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Microdosing Hallucinogens Has Positive Effects—but Not What You Might Suspect

The first rigorous study of the practice finds it conveys benefits like reducing mental distress, but also increases neuroticism.
Tabs of LSD on a quarter.

Tabs of LSD on a quarter. A recent study on the effects of microdosing hallucinogens found the practice can reduce mental distress but does not increase mindfulness. 

Belying its name, microdosing has enjoyed a macro dose of publicity over the past few years. The practice of ingesting tiny amounts of hallucinogenic substances has been widely touted as a way to increase productivity, creativity, and all-around mental and emotional health. It is reportedly the rage in Silicon Valley; GQ called it "the drug habit your boss is going to love."

But does it actually work? The first-ever empirical study of its effects, just published in the online journal PLoS One, provides a mixed answer. The study finds microdosing does appear to produce several positive effects—but not exactly the ones that have been so widely peddled.

"Although popular accounts of microdosing describe sustained boosts in productivity and creativity, the longer-term effects we identified mainly involved reduced mental distress, and changes in constructs such as absorption and mind-wandering," write researchers Vince Polito and Richard J. Stevenson of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. "This suggests that microdosing may lead to more subtle changes characterized by improvements in mental stability, the capacity to sustain attention, and increased ability to engage in intense imaginative experiences."

While those effects are generally positive—and arguably antecedents to productivity and creativity—the practice of microdosing was also linked to increased neuroticism, which is notable given that the trait is usually quite stable. This "may reflect an overall increase in the intensity of emotions—both positive and negative," the researchers write.

Polito and Stevenson recruited participants for the six-week-long study via posts on online communities of microdosers. Interestingly, the people they recruited were highly educated, with 71 percent having a postgraduate degree.

Ninety-eight participants sent in daily reports. Each day, they were asked if they had microdosed the day before, and if so with what specific substance. (The vast majority chose either LSD or psilocybin.)

Then the participants estimated, on a five-point scale, their feelings of connectedness, contemplation, creativity, focus, happiness, productivity, and overall well-being. Researchers compared scores for the day of dosing, versus those for one or two days afterwards. (Following a protocol often mentioned in online posts, many in the study chose to microdose every third day.)

Sixty-three of the participants also completed a detailed post-study questionnaire, which was used to complete a longer-term analysis of the drug's effects. They took a battery of tests designed to measure depression and anxiety, mindfulness, creativity, and overall quality of life, along with a standard personality analysis.

The daily ratings revealed there was "a significant increase from baseline on dosing days for all measures." While that's impressive, "this effect was not maintained on the day following dosing for any measures." This suggests that, contrary to commonly held beliefs, microdosing's effects mostly wear off rather quickly.

Over the six weeks, "participants reported significant improvements in mood," the researchers write. "Depression and stress decreased over the study period. Mind-wandering decreased significantly, indicating that participants were better able to maintain their focus after microdosing."

Participants also reported increased feelings of absorption, responding positively to statements like "When I listen to music, I can get so caught up in it that I don't notice anything else." This suggests they "became more involved in imaginative experiences after microdosing."

That said, microdosing did not affect all psychological functions. "We did not identify any changes on measures of mindfulness, mystical experience, positive personality traits, sense of agency, or overall quality of life," the researchers note.

This might come as a surprise to some who've taken up the practice. In a follow-up study, "263 naïve and experienced microdosers" believed microdosing would have large and wide-ranging benefits, far greater than the limited changes experienced by participants in the main study. "The effects (they believed they would experience) were unrelated to the observed pattern of reported outcomes," the researchers write.

Polito and Stevenson caution that this is "very much a preliminary and exploratory study," based entirely on self-reports. Their sample "may underestimate individuals with negative or ambivalent experiences," they note.

Nevertheless, the results suggests that, while microdosing may be over-hyped, it does offer genuine and lasting benefits. Sometimes small quantities can help you access valuable qualities.