What if there was a psychoactive drug you could take during the workweek to boost your productivity? In low doses, it would help you focus, make you friendlier, and put a slight bounce in your step. The effects would be subtle, often imperceptible, but undeniable.
That drug’s name is caffeine and it is legal, cheap and—unless you eat spoonfuls of it in its purest form—safe.
But if you’ve read a slew of trend pieces starting with a Rolling Stone feature last November, you might think that some of your officemates are taking small doses of LSD for an added boost. They’re probably not.
“Microdosing,” as the practice is called, has been around since at least 2011 when Dr. James Fadiman published The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide, in which he claimed that taking an extremely low dose of LSD—about 10 micrograms—every few days could aid in problem-solving without sending you on a full-on trip.
But ever since the brief Rolling Stone piece, almost every outlet has reported on rumors of its increasing frequency, especially in Silicon Valley workplace culture. Motherboard, Vox, NBC News, Time have all covered it. Forbes called it “the new job enhancer in Silicon Valley and beyond.” The Telegraph declared that “an increasing number” of Bay Area workers were trying it out.
But the trend, it turns out, has largely been media-driven. As of this writing, there have been dozens of articles on LSD microdosing. For comparison, Fadiman, the microdosing guru who was quoted in the original Rolling Stone feature and almost every subsequent article, told The Daily Beast that he’s received “probably 100” reports from people who microdose.
“Since there was this barrage of articles, it has become more popular,” he said. “I would say [it’s] probably enormously media-generated.”
Dr. Matthew Johnson, an associate professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University and an expert on drug addiction, has been skeptical of the breathless media coverage of LSD microdosing from the beginning. He told The Daily Beast that there is “no evidence that this is a big thing.”
“People are saying, ‘Oh gosh! This is the latest craze! Everyone in Silicon Valley is doing this!’ [But] there’s no data on that,” he said. “What we do know is that there are a bunch of articles being written about this. And I’m sure some people are trying it because of reading those articles.”
The November Rolling Stone article featured an interview with a single Bay Area professional who took LSD at work. It referred to him, without citation, as one of a “growing number of young professionals” who did so. This week, San Francisco’s CBS affiliate KPIX 5 used the exact same phasing: “A growing number of Bay Area professionals,” they noted, are microdosing LSD. The station found their small handful of interview subjects at a commemorative event for the inventor of LSD—hardly a random sample of Bay Area professionals.
Fadiman jokingly compared the self-fulfilling effects of microdosing media coverage to the rise of Donald Trump, noting that he has received substantially more requests for microdosing information after the press had already declared it a trend.
It’s not hard to see why microdosing became an alluring story. It has all the right ingredients: illicit drugs, Silicon Valley, the promise of a lifehack. As Johnson points out, articles about mild productivity boosts from caffeine or Adderall wouldn’t get nearly the same level of attention.
“The types of benefits that are claimed are so subtle,” Johnson said of the supposed productivity boosts that result from microdosing. “The effects that are described sound a lot like what you get at about 200 milligrams of caffeine.”
That’s about two cups of coffee. When Baynard Woods wrote about his microdosing experience for Vox, he described experiencing an “extra sense of awareness and focus” after taking a small amount of LSD. Any critical reader of his narrative will notice, however, that he took his dose right before “meet[ing] an old friend for coffee.”
Without double-blind scholarly studies, Johnson is unconvinced by—but not totally dismissive of—the microdosing media coverage and Fadiman’s anecdotal reports.
Many of the claims about microdosing that proliferate on the Internet do seem exaggerated to make it seem as if LSD can provide Limitless-style mental superpowers. One of the top-rated comments on a YouTube instructional video about microdosing reads: “I microdosed LSD during my exams and my scores were near perfect.”
Some of these anecdotes, Johnson is certain, can be chalked up to a placebo effect or, as he put it: “Expecting to have a wonderful day is a good recipe for having a wonderful day.” But he is open to more medical research on LSD, which was recently re-opened but is still tightly restricted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
“It’s not difficult to research,” Fadiman said of his own work. “It’s difficult to get permission to research.” Fadiman admits that his informal studies have been anecdotal but he prefers to refer to them as “field research.” In his book, he claims to demonstrate “how ultra-low doses improve cognitive functioning, emotional balance, and physical stamina.”
“What people have reported is that they are able to do their work more effectively, meaning that they are able to stay in [a] creative phase longer with a microdose,” he said.
But as it stands, microdosing is still illegal and requires careful preparation. LSD tabs often come in 100 microgram amounts—enough to send someone on a trip and 10 times more than the amount most microdosers want to take. Many dissolve the LSD in water and then drink a proportionate amount.
There is, of course, the potential for overdose, especially given the difficulty of determining the dosage in LSD after buying it.
“There are so many levels of complication here,” Johnson cautioned. “The purity of the original source is almost never known. Even given that, it’s impossible to directly measure weights of that size for virtually anybody.”
Johnson has heard anecdotal reports from people who have microdosed LSD with little to no effect and from people who have accidentally taken too much.
“They were just trying to have a productive day at work and now they’re lying on the floor of their office with the door closed hoping the boss doesn’t swing by,” he said.
But while Johnson is more skeptical of microdosing than Fadiman seems to be, both men agree that the most interesting question about LSD is not whether or not Silicon Valley coders are secretly taking it before work, but whether or not it can treat mental illness. LSD interacts with serotonin receptors in the brain in ways that have not yet been fully-researched.
“The fact is most of the requests that I get for information are from people reporting anxiety and depression,” Fadiman said.
And Johnson, citing an unpublished study forthcoming from Johns Hopkins, said that he is looking into whether or not a larger one-time dose of LSD can significantly reduce depression and anxiety in cancer patients.
“Given the pharmacology,” he said, “it would certainly be plausible that what’s being called ‘microdosing’ may have some benefit [for depression sufferers].” But until the anecdotes can be confirmed in controlled conditions, the doctor is quick to clarify: “We don’t know that.”