It may seem like a doomed attempt to mix business and pleasure. But a growing number of young professionals in Silicon Valley insist that taking small doses of psychedelic drugs simply makes them perform better at work – becoming more creative and focused. The practice, known as “microdosing”, involves taking minute quantities of drugs such as LSD, psilocybin (magic mushrooms) or mescaline (found in the Peyote cactus) every few days.
LSD is the most well-known psychedelic drug since its popularity in the heyday of 1960s counterculture. But perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Silicon Valley also has a long history of psychedelic drug use to boost creativity: technology stars Steve Jobs and Bill Gates both famously experimented with LSD.
At high doses, LSD powerfully alters perception, mood and a host of cognitive processes. LSD now appears to be one of the more commonly microdosed drugs. A microdose of LSD consists of about a tenth of a recreational dose (usually 10-20 micrograms), which is usually not potent enough to cause hallucinations. Instead, it is reported to heighten alertness, energy and creativity.
Microdosing LSD also purportedly enhances overall well-being, helping to reduce stress and anxiety while improving sleep and leading to healthier habits. Although a widely reported phenomenon in the media, the lack of scientific studies on microdosing makes the prevalence near impossible to estimate. Reports suggest that what started off as an underground practice in Silicon Valley may be spreading rapidly to other workplaces.
It is currently unknown how such low doses of psychedelics act in the brain to produce these intriguing self-reported effects on creativity. Like all classic hallucinogens, LSD produces its potent mind-altering effects primarily by mimicking the effects of the brain chemical serotonin, which regulates our mood. In particular, LSD activates 5-HT2A receptors in the pre-frontal cortex, which increases activity of the chemical glutamate in this region. Glutamate enables signals to be transmitted between nerve cells, and plays a role in learning and memory.
In humans, two distinct effects of recreational doses of LSD have been reported. Initially, people experience psychedelic and positive feelings of euphoria. This may be followed by a later phase characterised by paranoia or even a psychotic-like state. LSD at low doses may produce mood elevation and creativity, mediated by the serotonin-mimicking effects. Actions on both glutamate and serotonin may also act to improve learning and cognitive flexibility , necessary for creativity, in the workplace. These findings could partly help to explain the microdosing phenomenon.