Microdosing isn’t just something you hear about from that one dude at work who went to Burning Man once anymore.
No, taking tiny amounts of psychedelic drugs in order to increase your brain power is an undeniably popular thing at the moment. It’s been heralded by some of the “leaders” in Silicon Valley about how it helps with their productivity. There have been several books championing its ability to improve your life like A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life or Microdosing Psychedelics: A Practical Guide to Upgrade Your Life. The list of blogs or YouTubers/podcasters (including Joe Rogan) discussing or endorsing it is endless.
However, the thing about microdosing is despite all its champions we honestly don’t know too much about it.
This is what led two PhD students in Ontario, Thomas Anderson and Rotem Petranker, to conduct one of the first-ever studies on microdosing. By doing so Anderson and Petranker found that some of what microdosers rave about seems to hold true. Those who microdose scored higher in elements like wisdom—which they define as “considering multiple perspectives, learning from mistakes, being in tune with emotions and people and feeling a sense of connection”—and creativity. They also scored lower in areas like dysfunctional attitudes—which is defined as “beliefs such as, ‘my value as a person depends greatly on what others think of me” or “if I ask a question, it makes me look inferior’”—and lower negative emotionality.
The duo is quick to note that the study didn’t prove a causal relationship, in that they “don’t know whether microdosing actually caused any of these differences” in their test subjects. But they’re still hoping to do more research, including actual lab tests, in the future.
To better understand this study, VICE rang up Petranker to talk about the possible effects of microdosing and creative ways to use knives and bricks (more on that later.)
VICE: Hey, Rotem, thanks for taking the time. So to start, what is microdosing?
Rotem Petranker: Yeah! So, microdosing is consuming a sub-perceptual amount of psychedelic and it's been described in a range of ways. For us, a microdose is 10 percent or less of what is considered a full dose of the psychedelic. We were mostly interested in psilocybin and LSD. For LSD the standard dose is 100 to 200 micrograms so our cutoff was 20 micrograms and for magic mushrooms was 2 or 3 grams, so our cutoff was between .2 and .3 grams.
How did you conduct the study?
We put together a survey and we disseminated it online. Just asking people to respond out of the kindness of their hearts because we didn't have money to pay. We ended up getting 1,390 unique responses. One of the ways we disseminated the survey was on the subreddit for microdosing and we also used other subreddits and Twitter and Facebook.
What did you find in the study?
A lot of things [laughs]. There is the one paper that has been accepted to Psychopharmacology, there is a second paper under review and a third paper we're currently writing. The highlights are that microdosers are higher in creativity, higher in wisdom, higher in open-mindedness and lower in dysfunctional attitudes and negative emotionality. That was one set of findings.
We also had a more qualitative analysis. We asked people what the three main benefits and three main drawbacks were. The three main benefits were creativity, improved mood, and improved focus. The largest drawback by far is the illegality, which has not been an inherent drawback of the substance, it's a drawback of public policy. People reported having a hard time finding their dose because they have to buy it on the black market and it's a different batch each time and it takes them some time. The second most common drawback was physiological discomfort (like feeling a little sick or dilated pupils.)
The third paper is going to be more of an epidemiological paper, so it's trying to understand what the population is like. Seeing what their social-economic status is like, if they have more or less psychiatric issues, if they use substances more or less, those kinds of things.
Some people, like myself, can hold stereotypes of these microdosers as like hippies or tech bros or something like that, is that a pretty bad misconception?
(Sighs) If the standard expectation is that the person is a hippie than yes. We asked people what they do for a living and the answers were really widespread, we had computer programmers, teachers, people from all walks of life. There were pretty diverse ages too, there were a lot of young people between 18 and 35 and a lot of people that were older doing it as well.
Anecdotally it seems that way too. People have been approaching me a lot because this got a little bit of publicity, there has been like real estate agents and fitness instructors and it just seems like anyone can be doing this.
Is there a big microdosing community online?
Absolutely, if the subreddit is any indication. That subreddit has grown I think fourfold in the last two years. So it's been growing exponentially. People are doing this but may not know what they're doing—that's our concern. They might not know what the potential risks are or how to get the optimal benefits.
Why it's growing, I don't really know, it might just be a moment in popular culture. There are a lot of things happening with it right now, maybe initially people were doing it in Silicon Valley and that came across as trendy and cool. There was also a book on it. I think it's just the zeitgeist, nothing in particular.
What do you guys want to achieve in this subject as researchers?
I think we have an excellent opportunity in this nascent research field to set the bar for what is good research. So, I don't think I'm going to be first in anything, but what we want to do is demonstrate how important it is to do good research and how it's not that difficult.
Is there a lot of bad research in the realm of psychedelia?
Yes. My concern is that psychedelic research is going the same way as mindfulness research has gone. There was a lot of methodological issues in the way mindfulness was studies—it was studied by a lot of true believers that just wanted to prove it works rather than see if it works—their methods weren't that great. I was researching that before but I joined that field a little too late in the game but maybe it's not too late for psychedelics.
In the article, you mention that microdosers came up with “more useful, unusual and unique uses” for a brick and a knife compared to those not microdosing. The uniqueness of the question really jumped out at me. Why ask something like that?
What we were trying to do was get a quantitative estimate on whether or not microdoses were actually more creative because it's been anecdotally reported. Microdosers always say that 'I do this because it enhances my creativity' and we wanted to see if that's real. It looks like from our study, and another study that was published in the Netherlands, that microdosing may increase what's referred to as divergent creativity.
That's a fascinating way to work around the creativity problem you mention. Were there any answers to the creative uses of a knife that jumped out at you?
Yeah, as I mentioned I want to do this scientifically, I want to do it rigorously, I don't want to mess around. So some of the answers we got were: shovel, shower curtain, signalling an airplane, a lot of people said screwdriver, prop it up on your desk so it will keep you up at work—some people were very specific—drawing pictures on the floor, etching tool, fake mustache.
So moving forward what's next in terms of microdosing research?
I think what's next for microdosing should be running a double-blind study in a lab because we need to see if this even works because I highly suspect there are other variables at play. That's what we're working on.
For myself, I'm a clinical psychology PHD student so I'm hoping that by the time I graduate is that there will be a large enough body of evidence that it would be possible to administer psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy because I have an intuition that it's promising. But, in the end, I guess we'll see.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.