A brief history of time (and space)
When Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann inadvertently invented Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD is an abbreviation of its German name) in 1938, he was looking for a stimulant for the central nervous system, working with a substance derived from the ergot fungus that was often found in rye bread.
Hofmann knew that ergot stimulated the nervous system to the extent that it could cause hallucinations – the visions experienced by medieval Christian mystics have been linked to ergot – so it seemed like a good bet.
Hofmann supposedly discovered just how hallucinogenic LSD was during a rather intense bike ride five years later, after unknowingly ingesting a massive dose through his fingertips. His employer, the pharmaceutical company Sandoz, also knew they had something interesting on their hands – they just weren’t sure what.
Marketed as a ‘cure’ for anything from alcoholism and schizophrenia to homosexuality and kleptomania, by the early 1960s, Sandoz were so desperate to find a market for LSD that they’d send free samples to anyone who asked.
LSD was enthusiastically adopted by many US psychiatrists and psychologists, including Timothy Leary, as well as such unlikely figures as Cary Grant and Aldous Huxley.
The growing counter-culture was even more enthusiastic, particularly after the Grateful Dead’s live sound engineer began his own manufacturing operation in Berkeley, CA when Sandoz’s patent expired in 1963 (the company ceased production a couple of years later, with the US declaring it a scheduled substance some years after that).
For many hippies, despite its mystical connotations, LSD – now popularly known as acid – became just another entertainment option to be enjoyed alongside loud music and elaborate lightshows.
But for others, it was much more important.
“Taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important thing in my life,” Steve Jobs told his biographer Walter Isaacson. “LSD shows you that there’s another side to the coin, and you can’t remember it when it wears off, but you know it.”
“It reinforced my sense of what was important – creating great things instead of making money, putting things back into the stream of history and of human consciousness as much as I could.”
I got 48 problems
Pioneering psychedelic researcher Jim Fadiman PhD began his work at Stanford University when LSD was still legal. He wanted to know how psychedelics affect users’ cognitive abilities.
Fadiman instructed his volunteers – high-powered architects, designers and theoretical physicists who worked for Varian, Hewlett-Packard and the Stanford Research Institute – to take moderate doses of LSD and work on solutions to intractable work problems that had eluded them for at least three months.
“They dove into their technical problems,” remembered Fadiman later. “We had 48 problems, 44 solutions.”
After LSD was scheduled in the US, Fadiman began mailing instructions to anyone who asked, advising them to take around a tenth of a normal dose of psilocybin mushrooms or LSD every four days and go about their business as usual.
The size of these doses meant no one would experience any of the usual audio, visual or sensory hallucinations. But they would definitely experience something.
Fadiman asked people to note how productive or creative they were each day and published the results in his 2011 book The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide. According to Fadiman, microdosing reduced depression, migraines and chronic-fatigue syndrome in his self-reporting respondents, while increasing outside-the-box thinking.
Whatever microdosing’s merits, many of the substances involved remained and still remain illegal and/or proscribed across much of the world (although it’s hard to effectively legislate against wild plants and fungi).
“Yes, psilocybin is illegal,” confirms the US Department of Justice for example. “Psilocybin is a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act. Schedule I drugs, which include heroin and LSD, have a high potential for abuse and serve no legitimate medical purpose in the United States.”
How it works
Double Blind (a publication “covering timely, untold stories about the expansion of psychedelics around the globe”) says that microdosing is “about a slight opening or enhancement of the senses, which translates for many folks into an increased sense of presence in their everyday activities.”
Psychedelics’ ability to reduce our sense of self, even in minuscule doses, means that users can get a new sense of perspective. They bypass our usual ways of thinking, the blindspots, prejudices and assumptions we all have without even realizing.
“[Microdosing] definitely helps me with problem solving,” says one user of a subReddit based on the subject.
“I have mainly started it because of a recent study that suggested MD helps in opening up the brain’s learning window again … I learned that MD increases neuroplasticity, which is the rate that neurons change connectivity and open up new ways of thinking.
“One way I can describe learning/problem solving for me is that I just suddenly have a realization while my mind wanders. It does also help me in exploring different aspects of a topic.”
Some users swear by particular substances for particular situations. One says that mushrooms are “good for introspection and empathy” while LSD is “good for problem solving, new thought and getting things done”.
Others say that they feel the most beneficial effects in terms of problem solving on the days after dosing rather than the day itself.
“I’ve noticed that for a few days after microdosing I’m actually much more focused and a better employee,” says one Redditor.
Despite a growing awareness of the beneficial effects of psychedelics on people suffering from depression and long-term drug and alcohol addiction, rigorous clinical research on microdosing is rare, with Jim Fadiman’s self-reported anecdotal research still the main resource.
The last word
According to the man himself:
“Psychedelics don’t have an ideology any more than ice cream has an ideology. People like ice cream and people don’t like ice cream, but nobody makes a political statement about it.
“Nobody’s bad for not liking psychedelics, or hopelessly depraved if they do. Because psychedelics are basically experiential at the level where concepts aren’t very useful.