Federico Fellini, one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century, attributes much of his success to a single dose of LSD he took in the summer of 1964 “during a time of creative crisis”. According to a recent study looking into how this experience influenced his work, the dose was administered by Dr Emilio Servadio, one of the most prominent Italian psychoanalysts of the time. It induced a trip so intense that the filmmaker later needed sedative medication to put it to an end.
Fellini took part in the psychotherapy session directly after he had finished working on his masterpiece 8 ½, and before he started writing his next film Giulietta degli Spiriti. The talking therapy that occurred after the LSD dose was recorded with a magnetophone. The tapes have never been found by researchers, but in an interview with the BBC a year later, Fellini explained how the experience stimulated his creativity by altering his perception of colour and allowing him to perceive colours in an entirely different light.
“The doctor gave me an explanation and I agree with him,” he told a reporter in 1965. “He said that an artist lives always in the imagination so the barrier between sensorial reality and his imagination is very vague… I saw colours not like they normally are – we see colours in the objects, you know; we see objects that are coloured. I saw colours detached from the objects. I had for the first time the feeling of the presence of the colours in a detached way.” Fellini’s work after the acid trip was later praised for having “supernaturally brilliant colours”.
Fellini’s perception of time was also altered during his trip, which was was reflected in his work post-LSD trip – the authors of the study said his films started to incorporate plots involving “puzzling and disorienting flashbacks”. The filmmaker was also said to have had epiphanies during the trip involving space and perception of self, both of which were apparent in his subsequent work. “The world depicted in his post-LSD movies includes major changes in the perception of space, time and others,” the study concluded.
Fellini’s psychedelic therapy session took place before LSD was banned in the ’70s. In the ’50s and the first half of the ’60s, the drug was mainly used by academics, artists and scientists who were fascinated by its potential therapeutic benefits. This all changed years after Fellini’s trip because LSD started to appear on the hippie scene in the late-1960s. Timothy Leary, who was at the time a psychology professor at Harvard, famously quit his job to extol the virtues of what he described as “psychedelic sacraments” and help people “turn on, tune in and drop out”.
Before long, Leary spawned a flock of dedicated followers who started growing their hair, dropping out of conventional society and protesting against the Vietnam War. This was simply too threatening for the authorities who responded by prohibiting LSD, largely putting an end to academic research on the therapeutic applications of psychedelics until the “psychedelic renaissance” started to revive it two decades ago.
So what happened psychologically when Fellini embarked on his psychedelic-assisted therapy? “It seems that when you are on psychedelics it somehow shuts down your default networks,” Antonio Metastasio, the lead author of the study, told THE FACE. “The networks that are constantly working away in the background are shut down and the brain can make new connections.”
He added: “It makes sense in a way, because somehow you see a problem or you see an object from a different perspective, from a different view. Then you might make a connection or have ideas that you would not have if you had continued to see that object or problem in the same way as you always did.”
A 24-year-old clinical psychologist, who uses they/them pronouns, told THE FACE about how they used LSD to boost their creativity when they worked in the advertising industry. “I found it useful when I was coming up with new concepts or brainstorming ideas,” they said. “I tried using it when I was doing more tedious tasks like admin work or organisational stuff but that didn’t work. It [LSD] was helpful when I was coming up with concepts, vision boards and mood boards,” they explained,” because it helped me explore ideas that wouldn’t normally have occurred to me.”
The self-administration of psychedelics is unlikely to have any great therapeutic benefit as it is not coupled with any talking therapy, which is thought to be essential to the process of psychedelic-assisted therapy. There is actually a chance that it could damage your mental health, too. In a study published in July 2023, co-author Jules Evans, a researcher and Director of the Challenging Psychedelic Experiences Project, challenged the “psychedelic revolution” on mental health. His findings involved 608 participants who had taken psychedelics “at a clinic or medical trial”, “at a psychedelic therapy session”, “on a psychedelic retreat”, “at a rave, nightclub or festival” or “at a party”. 26 per cent reported long-lasting “anxiety and/or fear” after using psychedelics, while 16 per cent suffered “depersonalisation” and 15 per cent “derealisation”.
So, please don’t read this and reach for a tab of acid because you think it’ll make you write an award-winning script, because…
1) It probably won’t work anyway unless it’s in a clinical context.
2) You have to be screened for things like a predisposition to psychosis.
3) If you’re too young, your brain is still developing which could increase risks.
We’ll never truly know what impact that one dose of LSD had on the arts. According to the British Film Institute, Fellini’s film inspired the work of other iconic directors such as Tim Burton, Woody Allen and Terry Gilliam – and you can see its influence on Hollywood in films such as The Trip (1967), Altered States (1980) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998).
In the future, will people suffering from “writer’s block” book themselves in for a dose of LSD to loosen the joints? That is unclear – for now. Though with the rise of the psychedelic revolution and ketamine-assisted therapy labs popping up in the UK, on Goop’s podcast and Netflix documentaries such as How to Change Your Mind, it wouldn’t be all that surprising.
As a society, though, it is essential that we examine the mechanisms that are giving some people such powerfully beneficial effects. “We’re not reinventing the wheel,” Metastasio says. “Using these compounds in a therapeutic context is not new, it comes from at least 60 or 70 years ago. It’s important that we look at these old stories and use them to shape the present debate.”