In the streaming series Nine Perfect Strangers, Nicole Kidman plays a somewhat off-balance Russian wellness guru who adds psychedelics to her clients’ smoothies.
At first, everything they feel is… better, happier, lighter. They don’t know why.
When one of her guests asks if she and her family are drugged, they are told it’s okay, it’s just microdosing.
This is where a tiny dose of a psychedelic drug causes little acute effect – it does not trigger hallucinations or intense perceptions and emotions – but rather works at a subperceptual level to enhance creativity, performance, mental health and well-being.
In this case, the guests are given psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms.
There is a presumption in Nine Perfect Strangers that microdosing is sufficiently well established in the general public that it does not require explanation.
Indeed, Kidman Spa clients casually accept the treatment as if it were a guided meditation session.
Why wouldn’t they do it?
There is certainly a lot of hype, many claims, and a growing number of studies examining whether microdosing offers health benefits beyond those that can be gleaned from wishful thinking.
The trend started about six years ago, and was quickly validated by mainstream media.
The breakout event was a 2015 Rolling stone report: LSD micro-dosing has become “the hot new business trip.” The company’s warriors microdosed acid to get a head start on the competition.
Since then, Silicon Valley nerds have claimed microdosing is a “productivity hack,” allowing them to work faster and with more clarity in their conquest of the world.
In 2017, author and contrarian Ayelet Waldman published a new book: A really good day: how microdosing made such a huge difference in my mood, my marriage and my life.
He told the story of Ms. Waldman’s month-long experience, taking tiny doses of LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) to even out her unstable moods.
She stopped brawling on Twitter, and was less combative with her four children and her husband, author Michael Chabon.
Mrs. Waldman wrote the book in a month. Like, quick. She said it was the microdoses of acid that put her in a “flow” state.
There was a lot of respectful coverage. A story in Vogue said she had undergone the psychedelic experience “in order to treat her acute, sometimes debilitating depression”.
A story in The New Yorker said Ms Waldman’s motivation “was generous: she hoped to become a less volatile mother and wife.”
The experiment turned out to be a success. And she was a better driver on acid, she says.
A 2019 report in The Guardian explained how mothers microdose to better cope with parenthood. One woman said she enjoyed playing with her children thanks to a sprinkle of magic mushrooms.
In February, TBEN reported that microdosed LSD could be a breakthrough treatment for inflammation associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
More than a quirky plot in a wellness soap opera, microdosing has become a potential panacea for our modern psychological, competitive and cognitive needs.
Who does this and how often?
Dr Vince Polito is a Senior Cognitive Scientist at Macquarie University and is “one of the early investigators” in the field of microdoses, which is still in its infancy.
The first research papers were not published until 2018 – three years after the Rolling stone story that started microdosing into the mainstream.
“Since then, thousands of articles, websites and internet groups have been devoted to exploring microdosing,” said Dr Polito.
“Online spaces like Reddit and Facebook have huge microdose communities, with probably tens of thousands of people experimenting with low-dose psychedelics.”
Dr Polito said a microdose is typically a tenth or less of that used to trigger a hallucinogenic state, with users adjusting their dose to make sure they don’t experience noticeable visual effects.
Psychedelics used by microdosers include psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, peyote, MDMA, and ketamine. Mushrooms and LSD appear to be the most commonly used hallucinogens.
“Some people will microdose every three or four days, while others might microdose maybe several times a month,” he said.
What the science says
In 2019, Dr Polito co-authored a study that followed the experience of 98 microdosers over six weeks, in order to systematically measure any psychological change. Due to the ethical challenges of providing illegal drugs to study participants, the volunteers used their own supplies.
Overall, participants reported “both positive and negative effects of microdosing, including improved attention and mental health; but also more neuroticism ”.
In a second part of the article, the researchers looked at how the prominence of microdosing in popular media “led to specific expectations regarding the effects of microdosing, and how these expectations matched or differed from our results. “.
These findings were complex and “not what is typically reported in media reports.” The researchers found promising indications of possible benefits of microdosing, “but also indications of some potential negative impacts, which should be taken seriously.”
There were five key conclusions
- A general positive boost on microdosing days, but limited residual effects from each dose – while it is widely believed that each microdose has a residual effect that lasts for a few days. “However, there was an indication of a slight rebound in feelings of focus and productivity two days after dosing.”
- Some indications of improvements in mental health: After six weeks, participants reported lower levels of depression and stress. But the people recruited for the study did not suffer from any type of mental illness for the study, so levels of depression and stress were relatively low to begin with.
- Participants reported a decrease in mental wandering, meaning they were less likely to be distracted by unwanted thoughts. They also reported increased absorption, meaning they were more likely to experience intense focused attention on imaginative experiences.
- Not everyone had a good time microdosing. Some participants reported unpleasant and difficult experiences. In some cases, participants only tried microdosing once or twice and then declined to continue. Overall, participants reported a slight increase in neuroticism after six weeks of microdosing, indicating an increase in the frequency of unpleasant emotions.
- The changes do not fully correspond to people’s expectations. Two of the biggest changes expected by microdosers were increased creativity and life satisfaction, but we found no evidence of changes in these areas.
So what’s the next step?
While the anecdotal accounts are compelling, Dr Polito said important questions remain about how microdosing works and how much of the reported benefit is due to pharmacological effects rather than participant beliefs and expectations.
In March, Imperial College London published a study which concluded: “The psychological benefits of taking small doses of psychedelic drugs on a regular basis are likely a result of users’ expectations.
The results come from the “largest placebo-controlled trial of psychedelics to date.”
More than 190 members of the public, who were already microdosing LSD, implemented their own placebo-control measures at home by following the study team’s online instructions.
It was a cleverly designed study. Participants underwent a procedure to prepare capsules containing either a low dose of LSD or a placebo.
They were taught how to mix their capsules, so they ended up with a set containing either a placebo or a microdose, but not knowing what was in their capsules.
The setup included barcodes that, when scanned, tied into the study’s IT infrastructure and allowed researchers to track who had taken microdoses or placebos.
For four weeks, participants took two tablets per week. They also filled out surveys about their experiences and took cognitive tests online.
The researchers observed that for those who microdosed during the study, a number of psychological parameters improved. However, “those who took placebos saw similar improvements, with no significant difference between the microdose and placebo groups.”
This suggests that the improvements “may not be due to the pharmacological action of the drug but may rather be explained by the placebo effect”.
The end of microdosing?
The question of microdosing having a pharmacological effect can only be established by scanning the brain while taking the drugs.
And that’s precisely what Dr. Polito is planning – a study that will use magnetoencephalography (MEG) to record brain activity while participants are under the influence of magic mushrooms or a placebo.
After getting formal ethics approval, he started recruiting volunteers – but the experiments cannot continue until Sydney’s COVID-19 lockdowns are lifted.
The study will use the same “self-blind” research protocol developed for the Imperial College London study.
On each of the two lab visits, participants will take a capsule, record the code, and proceed with testing – not knowing until the end of the study whether they took the placebo.
“We will get people to do psychometric and behavioral tasks while we use a scanner to really look at what’s going on in people’s brains in detail,” he said.
Researchers will also take a blood sample and look for different biomarkers that could indicate various effects of psychedelics.
So what are Dr. Polito’s expectations?
“Cumulative data tells a complicated story and there is certainly reason to suspect that placebo and expectations play an important role,” he said. TBEN.
“But I think overall there is enough evidence of psychological and neurophysiological changes after the microdosing that it is likely that there is a pharmacological effect.”
The study will be based in Sydney. If you want to register, go here.
For more on Vince Polito’s work with microdosing, see here and here for articles on The conversation.