSD during one of Cohen’s experiments with the hallucinogen in the late 1950s. “The air, the dimensions, the prisms and the rays, everything coming down through me—it passed right through me!”
“Is it all one?” Cohen asks the volunteer, who he had previously described as “a very stable and well-balanced person.”
“It would be all one if you weren’t present,” she replies.
The awesome power of LSD to distort and expand normal consciousness was well documented by the 1950s, when the then-legal prescription drug became the focus of a wide range of experiments. Psychiatrists like Cohen, the head of “psychomatic medicine” at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Los Angeles from 1959 to 1968, were studying LSD’s therapeutic potential. It was evident that the hallucinogen induced mental states comparable to psychosis, and yet many people who took it reported an experiences of unprecedented pleasure, wonder and even enlightenment.
The young woman, who was the wife of a VA employee when she gamely volunteered to be an acid guinea pig, looks so stereotypical of a 1950s housewife that she might have come from central casting. She is the furthest thing from the “let your freak flag fly” hippies who would emerge a few years later with the dawn of the Psychedelic Age. But remarkably, she offers what may be the most acute, intimate and revelatory description of the LSD experience ever recorded.
The clip was discovered by journalist Don Lattin in his research for his 2012 book Distilled Spirits: Getting High, then Sober, with a Famous Writer, a Forgotten Philosopher and a Hopeless Drunk, a history of the contemporaneous LSD explorations of Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard and Bill Wilson. (The film was in Heard’s archive.)
In 1964 Cohen told Time magazine, “[LSD’s] effects on the mind…are so fantastic that most experimenters insist words are not the right medium for describing them.”
And yet this self-described normal housewife struggles valiantly—and, more often than not, victoriously—to verbalize her experience as she literally trips the light fantastic.