Is LSD the new coffee?

Tyagarajan S July 4, 2017

Story Highlights

  • The collective gaze of Silicon Valley has fallen on a new “platform” to play around with: the human body and mind, and pharmacological tools are a big part of it
  • Slowly, but surely, psychedelics are shuffling from the cord-cutting-with-reality recreational camp into the personal improvement camp
  • Could the microdosing movement reframe the world view on psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin? Will it become as common as coffee?

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings caused a flutter last year when he said that in the future, entertainment could be replaced by pharmacological substitutes (read pills). Why make visual and auditory stories when they can be generated directly in your head?

Anyone who has tuned into Silicon Valley’s heartbeat wouldn’t be surprised. In the recent past, the collective gaze of the Valley has fallen on a new “platform” to play around with: the human body and mind, and pharmacological tools are a big part of it.

Unlike Reed Hasting’s vision of recreation, Silicon Valley’s chemical obsession is in pursuit of “hacking” the mind beyond its limits. Startup warriors in the Valley are wielding pharmacological weaponry in their battle for supremacy in the domain.

The newest trend, however, involves chemistry with a coloured past — psychedelics. This time around, psychedelics may have less to do with astral planes and more to do with the mundanity of work. Is this the beginning of a new trip for all of us?

Breakfast, then LSD

They call it microdosing. Reams have been written about it, but here’re some basic facts:

LSD, psilocybin (street name: magic mushrooms) and marijuana are the usual weapons of choice. A microdose is about 15-20 micrograms, about a fifth of the recreational dose that causes you to “trip”. It doesn’t stop you from engaging in your daily routine. You don’t “switch off” from reality. Instead, you become sharper, creative and more social.

At least, that’s how the anecdotes go.

A microdose is about 15-20 micrograms, about a fifth of the recreational dose that causes you to “trip”. It doesn’t stop you from engaging in your daily routine. You don’t “switch off” from reality. Instead, you become sharper, creative and more social

If all this sounds extremely unscientific, it is. Today, microdosing is more a fad but it’s fast becoming a reality. Startup founders, CEOs, programmers, designers, etc are all taking little doses of psychedelics, some daily and others once in a few days, and claiming positive results. Stories from microdosers claiming that it has helped them solve a difficult problem or crack a complex game level are common.

Interest in the trend is on the rise. The microdosing subreditt today has more than 17,000 subscribers compared to a couple of thousands back in 2015. A search for microdosing books on Amazon throws up more than 20 results with titles such as The New Psychedelic Revolution: The Genesis of the Visionary Age and A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life.

Google trends- microdosing
Google trends on microdosing. Source: Google Trends

One of the more popular books is The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide: Safe, Therapeutic, and Sacred Journeys by James Fadiman, the man who may have laid the roots of the current microdosing trend.

Fadiman’s history with psychedelics is long. In 1966, he published a study linking creative thinking and hallucinogens. But what kickstarted the current trend was his microdosing “cheat sheet” —  a manual for interested users — that he created in 2010. And his book documenting the benefits.

He was peeling off from the suggestion of Albert Hoffman, the father of LSD who lived to a prime age of 102 years, that small doses of the substance have a positive impact on mental health. Fadiman has since been building an informal study group and receiving user reports documenting the effects of microdosing since.

Claims such as “lost my usual anxiety” and “more focused and in tune” are common to find in forums discussing the experience of microdosing  

The majority of the feedback from his study is positive. Users report an uptick in performance and mood. Blogs and tech media are filled with magical stories of improvement in mental alertness and happiness levels. Claims such as “lost my usual anxiety” and “more focused and in tune” are common to find in forums discussing the experience of microdosing.

It’s part of a larger trend. A trend of using nootropics, biohacking and numerous other calibrated lifestyle “hacks” in an attempt to achieve an ideal physical and mental state. Can this bring psychedelics out of the shadows and into the mainstream?

A long and psychedelic history

Humans and psychedelics go back a long way. Our history of the last 10,000 years is dotted with close contact with psychedelics like opium, mescaline, cannabis and magic mushrooms. They were cultivated and used everywhere from South america to Europe to Asia.

Some even believe that psychedelics could have aided in some major cognitive milestones in culture, society and religion. Closer home, the Vedas contain copious references to the sacred, ritualistic “soma”, a potion that can provide a lightness of being, wisdom and happiness (in some cases immortality). Psychedelic-led transcendence have been part of spiritual experiences around the world.

Also read: Boheco wants to weed out the stigma around this cannabis cousin

But in the modern era, psychedelics exploded into our consciousness in the mid-nineties after Albert Hoffman synthesised LSD in his lab in 1938. After two decades of gestating in research labs and in elite homes, psychedelics flamed out into the world in the early sixties.

In the counter-culture era, psychedelics became a way of life. “Turn off your mind, relax, and float downstream,” sang John Lennon, cajoling his listeners to cut the cord with the boring reality. Writers, singers and musicians exhorted the capability of the drug to produce revelations. Rock ‘n’ roll put psychedelics on steroids.

grateful dead album cover
Grateful dead is not just a psychedelic band of choice for many, the rise of the band was closely entwined with the rise of psychedelics as part of counter-culture. ©Grateful Dead

It escalated quickly and occasionally things went wrong. The public panicked. Governments reacted with bans and strict regulations. But despite the controls, psychedelics continued influencing art and music. They became synonymous with breaking the shackles of big government, big military and big corporates.

But, they had a huge brand problem as they came to be linked with the strange, excessive culture of the 60s and 70s. That was, until, they found their way into a new cult that was (perhaps unknown then) designing more powerful addictions for the coming millennia using technology.

People are organic machines that can be fine-tuned for magical perfection. This is the thought process that drives Silicon Valley’s persistent attempts at pushing the limits of its own mental prowess  

Thus began the revival of brand psychedelics in the circuits of Silicon Valley.

A new wave of psychedelics

People are organic machines that can be fine-tuned for magical perfection. This is the thought process that drives Silicon Valley’s persistent attempts at pushing the limits of its own mental prowess. Its position as the dispenser of world-changing innovations has amped up the intellect as the most-valued resource of the modern era.

The rock stars of the modern age wore turtlenecks and hoodies, built personal computers and eclipsed even the Beatles in their fan following. For these demi-gods and those working with them, expanding the mind became a necessity and they turned to chemistry. Steve Jobs spoke in glowing terms about how LSD helped open up his mind and improve thinking.

steve-jobs-1

Slowly, but surely, psychedelics are shuffling from the cord-cutting-with-reality recreational camp into the personal improvement camp. There’s increasing evidence that LSD and some other psychedelics may be less dangerous than cigarettes and alcohol.

Over the last 20 years, the US Food and drug administration (FDA) has approved research on the medical and therapeutic effects of psychedelics with promising results. LSD could have a positive impact in treating anxiety in patients with terminal illness, post-traumatic stress disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorders. One study found that psychedelics could help reduce domestic violence among those with substance abuse problems. Another medical trial study in the UK is attempting to understand if LSD in small doses can cure depression.

Slowly, but surely, psychedelics are shuffling from the cord-cutting-with-reality recreational camp into the personal improvement camp. There’s increasing evidence that LSD and some other psychedelics may be less dangerous than cigarettes and alcohol  

Yet, evidence is thin and dosing psychedelics for cognitive enhancements is even less understood. The fact that the Fadiman’s unscientific study based on self-reported results may be the largest body of research on this subject says something.

Governments and corporates have been largely unwilling to fund research even from a clinical benefits point of view. When the UK government’s chief advisor on drugs, David Nutt, spoke positively about drugs and their clinical benefits, he was fired, leading him to claim that the way governments ban research on drugs is akin to the wrath Galileo faced from Catholic church for his research.

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But dramatics aside, there’s been a steady chipping away of the taboos surrounding mind-altering substances. The legalisation and regulation of cannabis in the US is a case in point. UK, Thailand, New Zealand, Canada and more countries are soon to follow.

Could the microdosing movement reframe the world view on psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin? Will it become as common as sipping on coffee for stimulation?

When it comes to psychedelics, it’s the fear of the unknown that keeps us circumspect. And there’s only one place that’s made an attempt to imagine a future with them: science fiction.

A strange new world

We’ve obviously got to talk about Brave New World. Aldous Huxley’s nightmarish future where drugs and technology make us all sheep to be controlled by the powerful elite resonantes with possibility. Soma, the happiness drug in the story, disconnected people from reality, poisoned them and softened critical thinking.

Soma-1

Yet, a couple of decades after he wrote the novel, Aldous Huxley himself got sucked into the world of psychedelics (first mescaline, then LSD). He wrote about his experiences in the book The Doors of Perception where his tone had changed into one of appreciation of the ability of psychedlics to offer new insights. Huxley became such a proponent of the substance that he requested he be injected with LSD on his death bed.

Does this mean his dystopian imagination was unfounded? Or was it an ironic display of the very dystopia with Huxley becoming a slave to the drug?

The spectre of a Brave New World rises whenever we hear about using drugs for “moral improvement”. Prozac is known to reduce aggression and oxytocin increases empathy. If drugs could reduce deviant behaviour like violence, racism, etc, and governments get increasingly interested in them, will they be used as a tool of control? Perhaps they can start by chemically correcting those in the prison system.

Other writers have written about drugs causing altered world views. Philip K Dick, who employed psychedelics personally and as a plot device, often painted mind-bending escapes that hopped between transcendental knowledge to revelation of dark and decayed emotional states. His book, A Scanner Darkly, however, is a descend into the hell caused by drugs — a dire warning on what substance abuse could cause.

Prozac is known to reduce aggression and oxytocin increases empathy. If drugs could reduce deviant behaviour like violence, racism, etc, and governments get increasingly interested in them, will they be used as a tool of control  

Frank Herbert, the American science fiction writer best known for Dune, employed drugs as powerful tools that could generate prophetic visions and bend space-time in the series. He too, was not restricting psychedelics to just his novels.

Which of these worlds will psychedelics help create? A dark, dystopian one where we’re without control or one that provides us with elevated perceptiveness.

Stanislaw Lem, who outdoes Philip K Dick in mind-bendery in his book The Futurological Congress: From the Memoirs of Ijon Tichy, paints a world that’s solved most of its problems with pharmacology. It feels utopian and dystopian at the same time. Which is the point Lem makes.

Imagine if someone from the past gets a glimpse of the things we do in the modern era. They’d see us driving around poison-spewing, people-crushing metal monsters that zip on our roads. Or, look at us staring into screens all day long, lost and hooked. It may well seem like a complete dystopian nightmare. Yet, for those living it, it wouldn’t nearly be as frightening.

We have some way to go before we’ll all be shooting down smoothies laced with LSD. Could such small sub-psychoactive doses even make a difference? It is all just a placebo effect? What if we develop tolerance for small doses, leading to escalated dosing? Could we develop an addiction from prolonged use, leading to dependence?

Science needs to catch up and give answers. Given our long history with psychedelics, perhaps it is time.