Wake up, brush your teeth, drop acid, head out to work.
Feels like a recipe for a disaster. Or is it?
You might have heard, taking LSD or other psychedelics at work is becoming an increasing trend amongst young professionals in the Silicon Valley. The thing is—
They take very small doses of the drug—around a tenth of a regular intake. Hence the name: microdosing.
And it’s not an attempt to mix business and pleasure. Silicon Valley professionals claim microdosing actually helps them become better at their jobs: more creative, more productive, more empathetic, better at interacting with others.
After the rise of Adderall in the early 2010s, LSD microdosing seems to be the new thing.
I’ve never taken any psychedelics myself. But—
I’ve witnessed quite a few people do it in my presence.
Even 10% of the effect they were experiencing would be sufficient to make an Employee of the Year unable to perform any professional duties for a couple of hours. I couldn’t help but wonder…
How come people take LSD and become better at work?!
In search of answers, I spoke with Dr Suzanne Gage, psychologist and epidemiologist at the University of Liverpool, widely known as Suzi Gage, the podcaster running Say Why to Drugs.
“To seriously drop acid in the office would be a horrible idea,” Dr Gage says.
“Actually getting intoxicated on something like LSD would gravely impair your ability to work: you’d experience perceptual alterations, distortions of time and space, you might get paranoid about the people around you, it might profoundly affect your emotional state, or you might end up in fits of giggles.
“Whatever the case, it would be noticeable to other people and definitely detrimental to your productivity if you were properly tripping.”
As Suzi explained, people who microdose LSD are not trying to have a trip at all.Not even a “light” one.
“The idea about microdosing is: you take such a small amount that you don’t even have intoxication from it. You shouldn’t be able to tell that you’ve taken it,” explains Dr Gage.
In other words: microdosing is not supposed to have a similar effect to taking a regular dose, but limited. It’s supposed to do something entirely different.
Does it, really, though?
That’s right. The whole trend might as well boil down to feeling like you’re going to be more creative and getting in the right headspace, rather than any actual effect of a drug.
(That said, The Beckeley Foundation are now recruiting for their new observational psychedelic microdosing study designed to comprehensively investigate the impact of micro doses of psychedelics on working professionals.)
But back to business—
What about that actual effect? Is there anything in the way psychedelics work that's already scientifically-proven and that could explain their popularity in the workplace?
How psychedelics impact your brain
David Nutt, a researcher at the Imperial College London, has done fascinating imaging studies of the brains of participants intoxicated on LSD and psilocybin, the active substance in magic mushrooms.
“These drugs change cortical functions, making them more fluid and less rigid,” Nutt’s study has shown.
Simply put, psilocybin impacts the way your brain “talks” to itself:
“Overall activity is lower, but there’s more ‘firing’ across networks. Less happens in given areas of the brain, but there’s more communication between them,” Dr Gage explains.
“More ‘global’ kind of activity.”
Sounds catchy, right? That’s why it catches on.
Many journalists stop here. The fluidity of cortical functions. Voila. Microdosing explained.
“These effects are not very conducive to productivity anyways,” Dr Gage emphasizes.
“And this is not what the idea of microdosing is about. It shouldn’t affect your cognition or perception at all. You should be taking a dose that’s so small that it doesn’t have any of these effects.”
I think we’re clear here. So far, there’s no evidence that microdosing psychedelics can help you draw out your better professional self.
But are there other ways psychedelics could help?
An experiment in therapeutic use of psychedelics has been conducted by Albert Garcia-Romeu from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Before receiving their dose, participants were asked to lie down, put on an eye-mask, headphones with music, and not to try and interact with anyone or anything during the intoxication experience.
Garcia-Romeu likened it to watching a film: you don’t want to talk through the film, because you might miss important bits. It’s better to watch the whole thing to really understand it.
Considering the way psychedelics impact your brain, one might take them when facing a complex issue, switch off for a couple of hours and then, once they come down, experience an epiphany, of sorts.
This reminded me of something I heard in Suzi’s Say Why to Drugs.
In an episode on psychedelics, Suzi’s co-host, Scroobious Pip, British rapper and poet, says he felt that the experience of tripping on LSD “unlocked” some parts of his brain—permanently changed the way he understands or tackles certain problems.
That description sounded like a hot lead to me. But Suzi cooled my enthusiasm.
“Obviously, there’s no evidence to back that statement up.
“As for permanently ‘unlocking’ something, I don’t think it’s as simple as that. It might be some people’s experience, but also, other people don’t have this experience, and others have very bad experiences.”
As she explains, it all comes down to the idea of “set” and “setting”: where you are and how you feel about the trip.
And that’s also true when it comes to microdosing. If the positive effects certain people report might as well be placebo, so can the negative ones.
“The whole Silicon Valley popularization of microdosing might make people pressured into doing it. And taking LSD under pressure would be a very bad idea. If you’re at all anxious about it, don’t do it. The gain that we don’t even know exists is not worth the risk.”
Say If to Drugs
Be it micro doses of LSD or regular doses of other psychoactive substances, the idea of popping a magic pill or taking a sip of a potion to help you achieve more is heavenly.
And, as Suzi hinted at, the hype might make you feel pressurized (or simply tempted) to try some of the cognitive enhancers others claim to have worked wonders for them.
So let’s take this hypothetical scenario:
There’s a person who’s never taken any stimulant or other psychoactive substance.
Their deadline for submitting a major project is tomorrow. They’re not halfway there. And then—
They recall someone on the internet praising, say, Adderall for helping their productivity skyrocket overnight. Or they read an article on the benefits of LSD microdosing.
My question to Suzi was:
Is there any substance that they can take, just this once, and indisputably benefit from it?
“I can’t think of one. Actually, not even coffee. Some studies suggest the cognitive-enhancing effect of coffee is mainly bringing you out of overnight caffeine withdrawal: that first cup of coffee in the morning will only make you more alert if you’re a regular coffee drinker.”
Think of antidepressants: you might take them because you’re low-mood and you want to bring yourself back to baseline—reverse a deficit. If you’re not depressed, antidepressants won’t make you happier. You’ll just remain in your neutral state.
So—what do you think?
All hype? Or do you know of experiences that would prove us wrong?
Finally—if there was a pill scientifically proven to boost productivity while not causing any negative side effects—would you take it?