Lysergic Machine Learning
EEG, LSD & the Burden Neurological Institute
The resurgence in psychedelic neuroscience has been gathering pace for over a decade and has, in many respects, been about implementing a twenty-first century upgrade. The Imperial College team, for example, uses the very latest neuroimaging equipment to study the effects of different drugs in the brain.
Fifty plus years ago, the technological landscape was quite different. The Positron emission tomography (PET) and Magnetoencephalography (MEG) were still in their infancy, while Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was decades away from discovery. It is now possible to discern a far more complex picture of psychedelic action in the brain.
By 2016, the Imperial team had also revisited the most iconic of psychedelic substances, LSD, when they undertook a multimodal neuroimaging study looking at neural correlates in subjects. In it, they re-identified a suppression of alpha waves, and a change in the integrity of the Default Mode Network (i.e. more interconnectivity), among other points.
They also tentatively put forward a therapeutic case.
Positing that the brain’s neural patterns may become pathologically entrenched, leading to automated, rigid behaviour, they suggest that psychedelics might be used disrupt them. In other words, a psychedelic might provide a window of opportunity—either in itself, or with psychotherapy—to help establish, via neurogenesis, less pathological modes of behaviour.
Work is on-going to test this hypothesis. At its base, however, is a belief in an adaptive brain being the core physiological mechanism of mental health outcomes. This approach implicitly understands the brain, like the equipment that measures it, as a machine, whereby its activity establishes behaviour, and henceforth meaningful change in selfhood and identity.
This reading is of course rooted in the experimental history of brain imaging and LSD, especially via the electroencephalograph (EEG). Indeed, EEG has been employed in other Imperial studies, notably using DMT, but in comparison to other imaging techniques it has a much longer pedigree, first being discovered by the German Hans Berger (1873-1941) in 1924.
Berger had long been preoccupied with brain activity, trying to uncover an ultimately elusive ‘psychic energy’ which he believed to be a medium of psychophysical processes, connecting brain and consciousness. Tempered by an interest in telepathy and the occult, Berger was often unsure about what he had uncovered, but finally publicly announced EEG in 1929.
The first EEG demonstration in Britain occurred on 12 May 1934 at a convention of the Physiological Society of Cambridge. In attendance was a graduate student named William Grey Walter (1910-1977). Later becoming something of a maverick who was never fully accepted by the medical establishment, he was nonetheless a leading figure in clinically and commercially developing EEG.
Also a pioneer cyberneticist, Walter’s influence stalks the margins of psychedelic history, and so too today’s renaissance. Professor David Nutt has cited Walter, along with Aldous Huxley, as two people who inspired him to look into psychology and psychiatry. In Imperial’s LSD paper, they also reference a 1969 summary article about EEG and LSD by an early US researcher, Max Fink, which begins with a curious epigraph by the cyberneticist:
the laws of science are not man-made laws; they are the parameters of man's hypothetical vision of the orderly process of life and expendable in the first moment of inadequacy or redundancy. The scientist is always wrong; he is essentially a rebel; he only postulates his "laws" for them to be broken by himself or by others.
The quote comes from Walter’s only novel, Further Outlook (1956), or The Curve of the Snowflake in the US. He clearly saw himself as this scientific rebel, and Nutt must have at least some sympathies with this aspect! The novel itself plays with paradoxes, and Fink’s reference is likely not only a nod towards a pioneer, but also the nature of their work.
The quote reflects the philosophical entanglements that brain imaging is engaged with through scientific hypotheses, especially around neural correlates and the ‘hard problem of consciousness’, but also those around identity, behaviour, and the body more broadly.
While Walter’s early cybernetics network is fascinating, and I highly recommend The Cybernetic Brain (2010) by Andrew Pickering, what I would like to discuss here is his immediate working network at the Burden Neurological Institute. The Burden fostered maverick approaches, ones that practically engaged with mind-body questions through controversial approaches to psychiatry and neuroimaging—including with LSD.
The early Burden team, in so many ways, established the very questions with which today’s renaissance deals, and the techniques and ideas that are being upgraded. Interestingly, with more or less similar philosophical readings around selfhood, machines, and the brain.
The Burden Milieu
The Burden Neurological Institute (BNI) was a privately funded charity set up by Christian eugenicists for investigating and treating psychological, neurological, and psychiatric disorders. Founded in 1939 at the Stoke Park Colony, near Bristol, England, as a private institute it lay outside the restrictions of public money and control. As such, it was able to specialize in many cutting-edge research methods.
Its principal Director for the first twenty years was the quiet but highly respected research scientist and philosopher Dr Frederick Lucien Golla (1877-1968). Prior to working at the BNI, he was based at the Central Pathological Laboratory at the Maudsley Hospital in South London. There, Golla took an interest in EEG, along with his protégé, the aforementioned Grey Walter, who also joined the BNI as the Director of Physiology in 1939, ably aided in research by his wife Vivian.
The BNI’s approach embodied Golla’s own multidisciplinary vision. In 1935, he delivered a particularly Whiteheadian-tempered President’s address to the Royal College of Medicine titled, ‘The Nervous System and the Organic Whole’. He said,
As neurologists we can only follow these functional indications by thinking of the nervous system in relation to the organic whole and abstaining from conclusions based solely on either mechanical or one-sided psychological abstractions.
Golla finished his address by adding that he looked forward to a time when neurophysiologists, psychologists and psychiatrists would work together in a research environment. This is precisely the type of multidisciplinary, intellectual milieu that he fostered at the BNI. And it was properly realized with the appointment of Lilian Hutton to the team.
Effie Lilian Hutton (1904-1956) graduated from medical training at the Royal Free Hospital, London in 1928, and began specializing in psychiatry in the Harton Hospital, South Shields and Rainhill Hospital, Liverpool. In 1932 she did a Diploma of Palliative Care at the English Royal Colleges, and was appointed to the Horton Hospital, Epsom the following year. Showing a flair for research, she made a name for herself at the malaria therapy centre, treating neurosyphilis.
Hutton, however, was frustrated by the difficulties and restrictions of working in a large public hospital. Wishing to develop psychotherapeutic techniques, she moved to the BNI as Clinical Director. Experienced with both psychological and physiological research methods, she was an ideal appointment to the Burden. There, she helped pioneer the use of electric convulsion therapy and psychosurgery (leucotomy) during the 1940s.
Golla’s former student, William Sargant—author of Battle for the Mind (1957)—had witnessed several prefrontal leucotomies in the US and tried to implement the technique at the Maudsley Hospital. However, the procedure was initially refused on Hippocratic grounds so far as it amounted to purposefully brain damaging patients. Instead, he informed Golla, who in turn asked Hutton to recruit patients, and the first procedure occurred at the BNI on 19 February 1941.
Later, Hutton began to have some reservations about prefrontal leucotomy. Although the initial operations were often (in some sense) successful, with time she began to observe contra-indications in some patients—a loss of self-consciousness, social tactlessness, failure to future plan, a loss of initiative, and a moral lapse (e.g., truthfulness). The neurosurgical facilities eventually moved from the BNI to the nearby Frenchay Hospital in 1947.
As noted, one question that lay at the heart of the BNI’s research concerned the mind-body relationship, and leucotomy literally cut directly into it, apparently shifting personality. However, the team also developed less invasive techniques, which involved the manipulation of mental imagery with brain scans.
Golla had previously looked into the relationship between respiratory rhythm and mental imagery, which he, Walter and Hutton looked at in more depth. In some 60 subjects, they also recorded alpha brain waves using EEG to see if brain activity and different forms of mental imagery were concomitant, and developed a new schema of measurement for any anomalous changes.
This EEG work, which they proposed to expand in sample size and to also begin looking at people with ‘mental derangement’, was a small, very early step toward the work that Imperial and others carry out today. The other small step was the introduction of drug-induced states.
LSD at The Burden
Golla’s interest in ‘physiological psychology’ also extended to drugs. He was, for example, testing the effects of Benzedrine on speed of movement and mental processes in the late 1930s, and was reviewing research with other substances during the mid-forties. This, of course, quietly coincided with Hofmann’s discovery of LSD in Switzerland, and anticipated a new focus on mescaline that emerged in the early years of the fifties.
Initially, the BNI’s EEG work was picked up by British LSD researchers elsewhere. Philip Bradley and Joel and Charmain Elkes, at the Department of Experimental Psychiatry, University of Birmingham, were turned onto LSD when Sandoz’s chief pharmacologist, Ernst Rothlin, gave them a lecture on the subject. Usefully, he left a little of the chemical with them to experiment with too.
Bradley had undertaken EEG training with Walter at the Burden, and the team used it to record brain waves in healthy subjects on LSD, categorizing the relative signal strengths according to the schema developed at the BNI. The team also studied cat’s brains by implanting electrodes and giving them different psychotropic drugs. While EEG went north, however, the use of LSD apparently went in the opposite direction back to the Burden.
Sadly, there does not appear to be a great deal of extant papers or manuscripts for precisely the work that was carried out. Although, with the aid of a handful of references and a book, it is possible to sketch a rough idea of how LSD received the BNI treatment. It would appear that both Walter and Hutton were carrying out concurrent projects. While they may have been to some extent complementary, so far as Golla’s experimental vision was concerned, it is likely their own approaches differed in philosophical emphasis.
Walter was an atheist who, although latterly showing an interest in parapsychological research (like Berger), had a particularly materialist outlook. This is neatly summed up in his cybernetic robotic tortoises. Their behaviour centered only on external stimuli response, which implied mentality was performative, rather than representative (of memories, ideas, etc.). Very much the cybernetic, machine brain.
On the other hand, Hutton’s psychiatric approach was tempered with a more religious and holistic understanding, which apparently centered meaning and selfhood within a larger social complex. This could be a focus on the adaptive environment itself, or a representative model. In her British Medical Journal obituary (she died in 1957), Golla wrote:
Of a deeply religious nature, she felt that no system of psychotherapy is likely to succeed if it does not attempt to deal with the patient's spiritual difficulties. Though she subscribed to the teaching of Jung, that a neurotic is essentially a person in search of his soul, she felt that Jung's concept could be more fully expressed by a more activistic attribution. To love, not to be loved, is, she maintained, the ultimate goal, in the quest for which psychological medicine requires the aid of religion. Love thus understood is not merely intrapersonal but must so be directed as to embrace the eternal values.
She previously stated, ‘advances not only in scientific, but also metaphysical, aesthetic and religious knowledge, must be of prime importance to the psychiatrist.’ They were, she proposed, undoubtedly linked to the psyche, and any attempt to heal disorder must take all these aspects into account. LSD must have presented an intriguing opportunity for her to explore these ideas.
Precisely what her investigation entailed, however, is difficult to ascertain. She neither wrote publicly about it, nor left any extant notes or papers. The only reason it is known about at all is because a friend of hers, the Christian playwright and author Richard Heron Ward (1910-1969), was a control subject in one study, and wrote a book about it: A Drug Taker’s Notes (1957). Even then, few contextual details emerge, aside from the study using patients with psychosis.
The fact that Ward was an active Christian and participated in part to test Aldous Huxley’s hypothesis about spirituality and consciousness, coupled with Hutton’s own emphasis, does provide an interesting avenue of analysis—but I shall save that for an article in the near future. Suffice to say, Hutton had interesting beliefs about language being used to represent increasingly complex forms of religiosity. In light of Golla’s interest in Whitehead, there seems likely to be a tension between epiphenomenal and panpsychist readings of mind.
Hutton of course died the year that Ward’s book was published, still in the beginning of her LSD research. Golla described her as a great teacher and healer who was loved by her patients and colleagues alike. In fact, she was so widely respected that she was constantly consulted by colleagues throughout the country and beyond. However, although she had ‘dramatic and permanent’ results in her patients, she wrote up very little of her observations, but was apparently finally working on collating them when she died on August 8, 1956.
I wonder, of course, what her therapeutic method might have evolved into when based on her belief in the universal value of love, nearly a decade before the peace and love movement. Of course, without precisely knowing her religious beliefs, it’s difficult to even speculate.
LSD and EEG research, however, did go on at the BNI. In January 1957, Walter addressed the Royal Society of Medicine. In a paper titled ‘The Brain as a Machine’, he discussed EEG and mental imagery, and passingly mentions that several subjects were also given doses of LSD. While information on Walter’s application of the drug is evidentially scarce, there are a few intriguing references. For instance, he is documented as giving the spiritualist medium Eileen Garrett LSD and hypnosis while she underwent EEG.
The BNI was obviously a hub of this research, albeit perhaps fleetingly. Prof. Alan Baddeley briefly worked there in 1957-58, shortly after the death of Hutton. In his memoir, Working Memories (2018), he recalls an Icelandic master’s student, Maya, undertaking LSD and EEG research (presumably under Walter’s supervision). Baddeley volunteered and had his brain waves measured before, during and after:
‘It proved to be a fascinating experience’, he wrote. ‘I certainly generated colourful images of multicoloured horses rising from the sea.’
A visiting Belgian scientist also carried out an experiment about conditioning on him. He had to pull a lever after a stimulus, and if he got it wrong, he was given a large blast of noise. ‘I found that I didn’t care at all about the noise but was fascinated by the feel of a piece of insulation tape wrapped around the lever.’ When he left (still high!), he listened to Beethoven and cried, then went to the cinema to watch St Louis Blues— ‘A wonderful experience!’
In a less than desirable approach, Walter’s fellow cyberneticist Ross Ashby also worked at the BNI for a year in 1959. He’s recorded as describing his ‘blitz therapy’ or psychic shocks, which was also used by people like the aforementioned William Sargant, and perhaps also at the BNI. Ashby suggests giving a subject LSD, then hypnotizing them, and then giving them electroconvulsive therapy, in a blitz combination.
It strikes me as unlikely that this would have been undertaken on Hutton’s watch, but I might be wrong. Brainwashing, or wiping the machine clean, does not seem a very useful or ethical way of engaging with the social, religious and environmental context of a patient.
Grey Walter had an incredible influence on the forthcoming counterculture. His work was read and discussed by the likes of Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, and William Burroughs. In particular, his extraordinary work with ‘flicker’ technology, which in part led to the development of the ‘dream machine’, directly foreshadows the multicoloured, strobe shows of the psychedelic sixties.
(I can’t imagine that Walter never tried testing flicker and LSD together, but nothing was published until a team in Detroit gave it a whirl in 1966.)
Ultimately, however, it is the BNI’s whole research environment which appears to stand out as a major, if largely but understandably unacknowledged, influence on aspects of today’s renaissance. Machines, drugs, and the brain are a cybernetically complex way of approaching meaning and selfhood. It is a combination that still fuels many a journal paper.
The BNI helped set these parameters with their multidisciplinary approach, and of course the philosophical problems of neural correlation can hardly be said to have greatly shifted. It is in psychotherapy’s likely vital role in healing, what I imagine is Hutton’s unrealized contribution, that we may also venture beyond the machinic performance of health, self, and the mind.
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