The Science Of Microdosing
Updated: Nov 28, 2020
Why look into the science of microdosing?
It has become popular in our culture, especially among those already practicing mindfulness and yoga. Some of the mindful influencers today claim their practice was aided by psychedelics at least at one point in their life.
Despite its popularity, there is little information out there about what researchers actually know about the practice.
What is microdosing?
Microdosing usually refers to taking small amounts of a pscyhedelic substance. However, you can technically microdose anything (chocolate, coffee, etc.). The typical microdose is about 10% of a normal dose and small doses above that threshold are called 'minidoses'.
History of Micrdosing
Though many of us have never heard of microdosing before, it has a long history.
Dr. James Fadiman, a psychedelic researcher, believes many indigenous cultures practiced microdosing. The Tarahumara tribe in Mexico (pictured above) still microdoses with peyote for sacrament and hunting.
Microdosing also popped up in research and therapy a few decades after the discovery of LSD. Albert Hoffman, the chemist that first discovered LSD, is reported to have microdosed himself and believed it had potential use for therapy.
More surprising, the US Army conducted psychedelic research with small doses in the 1960's. The findings of these studies (e.g. minidoses made soldiers slightly worse at chess) are not that interesting and seem to investigate the viability as a tool of chemical warfare.
In the 1950's some therapists began to use microdosing in the therapy sessions. Dr. Walter Frederking claims it improved the efficacy of psychotherapy because it allowed unconscious matter to become more accessible to the patient.
Recent Research Into Microdosing
The recent investigations were sparked by Dr. James Fadiman, the author of The Psychedelic Explorer's Guide. He wasn't able to conduct controlled studies on microdosing so he simply asked people on the internet about their experiences with the practice. After receiving thousands of he developed a 3 day protocol for microdosers (shown below).
Internet study findings
Dr. Fadiman and other researchers discovered that micrdosers claimed a multitude of benefits from the practice. These benefits mostly fall into three main categories--productivity, relationships, and therapeutic--and are outlined below.
The practice, popular among Silicon Valley tech workers, seems to improve creativity, stamina, enjoyment of work, and flow states (more easily entered into). An exemplative remark reported by Rolling Stone is 'Microdosing helped me come up with some new designs... ".
Internet reports suggest it helped them be better listeners, have more empathy, be happier, be more social, and more present.
Ayelet Waldman, an author and professor of law at UC Berkeley embarked on month-long microdosing experiment and details here experience in her book A Really Good Day. She claims that her relationship with her family improved and microdosing may have even saved her marriage.
Is microdosing a wonder drug?
These internet studies should be taken with a grain of salt. Though it is unlikely all these benefits are real, it is equally unlikely that they are all made up.
The problem with internet studies
The main issue with these is the lack of a placebo. This is especially important with psychedelics because they are generally (at least lately) portrayed in the media as being positive, helpful, and even life-changing. This expectation and not the substance could drive the positive outcomes that are reported. Furthermore, people obtaining psychedelics are undergoing a taxing process. It is illegal, after all, to obtain these substances. If one is going to go to all the trouble to break the law, they will be psychologically primed to get something out of it.
One solution: Dr. Szigeti's self-blinding microdose study
Dr. Szigeti and the Beckely Foundation developed a brilliant way to introduce a placebo with an internet based microdose study (watch below).
Results from the self-blinding study
I had a chance to chat with Dr. Szigeti about his results, you can watch below.
More on placebos: Dr. Vince Polito's study on micro-dosing
Dr. Polito ran a pre/post internet study out of Australia and found similar results that were similar to other internet-driven studies. There were reported benefits in mood, attention, wellbeing, mystical experiences, personality, creativity, and sense of agency. To better understand this effect, his team ran a second asking participants what benefits they expected to gain from microdosing. The idea being, if they expectations matched the final reports, then it is likely that the expectations (aka placebo) was driving the effect. He found, however, that wasn't the case. There was a clear mismatch between expectations and results hinting that a pharmacological effect was at play. For example, people expected the biggest boost to be in creativity but no such sizable boost was found in results. I got a chance to discuss the results with Dr. Polito below.
There are a few controlled studies of microdosing that can help us understand what are the real pharmacological effects. Dr. Prochazkova conducted a controlled study of minidosing with legal psychoactive truffles in the Netherlands.
His team found that the imbibers performed significantly better on creative tasks. Subjects were given Picture Concept Task (convergent thinking) and the Alternative Uses Task (divergent thinking). These are considered creative tasks because they force the subject to dream up new uses for objects like the ones pictured below. For example, in the convergent task the subject is asked to think of a way a scale and a sink could be used together. In the divergent task, they are asked to create new uses for a common tool like a hammer.
A couple more controlled studies (below) offered little insight. The first, simple concluded that 13 micrograms or less of LSD would be safe to study in the future.
The second, showed that subjects were worse at estimating time intervals. Though it is not very interesting, it does show that there is a measurable effect of microdosing.
Conclusion and future directions
The current state of scientific knowledge leaves us with more questions that answers. People taking surveys on the internet report benefits from microdosing and the reports on boosted creativity seem to have been verified by at least one controlled study. However, those reports apparently get washed out when a placebo control is added. Clearly, we need more study. A few questions I would love answered:
Are only some people affected by micodosing? Why?
Are relationships really improved?
Are some people more productive?
What are the neural mechanisms at work?
Humane Tech Developer & Lecturer Mindulf Labs & Consciousness Hacking