How Psychedelics Produce Visuals

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How Psychedelics Produce Visuals

Put aside the introspective thought and feelings of oneness; today, we are looking at what causes hallucinogens to create visuals.

Sitting on my bed tripping on mushrooms and staring at my knee, I found myself visualising a miniature city in the patterns in the denim and wondering whether the residents would be happy living there when they realise my knee moves. It is easy to see where the stereotype of the spaced out hippie comes from. Yet I consider myself to be grounded in science; I certainly appreciate the spirituality of psychedelics – you can’t really be a fan of them and not – but it is the how and why that really fascinate me. So, it only seemed reasonable as I later reflected on what I had seen during the trip, to wonder why it was I had seen what I had.


It is a question not only asked by myself, or the many other psychonauts of the world, but also by the scientists investigating the therapeutic potentials of psychedelic drugs. It is believed by many that hallucinogens create a higher sense of being, breaking traditional thought patterns, but there has to be a reaction in the body that causes it, helping steer the visuals we see.

One scientist investigating the matter is Brazilian neuroscientist Sidarta Ribeiro. Back in 2012, he conducted research in which he gave healthy participants ayahuasca and watched what their brains did using fMRI. It was found that the area of the brain responsible for visuals was activating, and at the same level of activity irrespective of whether eyes were open or closed – meaning as far as the brain is concerned, closed eye visuals are as real as if the eye were open.

Rather interestingly, it was also found that in addition to the area of the brain responsible for vision going into action, the areas associated with memory and intention were as well. This has led to the theory that these three areas are communicating, with memory and intention possibly influencing visuals. That weird gremlin you saw in the woodwork of your table? Probably just a subconscious representation of that weird little man who was leering at you in town. It is a theory that has recently been backed up by a brain imaging study that monitored the brain under the influence of LSD. It was found areas of the brain that do not usually communicate created long-distance connections, providing new and interesting brain activity.

When it comes to patterns and fracturals, the consensus lies in that it has to do with the way the brain perceives contours and lines – the very aspects that allow humans to recognise objects. Basically, the part of the visual cortex responsible for allowing us to recognise individual objects and patterns goes into overdrive, causing us to see geometric patterns in places they would not normally be visible. It is but one theory, and there are a few other floating about. Unfortunately, up until recently, psychedelic research has been hard to conduct. However, the field is now undergoing a renaissance as therapeutic value is found, meaning the ways in which they affect the brain will be investigated in much greater detail. It may not be long until we have a very in-depth understanding of hallucinations, and exactly what interactions in the brain are influencing them. Is it memory, is it subconscious desire? Is it a lack of restraint and structure? Only time will tell.


Pattern Recognition Enhancement:

This is an increase in the ability to recognise certain shapes and images in visual stimuli – such as seeing faces or beings in the texture of objects.

Acuity Enhancement

Another very common visual is acuity enhancement, in which the contours and defining lines of objects become super acute and clear – like seeing life in ultra HD. It can also result is colour shifts and patterns in objects becoming quite apparent.


Flowing is a very common form of visual drift in which static textures appear to flow continually in a seamless loop, like the water of a river.


Another form of visual drift, this usually happens in a tranquil setting. Objects appear to contract and expand in a motion and pace that would be normal of a breathing creature.

Symmetrical Texture Repetition

This is when visuals, often textures and patterned objects, appear no become mirrored. This is usually associated with things like looking at grass or patterned carpets – where the stimuli take up the whole field of vision.

Geometric Patterns

Patterns that appear in the vision, constantly changing like a kaleidoscope. They are normally overlayed on what you currently see, although the prominence of them can vary depending on the trip.

Hallucinogenic State

The hallucinogenic state is what most people assume tripping is. This is when the very world changes, with images and visuals seamlessly becoming part of the environment you see. They can also be internal, where you enter an inward state and see imagery and scenes that happen in a layer in front of the open or closed eye. Both internal and external hallucinogenic states can vary in severity (proportional to the dose of drug being used), to the point where they can be photo realistic, or even feel like you have entered a dream-like state/another world. Although I have listed this under common visuals, fully fledged hallucinogenic states are not all that common unless you are on some very potent stuff, but they are significant and worth mentioning.



Written by: Josh
Writer, psychonaut and cannabis aficionado, Josh is Zamnesia’s in-house expert. He spends his days nestled out in the countryside, delving into the hidden depths of all things psychoactive in nature.

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