A study on the effects of LSD microdosing shows some fittingly strange results.
- A new study offers some of the first evidence that microdosing – taking tiny, regular doses of LSD – does have measurable effects.
- Subjects taking LSD were less accurate when estimating how long an image appeared on a screen than subjects who were sober.
- The mechanism that causes this effect remains unknown, but several ideas have been put forward.
LSD is known to severely warp not only how takers perceive what they hear and see, but also how time and space are experienced. The incredible power of psychedelic drugs to change how we experience the world at even the smallest doses has attracted the interest of both hippies and scientists for decades. One study on how mescaline affects people dates back to 1913.
Yet, despite the increasing amount of attention psychedelics have been enjoying over the last few years and the existence of a few subjective studies in the sixties, no serious, well-structured attempt to measure how acid warps the perception of time has been made – until now.
Taking LSD for science? The hippies have taken over!
In a study published in Psychopharmacology, British scientists had 48 older adults take either a placebo or a microdose of LSD and then try to measure time subjectively. The LSD doses were tiny, either 5, 10, or 20 micrograms, and most patients reported not noticing any hallucinogenic effects at all.
In this case, time was measured by looking at a blue dot on a screen, deciding how long they thought they saw it for, and then holding the space bar on a keyboard down for the same amount of time afterward. The act of pressing down the spacebar created another blue dot on the screen for comparison. The scientists looked for how accurate or inaccurate the test subjects were in their attempts to press the space bar for the same amount of time.
As you might have guessed, people on LSD were less accurate than the ones on placebo and tended to hold the spacebar down too long. This effect was negligible for the shorter tests, such as when the dot was on the screen for 1.6 seconds, but was significant when the dot was on the display for 2-4 seconds.
The study is similar to a previous one involving psilocybin, the drug in psychedelic mushrooms. Strangely, the results here were the opposite of what was found in that study, with patients consistently carrying out their task for too short of a time. The authors of this study suggest that the different mechanisms the drugs use – LSD affects both the serotonin and dopamine systems while psilocybin only affects serotonin – could have something to do with this discrepancy as could the size of the doses used in each study.
The authors mention other studies that their new research seemingly conflicts with, and suggest that further investigation into how these drugs influence time perception must be carried out to understand why these discrepancies exist.
This is groovy and all, but what are the implications? What caused these observed effects?
This is one of the first studies into the effects of microdoses of LSD, as almost all previous studies have been more interested in what the drug does at regular, psychedelic doses. If nothing else, this study demonstrates that there are statistically significant effects of microdosing which could be very different from larger, more typical doses.
Exactly what causes this time-warping effect when reproducing an image you just saw is still unknown, and this study wasn't extensive enough to determine what caused it. Was the over-reproduction caused by tripping test subjects thinking the blue dot was on the screen longer than it was when they saw it or, as suggested in a Twitter post by neuropharmacologist Manoj Doss, by the memory of how long the dot was there being influenced by the LSD?
Study co-author Devin Terhune hypothesized that the effects could be caused by acid first affecting the serotonin system and then the dopamine system, as has been observed in animals, and that the differences between this study and others could be explained by which system was being affected when the test was carried out.The authors mention that the neurophysiological effects of microdosing LSD are largely unknown and suggest that some of the discrepancies mentioned above between this study and previous findings could be attributed to the dosage. If this idea is correct, it could lead to many new applications for microdoses of LSD and a better understanding of how the mind works.
But what does it mean for time, man? Is it all, like, in my head?
This study suggests that LSD can seriously affect how we grasp the passage of time even at doses too small to have other noticeable effects. By seriously investigating this effect and following up with more studies on how this drug warps our perception of time we could come to understand the brain processes that shape our understanding of and experience with time. Maybe someday such a study will even give us a more definitive answer on what time really is.
LSD is a potent drug with tremendous potential for both helping people and causing harm. While microdosing to help improve performance is increasingly popular, the effects of this are still largely unknown. While this study begins to examine how these small doses affect our experiences, much remains to be discovered.
Though why you would take a drug that can make the present moment last forever while you're in the office, I'll never know.
Time is a puzzle to scientists, but your brain has it all figured out
From the cosmic blast into another being's mind, to rolling bliss or obedient mind-slavery, fictional drugs have it all.
- Fictional drugs are a major part of the lore and foundation for many science fiction stories.
- The unique effects they have on their characters is an interesting new way to explore important issues.
- Many of these fictional drugs are synonymous with the stories that have been told.
Fiction writers have always been good at whisking us away to strange and new alien worlds, places we've never dreamed of and that would never have seen the light of day if they had not been coaxed from the author's wild imagination to carve out space forever in readers' minds. But new worlds aren't the only novel things that can be laid to the page.
Fictional drugs explore a highly important dimension of minds, societies, and what it means to be human or sometimes something else entirely.
The following are some of the most mind-bending and reality-shattering fictional drugs.
Soma – Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Soma derives its name from the ancient and legendary psychedelic plant used in Indian religious ceremonies. Author Aldous Huxley, profound philosopher and dabbler in altered states of consciousness, created one of fiction's most memorable drugs.
Soma is used to pacify an entire population in Brave New World. The World State's populace is split into uniform castes, cloned and grown from vats, and they all lovingly accept their servitude and uniformity. And it's all thanks to Soma. The wonder drug and means of control for all castes in society has variable affects at different dosages:
..there is always soma, delicious soma, half a gramme for a half-holiday, a gramme for a week-end, two grammes for a trip to the gorgeous East, three for a dark eternity on the moon...
Like a mix between television and religion, Soma quells the masses with ease.
Tasp – Ringworld by Larry Niven
In the futuristic alien world of Larry Niven's Ringworld, the Tasp is device and drug of sorts wielded by a three-legged alien race known as the puppeteers. When attached to a human or other species, the device fires off a beam that stimulates the pleasure centers of the brain.
You'd think such an overload of ecstasy and pure exaltation of joy would be welcomed by the inhabitants of Niven's fictional universe. But to the contrary, it's used as a means of control and a threat. Enough of a tasp exposure and you'll be the unwitting slave to whoever wields it. In a conversation between a puppeteer named Nessus and a Kzin, an eight-foot bipedal feline, the threat is made to use the tasp if the beast gets out of line. Later in the story, it is done:
But Nessus zapped him with a surgically implanted tasp, reducing Speaker to helpless ecstasy, and Louis disarmed the Kzin. Nessus warned Speaker he would use the tasp whenever he felt menaced. Speaker replied he would not again threaten the Puppeteer; a prideful Kzin would not shame himself with addiction to a tasp.
Penfield Mood Organ – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick
The Penfield Mood Organ is an ingenious invention of author Philip K. Dick. In the novel that Blade Runner was very loosely based on – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep – there exists a device in the opening scenes that the characters can use to tune their thoughts.
It isn't clear how the mood organ works, but it seems that some kind of wave affects certain parts of the brain. Here is an excerpt from the book when Rick Deckard is arguing with his wife about the right mood to tune into:
At his console he hesitated between dialing for a thalamic suppressant (which would abolish his mood of rage) or a thalamic stimulant (which would make him irked enough to win the argument).
"If you dial," Iran said, eyes open and watching, "for greater venom, then I'll dial the same."
'So I left the TV sound off and I sat down at my mood organ and I experimented. And I finally found a setting for despair… So I put it on my schedule for twice a month; I think that's a reasonable amount of time to feel hopeless about everything...'
One hilarious example of the mood organ is when they dial 888, which gives its users "the desire to watch TV, no matter what's on it..."
Philip K. Dick also explored this idea in other books with the concept of the empathy box, which religious adherents used to let their followers experience their savior's apotheosis.
"An empathy box," he said, stammering in his excitement, "is the most personal possession you have. It's an extension of your body; it's the way you touch other humans, it's the way you stop being alone."
Water of the River Lethe – Aeneid by Virgil
Long before there was Soma, humans have dreamed of chemical means of suppressing and changing the nature of our thoughts. In the great Latin epic poem, the Aeneid, Virgil tells the story of the wandering Aeneas. At one point in the story he comes across the water from the River Lethe, one of the first known fictional drugs.
On the edge of the Elysian Fields of Greek eternity, Lethe water grants its users forgetfulness and erases their memories. It was a form of cleansing if you wished to be reincarnated — you had to leave your past thoughts and experiences behind in order to know the divine. In a beautiful quote in The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann elucidates and expands on this concept:
Space, like time, gives birth to forgetfulness, but does so by removing an individual from all relationships and placing him in a free and pristine state — indeed, in but a moment it can turn a pedant and philistine into something like a vagabond. Time, they say, is water from the river Lethe, but alien air is a similar drink; and if its effects are less profound, it works all the more quickly.
Beta-phenethylamine – Neuromancer by William Gibson
William Gibson's seminal cyberpunk work Neuromancer is jam-packed with uppers, downers, zoomers and electronic bloomers. Early in the book, Case (a virtual reality hacker extraordinaire and junkie) undergoes surgery so he can get booted back into the virtual world. During that surgery, they also give him a new pancreas and plugs in his liver that stop him from getting high on his usual round of super amphetamines.
When visiting Freeside, a Vegas-in-Space, Case meets a woman named Cath, a junkie who seems to be permanently spaced and jacked up on some majorly powerful drugs. She gives him something called beta-phenethylamine. Ecstatic bouts and super energy are followed by some of the most hard-hitting hangovers ever written. But with crystalline moments realized like these:
His eyes were eggs of unstable crystal, vibrating with a frequency whose name was rain and the sound of trains, suddenly sprouting a humming forest of hair-fine glass spines.
Case stays a functional albeit highly scatterbrained genius virtual hacker.
Moloko Plus – A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Made famous by one of the most iconic openings of a film ever, Anthony Burgess's book A Clockwork Orange (which was the basis for Stanley Kubrick's film of the same name), put Moloko Plus on the map of fictional drugs. Alex and his gang of droogs hang out and get their kicks at the Korova bar drinking Moloko Plus.
This milk-based drink with a cocktail of add-ons includes some kind of mix of barbiturates, opiates and synthetic mescaline. The details are a bit murky on its effects, but Alex states at one point:
... a nice quiet horrorshow fifteen minutes admiring Bog And All His Holy Angels and Saints in your left shoe with lights bursting all over your mozg.
Melange (Spice) – Dune by Frank Herbert
One of the most famous drugs in science fiction, Spice isn't just your regular everyday enlightenment trip. Melange is found on a desert planet called Arrakis, and it's produced by giant sandworms. The inhabitants of Frank Herbert's fictional universe Dune consider this the perfect high. It even allows its users the knowledge and ability to travel through different forms of space-time. There are some downsides to it, like having to battle giant sandworms just to get a taste and a few other negative side effects as it changes each time it's used.
It's like life—it presents a different face each time you take it. Some hold that the spice produces a learned-flavor reaction. The body, learning a thing is good for it, interprets the flavor as pleasurable—slightly euphoric. And, like life, never to be truly synthesized.
Researchers look into the drug's association with pronounced optimism.
When most people think of LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) the image that comes to mind is hallucinating hippies at Woodstock, but the drug's original use was psychotherapeutic. As early as the 1960s, researchers showed that LSD reduces depression, anxiety and pain in patients with advanced cancer, and recent years have seen a resurgence of interest in the drug's beneficial effects. In 2014, Swiss psychiatrist Peter Gasser published the results of a study showing that LSD could alleviate the symptoms of severe anxiety disorder. And a 2016 study from Imperial College London showed that LSD could increase levels of optimism and openness for extended periods of time.
The LSD story goes back to Albert Hofmann, a Swiss chemist who first synthesised the compound in 1938. Hofmann accidentally discovered its hallucinogenic effects after ingesting 250 μg (a very large dose!) before his evening commute home. Being the good scientist that he was, he recorded a detailed account of his experience in his notebook. His initial, paranoia-filled reaction was followed the next day by a blissful experience, in which 'everything glistened, and sparkled in a fresh light'.
It was this final, uplifting insight that the researchers at Imperial set out to re-explore in rigorous fashion, starting with 20 participants recruited by word-of-mouth. These subjects were all over the age of 21, had no history of psychiatric illness, and reported at least one previous experience with a hallucinogen like magic mushrooms or LSD – the last requirement implemented to minimise adverse responses to the drug. Each subject visited the testing centre twice: once to receive LSD (75 μg lower than the dose taken by recreational users) and once to receive a placebo, though the order in which these individuals received the LSD was random.
Much like Hofmann himself, test subjects reported feeling the effect of the LSD as quickly as ten minutes after the infusion, with the experience lasting for nearly eight hours in all. Several hours into the dosing, they were asked to answer a series of questions regarding their psychological wellbeing. Participants remained in the research centre for the remainder of the day with a psychiatrist present until they were functioning normally. In order to determine longer-term effects, they filled out the same questionnaires two weeks later.
Shortly after taking the drug, participants who received LSD reported an increase in psychosis-like symptoms, including visual hallucinations, spiritual experiences and paranoia. It was an outcome the researchers had expected. But interestingly, those given LSD were more likely to feel positive, and even 'blissful' emotions, as opposed to the negative and 'anxious' feelings sometimes associated with psychedelic drugs. What was even more striking was that two weeks after taking LSD, these individuals reported increased optimism and openness, making them more creative and curious, as compared with those who received the placebo.
How can a drug that creates a temporary psychosis lead to such pronounced long-term optimism? This is a mostly unanswered question, but researchers think it has something to do with the serotonin 2A receptor (5-HT2AR). This receptor is expressed all over the brain, particularly in regions associated with cognitive functions and social interactions. Stimulation of this receptor has been directly linked to cognitive flexibility, enhanced imagination and creative thinking. Disorders associated with variants of the 5-HT2AR include schizophrenia, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder – in other words, a panoply of psychiatric illness. It turns out that LSD functions by binding to and stimulating 5-HT2AR in the cerebral cortex, which is thought to regulate an enzyme called phospholipase C, and eventually leads to psychoactive effects. In fact, blockage of this receptor has been linked to a remediation of the hallucinatory effects of LSD in rats.
The precise biology behind LSD's transformational potential remains a mystery. But researchers at Imperial suggest that once LSD binds to the receptor, it's possible that the initial 'blast' of stimulation results in more intense, acute psychotic-like symptoms, whereas the longer-term effects produce a 'loosening' of network dynamics, and a general increase in optimism and wellbeing.
No one is suggesting that you illegally consume LSD to increase long-term optimism, but the study raises important questions. Could LSD one day be used to treat maladies such as major depressive disorder? Would the short-term psychological discomfort of giving an individual therapeutic LSD be worth the potential long-term benefits? Would the positive effects of LSD persist longer than two weeks? What is the physiological cascade that begins with LSD binding to 5-HT2AR activation and ends with psychological effects such as increased optimism? Is there a way to synthesise a compound that would take advantage of the beneficial aspects of LSD, while minimising the negative effects? There's only one way to find out – more scientific experiments!
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
There are many people who preach the supposed benefits of psychedelics, but none do it as well, nor as reliably, as these philosophers and scientists.
- The world is enjoying a bit of a psychedelic renaissance.
- The phenomenon of micro dosing, in which a fraction of a hit of LSD is taken to gain the supposed benefits without the hassle of hallucinations, is increasingly popular in Silicon Valley.
- Medical research into psychedelics of all kinds is also expanding and finding new beneficial uses for these drugs in the treatment of psychological disorders.
Scientific evidence for the benefit of drugs
With decades of prohibitions on research, the scientific evidence of the benefits of such drugs is limited. There are many people who preach the supposed benefits of the drugs, but few of them can be said to be philosophers or respected scientists. Here, we offer the experiences of a few real philosophers and scientists on the possible benefits of psychedelics.
Gerald Heard, a British author who wrote many books on science, history, and human consciousness, tried LSD earlier than most people, in the middle of the 1950s. His use and private praise of the possible application of the drug as a catalyst to create moments of near-religious insight caused many other intellectuals to give it a try, including his friend and our final entry on the list Aldous Huxley, and psychedelic research pioneer Timothy Leary. He described the drug like this: "There are the colors and the beauties, the designs, the beautiful way things appear... But that's only the beginning. Suddenly you notice that there aren't these separations. That we're not on a separate island shouting across to somebody else trying to hear what they are saying and misunderstanding. You know. You used the word yourself: empathy." This interview has also been sampled into the song 'Waking Bliss'.
Alan Watts, one pro-LSD philosopher
Alan Watts, the British philosopher best known for popularizing the ideas of Eastern philosophy to his Western audience, also experimented with LSD and other drugs. He saw them as being of use in offering "glimpses" to a greater spirituality, and in helping individuals understand their connection to the universe. He later concluded that, "If you get the message, hang up the phone. For psychedelic drugs are simply instruments, like microscopes, telescopes, and telephones. The biologist does not sit with eye permanently glued to the microscope, he goes away and works on what he has seen."
Sam Harris: Can psychedelics help you expand your mind?
Sam Harris, an American neuroscientist and so-called horseman of new atheism, experimented with MDMA for the mental effects rather than the physical ones. His MDMA trip resulted in a profound understanding that he was connected to every sentient being in existence. The trip was so powerful for him that it took him years to fully be able to integrate the ideas into his intellectual life.
He also mentions, despite being an advocate of secular meditation, that while meditation is useful it might not work for everybody. This is as opposed to psychoactive drugs, which will cause some effect if taken in a large enough dose. He does temper this notion, however, and states that anything you can do with psychedelics can be done without them. He does accept that he would never have supposed such an experience would be possible without the drugs, if he had not taken them initially.
Jason Silva: We're going through a psychedelic renaissance
British philosopher Aldous Huxley, best known as the author of Brave New World, experimented with psychedelic drugs in the late 1950s. His ideas on the subject are recorded in his books The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell. Huxley believed that drugs such as mescaline and LSD allowed us to view the world "as is" rather than as we normally experience it—in a way more fitting for survival. He called this manner of viewing the world the "mind at large", and argued that it was a wonderful perspective that many people would benefit from.
He also argued that every culture across time has sought some kind of chemical escape from daily life. In his opinion, psychedelics were a healthier alternative to tobacco and alcohol, achieving the goals of escape alongside psychological and mystical realizations.
However, Huxley also believed that LSD should not be popularly available, but used only by "the best and brightest". He mentions at the end of his book that drugs are not enlightenment, but merely helpful for the intellectual who might be attached to words and symbols. His occasional enjoyment of drugs lasted the rest of his life; his last words were a request to his wife to be injected with LSD before dying. She obliged him.
There are, of course, other philosophers and thinkers who tried the stuff and had things to say about it. George Carlin, Richard Feynman, and Steve Jobs for example. The less philosophically inclined who still got a great deal out of their trips and were open about it include Jimi Hendrix, Ken Kesey, Cary Grant, and George Harrison.
While all these icons of art and science disagree on the benefits of those drugs being generally available to the public, or even what those benefits are, they did converge on one thing: that the mind-bending effects are good for some people.
That's not to be interpreted as blind endorsement—Sam Harris is perhaps clearest on that when he says: "This is not to say that everyone should take psychedelics... these drugs pose certain dangers. Undoubtedly, some people cannot afford to give the anchor of sanity even the slightest tug." As the West continues to consider the pros and cons of differing chemical substances, the testimony of some intelligent and successful people must be included in any discussion.
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.
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.