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

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less
Big Think Edge
  • Push Past Negative Self-Talk: Give Yourself the Proper Fuel to Attack the World, with David Goggins, Former NAVY SealIf you've ever spent 5 minutes trying to meditate, you know something most people don't realize: that our minds are filled, much of the time, with negative nonsense. Messaging from TV, from the news, from advertising, and from difficult daily interactions pulls us mentally in every direction, insisting that we focus on or worry about this or that. To start from a place of strength and stability, you need to quiet your mind and gain control. For former NAVY Seal David Goggins, this begins with recognizing all the negative self-messaging and committing to quieting the mind. It continues with replacing the negative thoughts with positive ones.

Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
Keep reading Show less
Big Think Edge
  • Master Execution: How to Get from Point A to Point B in 7 Steps, with Rob Roy, Retired Navy SEALUsing the principles of SEAL training to forge better bosses, former Navy SEAL and founder of the Leadership Under Fire series Rob Roy, a self-described "Hammer", makes people's lives miserable in the hopes of teaching them how to be a tougher—and better—manager. "We offer something that you are not going to get from reading a book," says Roy. "Real leaders inspire, guide and give hope."Anybody can make a decision when everything is in their favor, but what happens in turbulent times? Roy teaches leaders, through intense experiences, that they can walk into any situation and come out ahead. In this lesson, he outlines seven SEAL-tested steps for executing any plan—even under extreme conditions or crisis situations.