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The never-ending trip: LSD flashbacks and a psychedelic disorder that can last forever
A small percentage of people who consume psychedelics experience strange lingering effects, sometimes years after they took the drug.
- LSD flashbacks have been studied for decades, though scientists still aren't quite sure why some people experience them.
- A subset of people who take psychedelics and then experience flashbacks develop hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD), a rare condition in which people experience regular or near-constant psychedelic symptoms.
- There's currently no cure for the disorder, though some studies suggest medications may alleviate symptoms.
In February 2021, Conor was in his room and looking at his phone when he was struck by a strange feeling.
"The room looked normal, nothing was moving, but I felt as though I was under the influence of a psychedelic," he told Big Think.
As a teenager, Conor had experimented with LSD, mushrooms, and other psychedelics a couple dozen times. Now 25, he had been sober for about a year. He brushed off the incident.
But soon, Conor was struck again by the same strange feeling.
"I had no idea what was going on in my brain at that time and the anxiety and paranoia grew so intense that I became fearful I had developed everything from brain cancer to schizophrenia," he said.
The physical and psychological symptoms he began suffering were "devastating."
"The world [looked] crooked and out of focus, pictures had an eerie quality to them, things would go in and out of focus, at night while falling asleep I would experience vivid and terrifying hypnagogic hallucinations that made rest impossible."
After three weeks, Conor said his visual symptoms amplified with "unbelievable intensity."
"The floors would [breathe], paint on the walls looked wet, visual snow was so intense [that] pure black looked like it was glowing, at night I would see tracers everywhere, halos appeared around text. [...] I did not sleep, my thoughts were anxious and at times deranged, I had unbelievably intense dereliction that made the world seem fake."
What Conor experienced is commonly called an LSD flashback. It's a mysterious phenomenon in which someone who's previously taken a hallucinogenic drug suddenly and temporarily experiences the effects of that drug days, weeks, or even years after consuming it.
Flashbacks can occur after taking a wide range of psychedelic drugs. But compared to other hallucinogens, flashbacks seem to be most common among people who have consumed LSD, according to studies.
Credit Newwup via Adobe Stock
People have reported acid flashbacks for decades. The earliest recorded case may be
Havelock Ellis' 1898 report of taking mescaline and then experiencing sustained heightened sensitization to "the more delicate phenomena of light and shade and color."
But it wasn't until the 1950s, little more than a decade after Albert Hoffman first synthesized LSD, that scientists started researching LSD and its potential long-term effects. While studies have illuminated some aspects of how psychedelics affect the brain, scientists still have much to learn about the nature of LSD flashbacks, what causes them, and how to treat them.
What's certain, however, is that a small percentage of people who consume psychedelics report bizarre and sometimes debilitating effects that emerge long after taking hallucinogens.
Symptoms of LSD flashbacks
Among the most common symptoms of LSD flashbacks are visual distortions. In a 1983 study titled " Visual Phenomenology of the LSD Flashback," the psychiatrist and LSD researcher Dr. Henry David Abraham described 16 common visual disturbances reported by people with LSD flashbacks. To name a few:
- Acquired color confusion: The color of objects changed or presented a newly discovered problem of color confusion.
- Difficulty reading: Text may appear jumbled or leave afterimages of the type against the background of the page.
- Geometric phosphenes: Phosphenes, or eigengrau, are non-specific luminous perceptions that occur when the eyes are closed and may originate from entopic (i.e., arising from within the eye itself) stimuli in normal persons. They also may be induced by gentle pressure on the closed eyelid.
- Pareidolias: This is literally an image within an image. These were described when a subject gazed into a finely reticulated design in linoleum, veneer, or a cloud formation. Besides the abstract pattern of the linoleum, subjects often would be able to see a series of concrete images as well, such as "a fish," "a face," and "a little boy."
- Macropsia: Macropsia is the perception of an object larger than it really is. A characteristic description of this phenomenon came from a subject who noticed that his hand was enormous and then of normal size a few seconds later.
- Micropsia: Micropsia is the perception of an object smaller than reality. One subject said, "My feet looked so tiny, like they were a million miles away."
The effects of LSD flashbacks aren't limited to visual distortions. In a 1970 study called "Analysis of the LSD Flashback," researchers sorted LSD flashbacks into three broad categories: perceptual, somatic (meaning of the body), and emotional.
The emotional flashback is "far more distressing" than the other two, the researchers wrote, providing a case study of a 21-year-old woman who was suffering from LSD flashbacks:
"The patient had these frightening flashbacks during the day, while walking down the street, after smoking marijuana or drinking wine, during the night, and occasionally even while asleep. In one situation she awoke during the middle of the night with a feeling of panic and began running around her house fleeing an imagined threat she could not identify or comprehend. She had taken LSD a number of times, but her last few trips were bad ones with panic and fright followed by loneliness to the point of suicidal despair when she 'came down.' The combination of bad trips and emotional flashbacks made her seek professional help because of her fear that she would harm herself."
To be sure, LSD flashbacks aren't always emotionally distressing. A 2010 survey of 600 hallucinogen users found that, of the minority of users who reported experiencing at least one flashback, only 3 percent described it as a negative experience. In fact, some people enjoyed their flashbacks. On the website Erowid, which promotes research of psychedelic drugs, one user wrote:
"After 2 years of my last acid trip, while on vacation in a very nice wilderness place I was sitting on a rock and then I experienced a clear acid high. I was looking at a very steep hill and suddenly it started moving in nice patterns, exactly as one sees patterns while on acid. It wasn't something uncomfortable. In fact it was really pleasant and there was absolutely no trace of the nasty anxiousness after effects common to LSD. It lasted approximately 2 minutes and I enjoyed it very much."
But some LSD flashbacks are neither brief nor pleasant. A subset of people who use psychedelics develop hallucinogen persisting perception disorder (HPPD), a rare and poorly understood condition in which people experience omnipresent or recurring flashbacks. While the symptoms of HPPD vary, the condition can cause intense pain, irreversible perceptual distortions, emotional and psychological distress, and even suicidal thoughts.
HPPD: The never-ending trip
HPPD is estimated to affect between one to five percent of LSD users, though the actual figure is impossible to determine without better data. The disorder was first described formally in 1986 by the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 3rd edition, revised (DSM-III-R). The current edition of the manual (DSM-5) says patients need to meet several criteria to be diagnosed with HPPD:
- Patients must reexperience perceptual symptoms they experienced while intoxicated with the hallucinogen.
- These symptoms must cause "significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning."
- These symptoms aren't due to a separate medical condition or mental disorder.
So, what's the difference between a flashback and HPPD? Mainly frequency and duration. A 2017 review published in Frontiers in Psychiatry noted that while "a flashback is usually reported to be infrequent and episodic, HPPD is usually persisting and long-lasting."
A 2014 review published in the Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences outlined two types of HPPD. The first, HPPD I, is the "flashback type," which is a generally short-term, non-distressing, benign and reversible state accompanied by a pleasant affect. The severity of HPPD I varies, with some people describing their mild flashbacks as annoying, while others say it's like getting "free trips."
But HPPD II is a different beast. The condition can be permanent, with perceptual distortions and other symptoms manifesting irregularly or almost constantly.
"The symptoms usually include palinopsia (afterimages effects), the occurrence of haloes, trails, akinetopsia, visual snows, etc.," according to the aforementioned 2017 review. "Sounds and other perceptions are usually not affected. Visual phenomena have been reported to be uncontrollable and disturbing. Symptomatology may be accompanied by depersonalization, derealization, anxiety, and depression."
What causes flashbacks and HPPD?
When asked what causes flashbacks and HPPD, Dr. Abraham told Popular Science, "I've spent my life studying this problem and I don't know, is the short answer."
But researchers have proposed explanations. One centers on memory. Because psychedelics can cause extremely powerful and emotional experiences, it's theoretically possible that certain environmental stimuli can remind people of those experiences, and then memory "transports" them back into that subjective mindset — similar to how a soldier with post-traumatic stress disorder might suffer an episode after hearing a loud, sudden noise.
Another hypothesis involves how LSD interacts with the brain's visual processing center. Dr. Abraham proposed that HPPD may arise due to "disinhibition of visual processing related to a loss of serotonin receptors on inhibitory interneurons," which may be caused by consuming LSD.
The basic idea is that LSD somehow changes the way the brain interprets visual stimuli. That might explain why people with HPPD have difficulty properly "disengaging" from the things they see around them. For example, a red stoplight might appear not as a discrete red circle but as a streak of red light painted across their field of vision; or a strobe light might not appear as a flickering light but a light that's constantly on.
Credit Yurok Aleksandrovich via Adobe Stock
"Such a locking of visual circuitry into an 'on' position following perception of a visual stimulus would explain such diverse complaints as trailing, color intensification, positive afterimages, phosphenes, and color confusions, each of which may represent a failure of the respective visual function to turn off the brain's response to the stimulus once the stimulus is gone," Dr. Abraham
It's also possible that people are genetically predisposed to HPPD and that ingesting LSD is the key that unlocks the disorder. This hypothesis would help explain why people have reportedly developed HPPD after taking a single, moderate dose of LSD.
Ultimately, the exact causes of HPPD are unclear. Partially as a result, there's currently no cure for the disorder, though studies show that people with HPPD have reported improvements in symptomatology after taking benzodiazepines. There's also anecdotal evidence that fasting can alleviate the disorder.
Despite uncertainty over the causes of HPPD, researchers do have a good idea of what can trigger "flare-ups" of HPPD. Dr. Abraham's 1983 study listed the most common triggers, some of which include:
- Emergence into a dark environment
- Intention (intentionally inducing visual aberrations by, say, staring at a blank wall)
People with HPPD describe the condition
To get a better understanding of HPPD, Big Think posted a questionnaire to the HPPD community on Reddit. Here are some of the responses:
How did HPPD first manifest for you?
"First I noticed highly enhanced creativity and intense visuals when [high on] weed and I really enjoyed that part. The realization that this is not going to go away soured the whole experience tho."
"My enhanced creativity left me after about a week and what I was left with was mild visual snow. I hardly knew anything about HPPD at the time and just didn't really care about my symptoms and still thought they were just going to vanish at some point, which they didn't. I kept taking drugs simply because I was addicted and felt like life is no fun without them. My HPPD got gradually worse over time and more symptoms appeared. First, I noticed mild tracers, which got worse over time (again due to continued drug use) and then tinnitus and brain fog. But primarily my symptoms are visual."
Are your symptoms episodic or constant?
"Both constant and episodic," wrote user LotsOfShungite. "A stressful event can trigger my symptoms off into the deep end."
"Except the brain fog and head pressure that varies, my visual disturbances are constant. The most debilitating ones are the visual snow, especially when I'm inside except if I watch the TV since it filters some of it out. It's also VERY frustrating that I no longer can focus on objects/details (can't stare) and the astigmatism-like symptoms that I got, like blurriness, especially in the distance and ghosting (double vision) plus starbursts from strong light sources. When I'm outside, the pattern glare is really annoying, same with the excessive amount of floaters that came with this. I also see halos from light sources."
"My symptoms are mostly constant and only change through rather obvious outside influences, such as certain drugs (almost all drugs), stress, lack of sleep, etc. Although my HPPD is quite pronounced, I have learned to accept it and almost only notice it when I pay attention to it. I always [know] it's there and it somewhat bugs me but I get along."
What are some common misconceptions about HPPD?
"I think the most common misconception about hppd is when people refer to it as "tripping permanently". There is a massive distinction between those two things. Generally with hppd, your vision may be altered, but to call it "tripping" is incredibly misleading. Tripping entails a massively altered state of mind and visual perception that is not seen with hppd. There are psychological symptoms like panic attacks, anxiety and dpdr, but those stem from the stress of dealing with the condition. Not because you have trapped lsd molecules flying around your brain for decades (another common myth) A person with hppd is capable of thinking clearly and acting the same as any other sober minded person. A lot of us have jobs, can hold conversations, are capable of being productive members of society. The "burnt out acid junkie" stuck in a "permanent trip" is an extremely toxic trope that creates stigmas around people who already feel intense regret and emotional distress caused by a poorly understood condition. We are not the drugs that we took, and are capable of growing past the mistakes we made in life."
"One of if not the biggest 'misconception' is that many people believe that HPPD does not exist. But I guess there is no way to prove to another person that it does, so this is gonna stay the case until HPPD enters the public consciousness of the psychedelic community."
"They usually don't understand anything about it since most haven't heard about it, which really is crazy considering how debilitating this disorder is for many. And as Dr. Abraham said: in the medical field it's highly under- and misdiagnosed. Often as psychosis."
Lopyriev via Adobe Stock
Hope for HPPD
Since experiencing his first acid flashback in February, Conor has found a few helpful strategies to minimize symptoms, including seeing a psychologist, staying sober, getting enough sleep, staying productive, and talking regularly with friends.
He's currently training to be in the military.
"The symptoms will lessen with time and sobriety, and HPPD provides an opportunity to improve yourself. That being said, because thoughts of suicide are apparently common with people that have HPPD, the medical community should take the condition seriously. Especially given how many people use psychedelics today."
While the future of HPPD research remains unclear, general psychedelics research is going through something of a renaissance. In recent years, researchers have published a growing body of studies showing how psychedelics like psilocybin, LSD, and MDMA can help treat conditions like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and existential distress.
But, among people with HPPD, opinions on the utility of psychedelics vary. Conor advised caution:
"I would not recommend [hallucinogenic] drugs be taken for recreational purposes. They are tools to help us treat illnesses and should be treated as such. If someone has depression or other mental health issue, maybe psychedelics administered in a clinical setting by a doctor is appropriate, but otherwise, playing with your brain like it's a chemistry playset is asking for trouble down the road."
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A Harvard professor's study discovers the worst year to be alive.
- Harvard professor Michael McCormick argues the worst year to be alive was 536 AD.
- The year was terrible due to cataclysmic eruptions that blocked out the sun and the spread of the plague.
- 536 ushered in the coldest decade in thousands of years and started a century of economic devastation.
The past year has been nothing but the worst in the lives of many people around the globe. A rampaging pandemic, dangerous political instability, weather catastrophes, and a profound change in lifestyle that most have never experienced or imagined.
But was it the worst year ever?
Nope. Not even close. In the eyes of the historian and archaeologist Michael McCormick, the absolute "worst year to be alive" was 536.
Why was 536 so bad? You could certainly argue that 1918, the last year of World War I when the Spanish Flu killed up to 100 million people around the world, was a terrible year by all accounts. 1349 could also be considered on this morbid list as the year when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe, with up to 20 million dead from the plague. Most of the years of World War II could probably lay claim to the "worst year" title as well. But 536 was in a category of its own, argues the historian.
It all began with an eruption...
According to McCormick, Professor of Medieval History at Harvard University, 536 was the precursor year to one of the worst periods of human history. It featured a volcanic eruption early in the year that took place in Iceland, as established by a study of a Swiss glacier carried out by McCormick and the glaciologist Paul Mayewski from the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono.
The ash spewed out by the volcano likely led to a fog that brought an 18-month-long stretch of daytime darkness across Europe, the Middle East, and portions of Asia. As wrote the Byzantine historian Procopius, "For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year." He also recounted that it looked like the sun was always in eclipse.
Cassiodorus, a Roman politician of that time, wrote that the sun had a "bluish" color, the moon had no luster, and "seasons seem to be all jumbled up together." What's even creepier, he described, "We marvel to see no shadows of our bodies at noon."
...that led to famine...
The dark days also brought a period of coldness, with summer temperatures falling by 1.5° C. to 2.5° C. This started the coldest decade in the past 2300 years, reports Science, leading to the devastation of crops and worldwide hunger.
...and the fall of an empire
In 541, the bubonic plague added considerably to the world's misery. Spreading from the Roman port of Pelusium in Egypt, the so-called Plague of Justinian caused the deaths of up to one half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire. This, in turn, sped up its eventual collapse, writes McCormick.
Between the environmental cataclysms, with massive volcanic eruptions also in 540 and 547, and the devastation brought on by the plague, Europe was in for an economic downturn for nearly all of the next century, until 640 when silver mining gave it a boost.
Was that the worst time in history?
Of course, the absolute worst time in history depends on who you were and where you lived.
Native Americans can easily point to 1520, when smallpox, brought over by the Spanish, killed millions of indigenous people. By 1600, up to 90 percent of the population of the Americas (about 55 million people) was wiped out by various European pathogens.
Like all things, the grisly title of "worst year ever" comes down to historical perspective.
Quantum theory has weird implications. Trying to explain them just makes things weirder.
- The weirdness of quantum theory flies in the face of what we experience in our everyday lives.
- Quantum weirdness quickly created a split in the physics community, each side championed by a giant: Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr.
- As two recent books espousing opposing views show, the debate still rages on nearly a century afterward. Each "resolution" comes with a high price tag.
Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, two giants of 20th century science, espoused very different worldviews.
To Einstein, the world was ultimately rational. Things had to make sense. They should be quantifiable and expressible through a logical chain of cause-and-effect interactions, from what we experience in our everyday lives all the way to the depths of reality. To Bohr, we had no right to expect any such order or rationality. Nature, at its deepest level, need not follow any of our expectations of well-behaved determinism. Things could be weird and non-deterministic, so long as they became more like what we expect when we traveled from the world of atoms to our world of trees, frogs, and cars. Bohr divided the world into two realms, the familiar classical world, and the unfamiliar quantum world. They should be complementary to one another but with very different properties.
The two scientists spent decades arguing about the impact of quantum physics on the nature of reality. Each had groups of physicists as followers, all of them giants of their own. Einstein's group of quantum weirdness deniers included quantum physics pioneers Max Planck, Louis de Broglie, and Erwin Schrödinger, while Bohr's group had Werner Heisenberg (of uncertainty principle fame), Max Born, Wolfgang Pauli, and Paul Dirac.
Almost a century afterward, the debate rages on.
Einstein vs. Bohr, Redux
Two books — one authored by Sean Carroll and published last fall and another published very recently and authored by Carlo Rovelli — perfectly illustrate how current leading physicists still cannot come to terms with the nature of quantum reality. The opposing positions still echo, albeit with many modern twists and experimental updates, the original Einstein-Bohr debate.
Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr, two giants of 20th century science, espoused very different worldviews.
I summarized the ongoing dispute in my book The Island of Knowledge: Are the equations of quantum physics a computational tool that we use to make sense of the results of experiments (Bohr), or are they supposed to be a realistic representation of quantum reality (Einstein)? In other words, are the equations of quantum theory the way things really are or just a useful map?
Einstein believed that quantum theory, as it stood in the 1930s and 1940s, was an incomplete description of the world of the very small. There had to be an underlying level of reality, still unknown to us, that made sense of all its weirdness. De Broglie and, later, David Bohm, proposed an extension of the quantum theory known as hidden variable theory that tried to fill in the gap. It was a brilliant attempt to appease the urge Einstein and his followers had for an orderly natural world, predictable and reasonable. The price — and every attempt to deal with the problem of figuring out quantum theory has a price tag — was that the entire universe had to participate in determining the behavior of every single electron and all other quantum particles, implicating the existence of a strange cosmic order.
Later, in the 1960s, physicist John Bell proved a theorem that put such ideas to the test. A series of remarkable experiments starting in the 1970s and still ongoing have essentially disproved the de Broglie-Bohm hypothesis, at least if we restrict their ideas to what one would call "reasonable," that is, theories that have local interactions and causes. Omnipresence — what physicists call nonlocality — is a hard pill to swallow in physics.
Credit: Public domain
Yet, the quantum phenomenon of superposition insists on keeping things weird. Here's one way to picture quantum superposition. In a kind of psychedelic dream state, imagine that you had a magical walk-in closet filled with identical shirts, the only difference between them being their color. What's magical about this closet? Well, as you enter this closet, you split into identical copies of yourself, each wearing a shirt of a different color. There is a you wearing a blue shirt, another a red, another a white, etc., all happily coexisting. But as soon as you step out of the closet or someone or something opens the door, only one you emerges, wearing a single shirt. Inside the closet, you are in a superposition state with your other selves. But in the "real" world, the one where others see you, only one copy of you exists, wearing a single shirt. The question is whether the inside superposition of the many yous is as real as the one you that emerges outside.
To Einstein, the world was ultimately rational... To Bohr, we had no right to expect any such order or rationality.
The (modern version of the) Einstein team would say yes. The equations of quantum physics must be taken as the real description of what's going on, and if they predict superposition, so be it. The so-called wave function that describes this superposition is an essential part of physical reality. This point is most dramatically exposed by the many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics, espoused in Carroll's book. For this interpretation, reality is even weirder: the closet has many doors, each to a different universe. Once you step out, all of your copies step out together, each into a parallel universe. So, if I happen to see you wearing a blue shirt in this universe, in another, I'll see you wearing a red one. The price tag for the many-worlds interpretation is to accept the existence of an uncountable number of non-communicating parallel universes that enact all possibilities from a superstition state. In a parallel universe, there was no COVID-19 pandemic. Not too comforting.
Bohm's team would say take things as they are. If you stepped out of the closet and someone saw you wearing a shirt of a given color, then this is the one. Period. The weirdness of your many superposing selves remains hidden in the quantum closet. Rovelli defends his version of this worldview, called relational interpretation, in which events are defined by the interactions between the objects involved, be them observers or not. In this example, the color of your shirt is the property at stake, and when I see it, I am entangled with this specific shirt of yours. It could have been another color, but it wasn't. As Rovelli puts it, "Entanglement… is the manifestation of one object to another, in the course of an interaction, in which the properties of the objects become actual." The price to pay here is to give up the hope of ever truly understanding what goes on in the quantum world. What we measure is what we get and all we can say about it.
What should we believe?
Both Carroll and Rovelli are master expositors of science to the general public, with Rovelli being the more lyrical of the pair.
There is no resolution to be expected, of course. I, for one, am more inclined to Bohr's worldview and thus to Rovelli's, although the interpretation I am most sympathetic to, called QBism, is not properly explained in either book. It is much closer in spirit to Rovelli's, in that relations are essential, but it places the observer on center stage, given that information is what matters in the end. (Although, as Rovelli acknowledges, information is a loaded word.)
We create theories as maps for us human observers to make sense of reality. But in the excitement of research, we tend to forget the simple fact that theories and models are not nature but our representations of nature. Unless we nurture hopes that our theories are really how the world is (the Einstein camp) and not how we humans describe it (the Bohr camp), why should we expect much more than this?
Maybe eyes really are windows into the soul — or at least into the brain, as a new study finds.
- Researchers find a correlation between pupil size and differences in cognitive ability.
- The larger the pupil, the higher the intelligence.
- The explanation for why this happens lies within the brain, but more research is needed.
What can you tell by looking into someone's eyes? You can spot a glint of humor, signs of tiredness, or maybe that they don't like something or someone.
But outside of assessing an emotional state, a person's eyes may also provide clues about their intelligence, suggests new research. A study carried out at the Georgia Institute of Technology shows that pupil size is "closely related" to differences in intelligence between individuals.
The scientists found that larger pupils may be connected to higher intelligence, as demonstrated by tests that gauged reasoning skills, memory, and attention. In fact, the researchers claim that the relationship of intelligence to pupil size is so pronounced, that it came across their previous two studies as well and can be spotted just with your naked eyes, without any additional scientific instruments. You should be able to tell who scored the highest or the lowest on the cognitive tests just by looking at them, say the researchers.
The pupil-IQ link
The connection was first noticed across memory tasks, looking at pupil dilations as signs of mental effort. The studies involved more than 500 people aged 18 to 35 from the Atlanta area. The subjects' pupil sizes were measured by eye trackers, which use a camera and a computer to capture light reflecting off the pupil and cornea. As the scientists explained in Scientific American, pupil diameters range from two to eight millimeters. To determine average pupil size, they took measurements of the pupils at rest when the participants were staring at a blank screen for a few minutes.
Another part of the experiment involved having the subjects take a series of cognitive tests that evaluated "fluid intelligence" (the ability to reason when confronted with new problems), "working memory capacity" (how well people could remember information over time), and "attention control" (the ability to keep focusing attention even while being distracted). An example of the latter involves a test that attempts to divert a person's focus on a disappearing letter by showing a flickering asterisk on another part of the screen. If a person pays too much attention to the asterisk, they might miss the letter.
The conclusions of the research were that having a larger baseline pupil size was related to greater fluid intelligence, having more attention control, and even greater working memory capacity, although to a smaller extent. In an email exchange with Big Think, author Jason Tsukahara pointed out, "It is important to consider that what we find is a correlation — which should not be confused with causation."
The researchers also found that pupil size seemed to decrease with age. Older people had more constricted pupils but when the scientists standardized for age, the pupil-size-to-intelligence connection still remained.
Why are pupils linked to intelligence?
The connection between pupil size and IQ likely resides within the brain. Pupil size has been previously connected to the locus coeruleus, a part of the brain that's responsible for synthesizing the hormone and neurotransmitter norepinephrine (noradrenaline), which mobilizes the brain and body for action. Activity in the locus coeruleus affects our perception, attention, memory, and learning processes.
As the authors explain, this region of the brain "also helps maintain a healthy organization of brain activity so that distant brain regions can work together to accomplish challenging tasks and goals." Because it is so important, loss of function in the locus coeruleus has been linked to conditions like Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's, clinical depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
The researchers hypothesize that people who have larger pupils while in a restful state, like staring at a blank computer screen, have "greater regulation of activity by the locus coeruleus." This leads to better cognitive performance. More research is necessary, however, to truly understand why having larger pupils is related to higher intelligence.
In an email to Big Think, Tsukahara shared, "If I had to speculate, I would say that it is people with greater fluid intelligence that develop larger pupils, but again at this point we only have correlational data."
Do other scientists believe this?
As the scientists point out in the beginning of their paper, their conclusions are controversial and, so far, other researchers haven't been able to duplicate their results. The research team addresses this criticism by explaining that other studies had methodological issues and examined only memory capacity but not fluid intelligence, which is what they measured.