Does LSD Microdosing Boost Intelligence and Creativity? This Study Hopes to Find Out

Imagine getting imperceptibly high, then playing Chinese strategy game 'Go'. This is the experiment the Beckley Foundation will run to test the value of LSD microdosing.


Lysergic acid diethylamide, popularly known as LSD, was first synthesized in 1938 by the Swiss chemist Albert Hoffman, incidentally, the same person responsible for isolating and synthesizing psilocybin, the main compound of magic mushrooms. It took Hoffman five years and a dose of chance to discover LSD’s psychedelic properties, after he accidentally ingested it. 

The history of the drug in the following decades is colorful. In 1947, it was introduced on the market (first in Switzerland and then in the U.S.) as a psychiatric drug hailed to cure “everything from schizophrenia to criminal behavior, ‘sexual perversions,’ and alcoholism.”  The 1950s marked the beginning of a 15-year LSD research craze, which generated more than 1,000 scientific papers and a CIA program called Project MKUltra, which attempted to use LSD as a “truth serum” and due to its shady activities eventually became the inspiration for Netflix hit series Stranger Things. In the '60s LSD was the psychedelic drug of choice of the hippie movement and of many artists, academics, and medical professionals. 

As a result of its widespread use, unconvincing scientific research, and negative publicity generated by bad trips, in 1970 the drug was classified as a Schedule I drug in the U.S., meaning “it is deemed to have a high potential for abuse; it has no legitimate medical use in treatment; and, there is a lack of accepted safety for its use under medical supervision.”

The use of LSD, however, hasn’t declined significantly over the years. Recently, a new form of usage is becoming popular and sparking scientific interest: microdosing. Microdosing is the act of regularly taking small doses (usually 1/20 to 1/10 of a normal dose) of LSD or magic mushrooms, usually three or four times a week. The point of microdosing is to be able to experience the positive effects of the drug, without hallucinations and while remaining fully functional.

People who use microdosing claim that it helps them enhance their creativity, improve their mood and focus or simply makes their day better. Others say it has a therapeutic effect, helping them with mental health problems, without the side effects of prescription medication. The scientific consensus to substantiate these claims is not there yet, but several studies have been done, and more are underway.

Why Is It So Hard to Gather Scientific Evidence?

Since the 1970s, it has been difficult to conduct research on LSD; because of its legal status, both funding and approval for the studies are hard to get. In 2001 the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration stated that LSD "produces no aphrodisiac effects, does not increase creativity, has no lasting positive effect in treating alcoholics." Many of the studies that were done in the early days were discredited due to methodological flaws. Most evidence of the effect of the drug remains anecdotal, with James Fadiman’s database of LSD user experiences following his microdosing protocol, being the most famous one.

In 2014, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) completed the first double-blind, placebo-controlled study of the therapeutic use of LSD in human beings since the early 1970s. The study found positive trends in the reduction of anxiety following two LSD-assisted psychotherapy sessions, but similar study designs have been criticized for the inability to differentiate between the effects of the drugs and the therapy. 

The Beckley Foundation is another institute currently at the forefront of psychedelic drugs research and policy. It funded a 2015 study which for the first time used modern neuroimaging techniques to show how LSD alters brain blood flow, electrical activity, and network communication patterns.

The scientists found that under LSD, regions in the brain start communicating with each other, when they usually don't, which can explain some of the vivid hallucinations that people experience. On the other hand, other neurons that normally fire together lost synchronization, which correlated with volunteers reporting a disintegration of their sense of self, or ego. 

The Study to Prove Microdosing Makes You Smarter

Now, the founder of the Beckley Foundation, Amanda Feilding, wants to test whether microdosing on LSD improves cognitive functioning, including increased creativity. Feilding, described by Vice as “a hippie aristocrat turned drug reformer,” has had a long history with the drug. Currently 74 years old, she used LSD daily in her youth and remembers that taking it significantly improved her performance at Go, the Chinese strategy game. 

Amanda Feilding - FUNDAMENTAL from FUNDAMENTAL on Vimeo.

Fielding has launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for a study which will be a partnership between the The Beckley Foundation and Imperial College London. It will consists of 20 participants who will take microdoses of LSD, complete questionnaires on their mood, undergo brain scans and play Go against a computer.

 “The tests of creativity which are current, like Torrance test, they don’t really test for creativity, they test more for intelligence, or word recognition, or whatever,” says Feilding for Business Insider. “They can’t test those ‘aha’ moments in putting new insights together, whereas the Go game does test for that. You suddenly see, ‘Aha! That’s the right move to enclose the space.’"

Fielding is crowdfunding through Fundamental, a platform specifically dedicated to the research of psychedelics. Other areas of interest for scientists raising funds through the platform are PTSD, depression, alcoholism and anxiety.

Some scientists are skeptical of microdosing, however. 

James Rucker, a psychedelic drug expert interviewed by BBC News says:

“The dangers are that we don’t know what the risks in the long-term might be. We have no idea what the effect might be on driving, for example, or skilled tasks. The definition of microdosing is that you don't notice the subjective effect, but that doesn’t mean that it is not having any effect on you.”

Matt Johnson, a psychologist at Johns Hopkins University says that because the described effects of microdosing are subtle it is susceptible to the placebo effect.

The only way to know the truth, however, is to have more double-blind controlled studies and more longitudinal studies. A difficult task, given the current financial and administrative hurdles that scientists face.

To hear an honest, funny, and informative account of it's like to experiment with microdosing personally, here's our podcast episode with novelist and former federal public defender Ayelet Waldman

Related Articles

Major study: Drug overdoses over a 38-year period reveal hidden trends

It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction

From the study: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/361/6408/eaau1184
Surprising Science
  • It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
  • If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
  • The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Keep reading Show less

Why "nuclear pasta" is the strongest material in the universe

Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.

Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
Surprising Science
  • The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
  • You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
  • This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.

Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.

Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.

The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.


How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.

Image: NASA
Surprising Science
  • Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
  • Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
  • The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.

The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.

To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."