Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Microdosing Psychedelics for Creativity and Intelligence: Hope or Hype?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you will have noticed that in the last few years there has been a remarkable resurgence of interest in psychedelics, “mind-revealing” drugs such as DMT, LSD, mescaline, and psilocybin.

Sufficient doses of psychedelics reliably induce non-ordinary states of consciousness, and users frequently describe the ineffably transcendental trips they experience after moderate-to-high doses of psychedelics as among the most meaningful of their lives. However, psychedelic trips can also be profoundly destabilizing, so people don’t exactly run back for more.

As Ginny discussed in this blog, many people are interested in using psychedelics to treat mental health problems, such as anxiety, compulsive behaviors, and depression. Others want to leverage the striking efficacy of psychedelics in helping individuals overcome addiction.

But while healthcare practitioners are keen to use psychedelics therapeutically, the self-experimental among us are more intrigued by whether psychedelics have performance-enhancing effects. After taking psychedelics, adults often report feeling greater wellbeing, optimism, creativity, and openness, characteristics somewhat predictive of success in the workplace. Some people are also excited by studies of other animals, which show that psychedelics facilitate brain rewiring and may enhance learning in certain conditions.

So, is there a way to regularly gain some of these benefits without the distracting perceptual distortions produced by higher doses of psychedelics?

Interestingly, carefully controlled experiments have shown that even very low doses of psilocybin have psychoactive effects. This raises the question of whether yet lower doses might be advantageous for the brain without inducing extraordinary effects on consciousness.

With this in mind, “microdosing” psychedelics has become relatively routine in places such as Silicon Valley. This trend has spread, and some of my friends here in England are even dabbling. (No, this isn’t one of those “friends” situations in which by “friends” I’m really referring to myself – for better or worse, caffeine and alcohol remain my drugs of choice.) Their reports are consistent with unpublished online surveys reportedly showing that microdosing improves focus and motivation and reduces distractibility and procrastination.

The problem is that there haven’t really been any published scientific studies of microdosing psychedelics.

Until very recently, that is.


The dawn of scientific research on microdosing psychedelics

In the first preregistered study on this subject, Professor Norman Farb from the University of Toronto contacted people interested in microdosing psychedelics via reddit and social media sites. He and his colleagues recruited 594 microdosers and 315 non-microdosers from 29 countries, most of whom were young white men. Participants completed online questionnaires about their substance use histories and personality traits. They also did a creativity task.

Farb’s team found that most users reported primarily microdosing LSD (65%) or psilocybin (28%). Their results also show that microdosers score lower on assessments of dysfunctional attitudes and neuroticism, and higher on measures of creativity, open-mindedness, and wisdom.

Now, we can’t infer that microdosing psychedelics caused the differences between the two groups. It’s perfectly plausible that the combination of 1) not being overly neurotic about perceived dangers of illicit drugs, 2) being more open-minded to new experiences, and 3) being wise enough to know that most psychedelics seem to be impressively non-toxic are characteristics that permit people to get their hands on these drugs in the first place.

I do find these findings intriguing though, and they dovetail neatly with one of the only other published studies on microdosing.


Might microdosing truffles improve creativity and problem solving?

The Dutch are a progressive bunch, and truffles are once again legal in The Netherlands. Luisa Prochazkova, a PhD candidate from Leiden University, took advantage of this by asking young adults attending an event held by the Psychedelics Society of The Netherlands to take part in a simple experiment.

The experiment had six steps:

  • Researchers recruited attendees via a presentation.
  • Researchers explained each of the tasks.
  • Participants completed three tasks that measure abilities related to creativity.
  • Participants consumed microdoses of dried truffles.*
  • Step 3 was repeated 90 minutes after truffle intake.
  • Researchers compared participants’ performances in Steps 3 and 5.

You’re probably wondering what the tests were. Well, one ability the researchers assessed was convergent thinking, the capacity to identify the correct solution to a task in which there is only one correct solution. They tested this via the Picture Concept task. The goal of this task is to identify the straight-line series of images that are related. I’ve recreated an example of this test below, and you’ll notice that running water is the theme common to the cells I’ve highlighted.

In other circumstances, however, we need to rack our brains to come up with as many solutions as possible to a problem. This is divergent thinking ability, which was tested by the Alternate Uses Task. The goal in this task is to come up with as many uses for a common household item as possible in a restricted amount of time.

Finally, participants also completed Raven’s Progressive Matrices, a task in which the goal is to correctly identify which shape continues the patterns in a matrix of shapes. This is a test of fluid intelligence, the ability to solve novel problems, problems in which prior knowledge is practically useless.

Although 38 people took part, there were some issues with data collection, so the convergent thinking analysis included results for 27 people, divergent thinking analysis included results for 33 people, and fluid intelligence analysis included all participants.


Hints that microdosing truffles improves creativity

While their scores of fluid intelligence were no higher after microdosing truffles, participants’ convergent and divergent thinking scores improved. The researchers also looked at subcategories of divergent thinking, finding that in the Alternate Uses Task participants gave more responses, responses from a higher number of categories, and more original responses after consuming truffles. Since there was no effect on fluid intelligence, the findings imply that microdosing truffles might benefit creativity but not more general analytical skills.

New research findings suggest that microdosing psychedelics may benefit creativity
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Given the results of previous research on psychedelics, you may have expected that the kinds of flexible thought processes needed to do well in divergent thinking tasks would improve after microdosing truffles. Convergent thinking, however, relies heavily on the ability to persist at a task, which isn’t really a capacity that psychedelics have been shown to enhance.

The scientists speculate that while high-dose psychedelics lead to a very flexible brain state that arises from a breakdown in the stability of various brain networks, microdosing may produce a state that’s better able to rapidly switch between thinking flexibly and staying on task.


Things to keep in mind

The researchers did a great job of highlighting the limitations of their study. Some of these include:

  • The absence of a placebo control group.
  • The fact that both the experimenters and participants knew precisely what was going on.
  • The fact that participants had probably all bought into the idea that microdosing would boost their creativity.
  • The possibility that non-psychedelic compounds in truffles affect creativity.
  • The possibility that there were learning effects – if you do a novel task twice, chances are you’ll be a bit better at it the second time, right?

So, please realize that while the results from this study are intriguing, this evidence is very (very very!) weak. I don’t mean to be pejorative, for we need this type of research and have to start somewhere. I just don’t want people who don’t spend time reading scientific papers to get carried away and conclude that an epiphany is only a microdose of psychedelics away!

With this said, imagine this: A subsequent triple-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study of carefully measured microdoses of a psychedelic shows that microdosing in fact has no measurable effects on anything related to creativity or intelligence, implying that microdosing might as well be homeopathy. However, outside of the lab microdosers remain convinced that microdosing expands their mental capacities, and because of their beliefs they experience the kinds of improvements in brain function reported in this study. In this scenario, the microdosers would truly benefit, just not for the reasons they believe they are. As I discussed in my last blog, mindset has potent effects on our biology and behaviour.

And I should add that in the only other published microdosing research I’m aware of, scientists did do a double-blind, placebo-controlled study exploring the effects of microdoses of LSD on people’s perceptions of time. And the microdoses had measurable effects: The study showed that when people microdose LSD, time intervals of two to four seconds feel slower to them.

Anyway, as antediluvian as it might seem, these drugs remain illegal in most countries, so I’m not anticipating a deluge of new research on microdosing in 2019. Nevertheless, I’ll keep a close eye out for subsequent studies on it, for I strongly suspect there might be something to microdosing.

In addition to exploring effects of acute and repeated microdosing on cognitive function, it would be valuable to test whether this practice has other applications.

Might microdosing slow brain aging, for example?

And what about microdosing for mood disorders?



In the meantime, if you want a better brain, your best bet is still to focus on strengthening the pillars of a healthy lifestyle – being physically active, eating well, prioritizing sleep, and avoiding undue stress. And if you want to boost your brain function above the level to which mastering these basics takes it, train your brain. Learn a new skill. I’m biased, but I think that if you want to better equip your mind for our turbulent world, a mindfulness meditation practice might be your best bet.

Nevertheless, this isn’t an either/or situation. These studies provide tentative evidence that microdosers might be onto something. Who knows, we may eventually discover that microdosing psychedelics indeed provides the kind of mental performance edge that so many people so desire.



*On average, participants consumed 0.37 g dried truffles, an amount in line with unofficial recommendations on microdosing psychedelics. After the event the scientists analysed multiple truffle samples to quantify the psychoactive alkaloids in them. They found all four alkaloids tested for, and the truffles were richest in psilocybin.



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