A felt-tip drawing by Beatles star John Lennon called "Strong", believed to be executed by Lennon while under the influence of drug L.S.D. (Photo by Ian Waldie/Getty Images)

Inside the box

Microdosing, drug use and interiority

Artillery Row

Over the last few years the media have picked up on an apparent craze for microdosing psychedelics. This means ingesting tiny fix of something like LSD or psilocybin, usually around one-tenth of the amount needed to register the usual effects of hallucinations and euphoria, or blind panic and psychosis, and maybe a “bathing in the white light at the heart of everything”-style boomergasm. 

Readers unfamiliar with the practice might wonder why anyone would take mind altering drugs at a “sub-threshold” level which means the mind is not entirely altered. Microdosers say it improves concentration and fosters creativity. We all know a little about the Timothy Leary-esque beliefs in psychedelic drugs enabling people open the doors of perception and access realms of creativity otherwise inaccessible. Microdosing is premised on the same basic conviction, just without the acute intoxication. 

One website selling “Magic Truffles” containing microdoses of psilocybin claims their products allow “individuals to tap into the creative centres of their minds without dealing with impairment or intoxication”. The main feature of this so-called “creativity hack” is “curiosity enhancement”. People who work gruelling hours can look at things afresh and thus encounter solutions or ideas which are said to be truly outside the box. 

One study states that “anecdotal reports suggest” the practice “is fairly prevalent, particularly in a work environment, with an increasing trend in Silicon Valley among young science, technology, engineering, and mathematics professionals”. In 2019, the chief exec of tech start-up Iterable Inc. was dismissed from his job for taking a microdose of LSD before a board meeting. The Global Drug Survey of 2018 reported that no less than 28.6 per cent of their respondents admitted to microdosing acid.

There are grey areas in modern medicine. One is the dividing line between different types of pharmaceutical intervention. Pharmacology is classically focused on solving or alleviating particular problems, like with antibiotics for an infection or paracetamol for a headache. When it comes to mental health, the same principle might be thought to apply in exactly the same way, with, say, anti-psychotics for certain symptoms of schizophrenia or lithium for bipolar disorder. Yet it almost goes without saying that, at least for widespread problems like depression or anxiety, no diagnostic model is ever going to be as black and white as some tests for physical diseases or injuries. 

The grey area between, say, “low mood” and “mild depression” leads to a correspondingly grey area between differing rationales for pharmaceutical interventions. Why shouldn’t someone with low mood have their quality of life improved by SSRIs? They might well report improved concentration and better results at work. “Clinical diagnosis” and “performance enhancement” thus have an increasingly fluid boundary in some cases, at least. 

Microdosing is inextricable from 1960s counter-culture

Sellers of microdosing products play on this ambiguity. They say anxiety and depression are endemic among Bay Area careerists, and microdosing medicates them because they’re anxious and depressed about underperforming in the workplace. At play are fundamental changes in how mental health and mental ill-health are perceived. Mental ill-health once meant the presentation of symptoms disruptive to what could then still be called “normal” living. In a world where norms are problematic, we are now told that a fluid spectrum exists between the health and ill-health of the mind. All of us face the challenge of trying to maintain mental wellbeing.

There is some sense in this, of course. But reading that the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recently recommended that all under-65s should be screened for anxiety, one wonders if the democratising of the pursuit of mental wellbeing will result in a democratising of mental ill-health. Around 25 per cent of men and 40 per cent of women now suffer some sort of anxiety disorder in their lifetimes. This could mean performance enhancing pharmacology becomes an ever more prevalent aspect of public healthcare. 

Clinical evidence on microdosing is scant. Peer-reviewed studies have tried to establish if it works, with inconclusive results. Yet few think to ask a more fundamental question: “do we want it to work?” If large numbers of executives in influential roles are forging their ideas through consuming psychedelics, what might this mean for how their industries impact society?

The first attempt at a clinical trial into microdosing was in 1966, overseen by James Fadiman. Fadiman microdosed his respondents before presenting them with a difficult problem. Of the forty-four problems tackled by his respondents, forty were reportedly solved before (as legend has it) the FDA prematurely shut down all studies into those substances then causing a moral panic. 

Fadiman remains a microdosing guru to this day. If anyone thinks the practice has emerged only recently, bear in mind that Fadiman is inextricable from 1960s counter-culture. At Harvard he was taught by Richard Alpert, now the yogic guru called Ram Dass. In 1969 he was a co-founder of the International Journal of Transpersonal Psychology and then the Association for Transpersonal Psychology two years later. Both microdosing and Transpersonal Psychology emerge from the same worldview. 

This school of psychology developed in part from Abraham Maslow of the “hierarchy of needs” fame. Maslow’s pyramidal structure has physiological needs at the bottom and “self-actualisation” at the top. Another fluid spectrum. Transpersonal psychology draws on a hodgepodge of psychology and Eastern spiritual traditions in the pursuit of self-actualisation. As put by Mariana Caplan, it seeks “wholeness and psychospiritual integration” rather than seeking “to fix people so they comply with a socially agreed upon norm for mental health”. 

Socially agreed upon norms are thus a problem for mental health, rather than the benchmark of mental health. Without society, the pursuit of self-actualisation threatens to be profoundly self-centred. Even in Maslow’s hierarchy, the strata requiring community are just means for self-actualisation: safety, belonging and esteem. Community is rendered secondary to self; it is defined in terms of its benefit to one’s self. In this scheme, people are just means to an end, not ends in themselves. Do people love their spouses and friends to satisfy their need to belong, or because their spouses and their friends are just the people they are — ends not means? 

Even innocuous drug use is always intensely self-centred

This brings us back to microdosing. Full disclosure — I have not tried it. I’m of an age when macrodosing psychedelics was a common adolescent rite-of-passage. Anyone who has spent time with drug users, of whatever severity, soon realises that even innocuous drug use is always intensely self-centred. To change the way one relates to the world and the people in it, because to do so promises some advantage to one’s self, is to choose one’s self over others. It is to choose a more desirable state of consciousness than the consciousness which is shared with others — unless those others are doing the same thing. If you choose to associate mostly with those on the same wavelength, however, other people have become a means to one’s own ends, one’s own desired wavelength. Yet this is not the case if pharmaceutical intervention is meant to enable people to participate in socially agreed norms, a common range of wavelengths shared by society at large. 

When it comes to Big Tech and microdosing, it is interesting that Peter Thiel challenges the dominant assumption that we are living in a time of unparalleled technological advances. He states, “We’ve had continued progress in the world of computers, bits, internet, mobile internet, but it’s a narrow zone of progress” and “it’s been more interior, atomising and inward-focused”. If Bay Area microdosers have led the way in recent technological developments, I can’t say I’m particularly surprised. Of course the doors of perception have opened layers further inside the box of one’s self, offering ways for technology to be ever more self-absorbing and isolating. 

I recently watched a video from the old macrodosing days, in which a policeman is interviewed about his experience of policing a gathering of youngsters dancing in a field. He said he spoke to a number of attendees before the event, and “in general they seemed perfectly nice young people”. But “when the event started”, they “still seemed nice people but I found the difference being that there was no communication among them”. He says, “they were in a world of their own. Two thousand people in a world of their own, without any communication between anyone.” In his experience of over twenty years of policing, he says he’d never seen anything so surreal. Over twenty years later his words aptly describe daily life for many people. All on the same niche wavelength, consistently connected to each other like never before, but all woefully trapped inside the box. 

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