Under pressure to perform, Silicon Valley champions are taking to LSD microdosing for boosting their workplace productivity. Are they risking their health or optimizing it? This post from WIRED takes a trip inside the world of LSD microdosing.
It’s 7am on a sunny Friday in a shared house in the sleepy San Francisconeighbourhood of Richmond. Flatmates buzz in and out of the kitchen as Lily (not her real name), a publicist for several startups, sits down with cup of tea and a credit-card-sized bag of dried magic mushrooms.
The 28-year-old breaks up the caps and stems and places them into a herb grinder. She then scoops the pulverised mixture into empty gel pill capsules, weighing each one on a tiny scale. Once finished, she pops one of the capsules into her mouth and washes its down with PG Tips. She’s now ready to start her working day.
“It helps me think more creatively and stay focused,” she says. “I manage my stress with ease and am able to keep my perspective healthy in a way that I was unable to before.”
Lily is one of many young professionals in San Francisco and beyond experimenting with “microdosing”: taking small quantities of psychedelic drugs – typically LSD or psilocybin mushrooms – every few days in the hope of improving their performance at work. In small amounts, say, a tenth of a full dose, users don’t experience a consciousness-altering “trip”, but instead report improvements in concentration and problem solving, as well as a reduction in anxiety.
Proponents WIRED has spoken to – including software engineers, biologists and mathematicians – say that it induces a “flow state”, aids lateral thinking and encourages more empathetic interpersonal relations.
Albert Hofmann, who synthesised lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD’s full title) in 1938, and who took what is considered the first intentional LSD trip in 1943, microdosed throughout the last couple of his decades of his life (he died in 2008). The father of psychedelics, who lived to be 102, found consuming LSD in small amounts clarified his thinking, according to Dr James Fadiman, a long-time friend.
Fadiman, who has been researching hallucinogens since the 1960s and is author of The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide, acknowledges that for certain Silicon Valley types, the practice is driven by the same impulse that leads healthy individuals to take prescription medications for attention deficit disorder, such as Ritalin and Adderall, to gain a competitive advantage.
“What you get is the best parts of Adderall with none of the side effects. You function better physically and mentally. You find the office jerk bearable and you’re more compassionate about the flaws of others,” he says. “You feel you’ve had a pretty good day.”
There have been few clinical trials on the effects of microdosing, so much of the body of evidence is anecdotal. However, pre-eminent researchers in the field of psychedelics aren’t surprised by the glowing reports. David Nutt, director of the Centre for Neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London, has carried out groundbreaking imaging studies of the brain on LSD and magic mushrooms.
“These drugs change cortical functions, making them more fluid and less rigid. At least big doses do – that’s what our imaging studies tell us – and maybe low doses to a lesser extent,” he says. “This may help certain brain areas work in more flexible and expansive ways that might give better outcomes.”
It’s a view echoed by David Nichols, professor of pharmacology at Purdue University, Indiana, and an expert in psychedelics. He says it’s “quite possible” that low doses of LSD could have a stimulant effect by activating dopamine pathways in the brain. Like Adderall and Ritalin, it may excite the cerebral cortex, which controls high-order cognitive functions such as perception and sensation.
A 2015 study by scientists at the Norwegian University for Science and Technology at Trondheim found that more than 30 million people currently living in the US have used psychedelic drugs such as LSD, psilocybin or mescaline. But as drug surveys don’t tend to differentiate between quantities of substances ingested, it makes it hard to know what proportion of those people have tried microdoses versus full, perception-altering macrodoses.
According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug addiction, up to 5.4 per cent of people aged 15 to 34 in Europe have taken LSD in their lifetime and up to 2.2 per cent have taken magic mushrooms in the last year, although they are not routinely included in general population surveys.
A Reddit forum dedicated to the practice has grown its subscriber base from 1,600 at the start of 2015 to almost 7,500 in mid-June 2016. Google search volumes for the term “microdosing” have grown at a similar rate. Although WIRED found no completed clinical studies looking specifically at microdoses, Fadiman has been carrying out his own research by collecting anecdotal reports from volunteers who self-administer the drugs.
Fadiman offers guidance to participants on how often to dose and, in return, asks them to keep a journal of observations. He started collecting these reports in 2010, following the advice of friend Albert Hofmann, who described microdosing as the most under-researched area of psychedelics.
So far, Fadiman has reports from 125 participants, with 80 more on the way. In addition to this, he receives many requests for advice each month from people looking to try it safely.
“It is no longer a fad. It is being accepted as a very different way to more safely benefit from psychedelics without any ‘psychedelic effects’,” he says. In such low doses, psychedelics should be viewed more like anti-depressants and cognitive enhancers.
“Except you take them far less often.”
Many of the people who contact him are experimenting with psychedelics to treat long-standing depression or anxiety following disappointing results or side effects with prescribed medications. But there’s also growing interest among those seeking a competitive edge, Fadiman says. “People report enhanced pattern recognition. They can see more of the pieces at once of a problem they are trying to solve.”
The high-pressure startup culture of the Bay Area leads many participants to view their bodies and brains as machines to be optimised using all of the tools available – meditation, yoga, Soylent, intermittent fasting, so-called “smart drugs” (including off-label ADHD and narcolepsy meds), microdosed psychedelics and legal nootropics.
“Mental creativity and performance is how people make their career here in Silicon Valley,” says Geoff Woo, the CEO at Nootrobox, which makes legal supplements claimed to boost cognitive function.
“I liken professionals in industries like tech and finance to professional athletes. A slight edge over the competition can make or break the team, product and business.”
It’s not exclusively a Silicon Valley mentality, Woo adds: “Being productive and smart is the new sexy, and everyone in the world will soon be using nootropics in one form or another.”
Neuroscientist and neurologist Dena Dubal, who studies anti-ageing strategies for the brain at University of California, San Francisco, agrees. “In some ways we are all drawn to enhancing our brains. And our ingenuity has enabled us to do so – particularly through the development of language and technology.
“We, in reality, enhance our brain functions through good sleep, exercise, nutrition, social interaction, coffee… And many continue to try and enhance brain function through new technologies and, in some cases, medications.”
The trend for using “smart drugs” can be traced back to schools, where Ritalin and Adderall prescriptions are rife, explains Anjan Chatterjee, a professor of neurology at theUniversity of Pennsylvania. Children even at preschool age find themselves in competitive environments with dense schedules of study, tutoring, music lessons and sport.
“You start people in a rat race of competition and that’s what they know for the rest of their lives. There’s this sense that there are a limited number of rewards out there and everybody has to compete for them,” Chatterjee says. “It’s tough – but you do it by any means necessary.”
Those who aren’t already prescribed ADHD medication can buy it with ease; a series of surveys suggest that around 20 per cent of US college students have abused prescription stimulants. It’s something Lily, who has been prescribed ADHD medication since she was six, can relate to. At university she would share her prescription with friends seeking help focusing on assignments – something that she continued when she entered the working world. “It’s what fuels not just the tech community but any millennial trying to work really hard and make it,” she says.
At the start of her career working in a tech startup, she found Adderall useful. “It helped me launch a company. We went from three cities to over 30 in six months. I felt like a rockstar but I was being an asshole,” she says. Lily started to research microdosing psychedelics after experiencing unpleasant side effects from the amphetamine-based drug. “My heart would be racing when I took it, and when I didn’t I’d experience withdrawal and feel really dumb – like my brain was slowing down.”
Even though magic mushrooms and LSD are illegal in many countries, Lily views them as safer than her legal meds. Not only are the doses small and infrequent, she has found no evidence that psychedelics are physically addictive. “I don’t think we’re going to find out that microdosing fucks up your liver,” she says.
Lily still takes her ADHD medication, but microdosing magic mushrooms has allowed her to substantially reduce her dose. “In a perfect world I don’t want to take Adderall at all,” she says. Lily’s case highlights how inconsistent policymaking around drugs can be. It’s fine for six-year-olds to be prescribed amphetamines, but it’s illegal for adults to turn on, tune in and drop out.
“As a society, we’re medieval in how we classify substances,” says Woo. “Some compounds are prescription-only, some are readily available, and some are illegal. And the classification is pretty arbitrary if we really dig into their potency, addictive potential and harm risks to self and society.”
Outside of Silicon Valley, there are pockets of microdosers experimenting on their own. They are easy to find through online forums and by asking participants at (unofficially) psychedelic-friendly festivals such as Burning Man. New York-based research chemist Joseph (not his real name), 31, describes microdosing magic mushrooms as “like tuning a guitar”.
“I still feel very present and have a sharper edge,” he says. “I feel more energised and experience even the mundane in a way that feels new.”
He is evangelical about his habit and says that he’s surprised by the range of contacts who are asking him about it. “Older folks, very sensible professionals in hedge funds or the medical industry. They are not looking to have a trip with their friends out in nature – they are looking at it as a tool.”
Daniel (not his real name), 30, from Berlin, works in a business intelligence company. He found out about microdosing from Reddit three years ago. He buys tabs of the drug from Dark Net markets, cuts them up carefully and puts them into gel capsules, which he takes every third day before work along with his multivitamins. “It has become part of my life – almost like a better, magic cup of coffee,” he says. “It makes it easier to tackle complex projects that require me to keep a lot of different things in mind.”
In London, 34-year-old Blake (not his real name) works at a mobile startup as a software developer. He has been microdosing on and off since October 2015. He takes tabs of LSD, also bought on the Dark Net, from an online dispensary known as Nucleus Market for around £5 per tab. He divides each tab into ten, taking one dose in the morning, once or twice a week.
“It makes me work in such a focused way,” he says. “It gets your brain out of its regular grooves and helps you snap out of unproductive trains of thought.” It’s part of a range of techniques he uses to optimise his mental prowess, including playing instruments, exercising and brain games. “I try to get as good as I can at everything I do. It’s a natural attribute of many software engineers, especially when it comes to optimising mental activities,” he says.
Another person who learned about microdosing on Reddit is Alex, (not his real name), 29, a biologist at Edinburgh University. He read up on the topic for a few months, but was convinced to start taking small doses of acid after speaking directly to proponents at Breaking Convention, a conference on psychedelic drugs in London in July 2015. Alex typically uses 1P-LSD, an analogue that metabolises in the body in the same way as LSD, but which slipped under the legislative radar, and so is relatively easy to buy online.
“I work with theoretical computer science and cells, and the microdose makes me more productive and gives me outside-the-box thinking,” says Alex. “When programming, it’s useful to just see how the logic is supposed to flow. It’s like if you were playing chess and were able to see a few more steps ahead than normal – and you don’t even realise, you are just flowing.
“With a microdose you don’t get the overwhelming rush of emotions and feelings. You don’t get hallucinations nor do you feel sleepy,” he says. However, Alex will also take up to a third of a full dose when he is seeking to solve complex problems: “I’ve had a few breakthrough moments.”
When he was preparing a proposal for his masters thesis he set aside time to take the larger dose and try and visualise ideas. “My mind became a supercomputer. It allowed me to visualise ideas, shuffle them, put them into multiple combinations,” he explains. Alex says that he’s noticed a marked improvement in the feedback from his supervisor, who is none the wiser. “Maybe I could have got to the same result on my own, but it comes faster with the drug.” The benefits aren’t restricted to work, but spill out into the rest of his life. “It makes me more happy and social,” he says.
Blake agrees: “I listen to people more, I have an appreciation for simple things, and an inability to eat unhealthy food. Looking at fried stuff can be repulsive.”
Daniel is also turned off by junk food on days he’s microdosing and notices an improvement to his stamina for running. “That nagging voice that tells me to stop is not there at all,” he says.
For Lily, microdosing fits into an overall mission to be more healthy. “I have the physical wellness bit down, but the mental wellness is something I’ve struggled with. Microdosing helps manage my anxiety both in the short and long term.” These reports correlate with what Fadiman has found in his research. “People tend to get healthier. They report sleeping better, eating in a more healthy way and taking up more exercise,” he says.
It’s not all plain sailing, of course. Getting the dose wrong, which is easy to do without sufficient preparation, can make for a challenging day in the office.
“Sometimes it’s so intense you wish you could turn it off for a moment to relax,” Blake confesses.
Fadiman’s research revealed other side effects: “Several people reported uncomfortable sweating on dose day, but they continued dosing. And two subjects reported increased anxiety. One person reported more migraines.”
Furthermore, we don’t really understand the long-term impact of taking these drugs every few days. David Nichols carried out an experiment in 2011 in which he gave rats doses of 0.08 to 0.16mg/kg of LSD every other day for three months. Over time the animals became aggressive and hyperactive, showing behaviours that resemble psychosis in humans, brought about by changes in the circuitry to the brain.
“Using these drugs once a month is one thing. Using them every day, I’m not sure they are innocuous,” Nichols says. “They may bring about subtle behavioural and hormonal changes that we don’t yet fully understand.”
Fadiman dismisses this study, arguing that no-one ever takes psychedelics daily for three months and that if individuals don’t feel as though their microdose is beneficial, they should stop. However, drug charities are more cautious. Although there’s currently no evidence that LSD and magic mushrooms do any long-term damage to the body or directly cause long-term psychological damage, in large doses they can lead to unpleasant hallucinations, flashbacks and exacerbate pre-existing mental health problems.
“If you are going to take a mood-altering drug there will always be an element of risk, particularly if you have an underlying mental health condition. But compared to the risks attached to other drugs, this is at the lower end of the scale,” says Harry Shapiro, director of UK charity DrugWise.
On the face of it, such a utilitarian approach seems a far cry from the counterculture of Haight Ashbury. But the hippy movement and Silicon Valley are connected. The Bay Area’s love for LSD began in the 1960s, when numerous organisations were legally administering psychedelics to human guinea pigs in the vicinity of the Stanford Research Institute – the eventual birthplace of personal computing.
These organisations, including the International Foundation for Advanced Study, introduced some of Silicon Valley’s brightest engineers and developers to acid, including computer visionary Douglas Engelbart, who invented the mouse.
Technology journalist John Markhoff writes In his book, What the Dormouse Said: How Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry: “It is not a coincidence that, during the 60s and early 70s, at the height of the protest against the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement and widespread experimentation with psychedelic drugs, personal computing emerged from a handful of government- and corporate-funded laboratories, as well as from the work of a small group of hobbyists who were desperate to get their hands on computers they could personally control and decide to what uses they should be put.”
At about the same time, there were clusters of academics around the world experimenting with psychedelic compounds. Francis Crick, the Nobel Prize-winning father of modern genetics, was a regular user of LSD. He confided to fellow scientists and his biographer that he had used small doses to boost his powers of thought since the 1950s.
American biochemist Kary Mullis, who also won a Nobel Prize, described his doses of LSD during the 60s and 70s as “much more important than any courses I ever took”.
Over the course of two decades there were more than 1,000 clinical papers discussing 40,000 patients who were treated with LSD and other hallucinogens, along with several dozen books, and six international conferences on psychedelic drug therapy. Supporters believed that the drugs facilitated the psychoanalytic processes and found they could be useful for treating conditions such as alcoholism.
The study that has captured the attention of today’s microdosers is one that took place in the summer of 1966, at a research facility in Menlo Park, led by a then 27-year-old Jim Fadiman.
The question he set out to answer was whether psychedelic drugs could help solve hard science problems. Volunteers for the study had to be dealing with a problem – something that could be measured, built, proven or manufactured – that they’d been stuck on for at least three months. Twenty-seven men, including engineers, architects, mathematicians, a psychologist and a furniture designer, signed up.
Each participant was given 200 milligrams of mescaline – the equivalent of 100 micrograms of LSD – and left to listen to classical music with their eyes closed for a couple of hours while the drug kicked in. Then, they were let loose on their problems.
The results were startling. There were breakthroughs or partial solutions to 40 out of the 44 problems the volunteers were collectively grappling with.
“It’s hard to estimate how long this problem might have taken without the psychedelic agent,” reported one scientist who took part in the trial. “But it was the type of problem that might have never been solved. It would have taken a great deal of effort and racking of brains to arrive at what seemed to come more easily during the session.”
Tangible innovations to emerge shortly after the psychedelic experience include a mathematical theorem for NOR gate circuits; a new design for a vibratory microtome; a space probe experiment to measure solar properties; a technical improvement to the magnetic recorder; a new conceptual model of a photon; and a linear electron accelerator beam-steering device.
Research came to a standstill as the US government classified psychedelic drugs as Schedule 1 substances, the most tightly controlled. Nixon’s subsequent war on drugs whipped up moral outrage among the socially conservative. This stigmatised psychedelics, causing funding for research to dry up, leading to a 40-year interruption to scientific advancement in the field.
“This is the worst censorship of science in the history of the world… since the dark ages. It’s worse than the Catholic Church banning the telescope in 1616,” says David Nutt, who is widely known in the UK for being sacked from his role as the government’s chief drug advisor in 2009, after claiming ecstasy was safer than horse riding.
It wasn’t until the early 2000s that a few researchers tentatively rekindled the scientific study of psychedelics. Now the work that was terminated in the 1960s is being replicated or furthered by institutes including Johns Hopkins, NYU, UCLA and Imperial College London. So far there have been positive results for treating nicotine addiction, alcoholism, depression and end-of-life anxiety. Even so, the studies aren’t funded by traditional institutions, but by non-profits.
“Most funders aren’t interested. When the drugs are illegal, there are so many more hoops to jump through. It takes so much more time and puts the price of research up ten-fold,” says Nutt, who turned to crowdfunding and charities to finance his research into psychedelic drugs and the brain.
And whereas it’s hard enough to drum up resources to research psychedelics, it’s nigh on impossible to fund studies into “microdosing”, which stands to benefit mainly over-achieving types seeking a career boost.
“It’s not a ‘condition’ that’s crying out for a solution,” Nichols says.
Furthermore, the logistics of researching microdoses are more challenging. With full-dose experiments, human participants are kept in a controlled environment with access to medical professionals and a sitter who stays with them at all times. A study on microdosing would involve, in theory, administering a Schedule 1 drug to volunteers before sending them home – a tough challenge for risk-averse institutional review boards.
Fadiman says he is consulting on two studies involving microdosing psychedelics – one in Australia and one in Europe.
Compounding the issue is the fact that LSD was discovered so long ago that it’s off-patent. If it were to be commercialised today, it would be a less profitable, generic drug.
“A pharma company needs to figure out how to make an obscene profit – that’s what gets their attention. The problem is that these drugs are not addicting and you don’t need to take them very often,” Fadiman says.
In the meantime, psychonauts like Lily, Daniel, Alex, Blake and Joseph plan to continue their quest for personal development by taking tiny doses of mushrooms or acid for breakfast, despite the fact that they remain illegal.
“If I learned it was dangerous, which I don’t think the evidence right now shows, I would stop,” says Joseph.
Blake agrees: “If there was research showing negative long-term side effects for the brain, I wouldn’t do it. But until then it will be something I’ll continue. I can’t see the novelty wearing off.”