New research from the Netherlands suggests that taking minuscule amounts of psilocybin in a "microdose" may improve both convergent and divergent thinking in ways that promote cognitive flexibility, creativity, and single-solution problem-solving.
A typical psychedelic dose of psilocybin, which is found in “magic mushrooms” and “magic truffles," for someone with average body weight, is about 3.5* grams when the mushroom or truffle is dried; a microdose is roughly 1/10th of a hallucinogenic dosage. (*Note: There is ongoing debate about "typical" vs. "strong" psychedelic doses and microdoses of psilocybin. For more information on dosing see "What's the Right Psychedelic Mushrooms Dosage?" and "The Vaults of Erowid.")
The latest study (2018) on microdosing psychedelics led by Luisa Prochazkova of the Cognitive Psychology Unit & Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition at Leiden University, “Exploring the Effect of Microdosing Psychedelics on Creativity in an Open-Label Natural Setting," was published on October 25 in the journal Psychopharmacology.
In describing their new study, Prochazkova and co-authors said:
"Taken together, our results suggest that consuming a microdose of [psychedelic] truffles allowed participants to create more out-of-the-box alternative solutions for a problem, thus providing preliminary support for the assumption that microdosing improves divergent thinking."
Before diving into the latest evidence-based findings on the potential mind-altering benefits of microdosing approximately .35 grams (350 milligrams) of psilocybin truffles, I want to share my personal experience of accidentally “overdosing” on psilocybin. This anecdotal, first-person narrative is shared here as a cautionary tale for anyone considering using psilocybin. My personal experience-based warning is to pay very close attention to the exact number of milligrams you're ingesting as correlated with a specific psychedelics’ dose-response.
"I'm Having a Really Bad Trip . . . I Wanna Come Down Right Now."
As a teenager, I smoked a lot of pot, drank lots of alcohol, and took psychedelic drugs on two occasions. My first experience on psilocybin was life-changing in the most consciousness-raising and transcendent way. Unfortunately, my thrill-seeking high school friends and I didn’t know anything about dosing psychedelics and gobbled down magic mushrooms like we were at an all-you-can-eat salad bar.
For the record: If you are planning to ingest any type of psychedelic, please proceed with caution and be hyper-vigilant about how many milligrams of psilocybin you’re consuming in relation to your body weight, amount of food in your stomach, and general tolerance levels.
Luckily, after naïvely scarfing down a large palmful of magic mushrooms for my first psychedelic trip when I was 16, I experienced the “mystic crystal revelations, and the mind’s true liberation” you hear about in LSD-referencing songs like “Age of Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” from the 1968 hippie-era musical Hair. My initial experience with psilocybin facilitated the eye-opening hallucinogenic phenomena described by William Blake when he wrote, “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.”
On the bright side, I credit my exposure to psilocybin as a drug-abusing teenager with my ongoing pursuit as a sober adult to achieve a drug-free state of what I call “superfluidity” in which one's thoughts, actions, and emotions are perfectly harmonized without any friction, viscosity, or entropy. (See “What Driving Force Helps Us Go from 'Flow' to Superfluidity?")
Because my initial experience with magic mushrooms was so amazing, before taking psilocybin for the second time, a little daredevil voice in my adolescent head whispered, “Why not double your pleasure by taking twice as much?” So, the second (and last) time I took psychedelics, I consumed two big palmfuls of magic mushrooms. About a half-hour later, this resulted in a petrifyingly spooky bad trip. Again, for the record: Taking too many milligrams of any psychedelic drug is a big mistake.
As I describe in the autobiographical passage from The Athlete’s Way below, having a cataclysmic “bad trip” felt like the architecture of my mind was being completely rearranged in ways that might force me to spend the rest of my life in a mental institution. Ingesting over 15 grams of psilocybin mushrooms completely dissolved my sense of self to a point where nothing made sense and reality ceased to exist. I was trapped in this terrifying reality-free abyss of nothingness for hours on end and thought my brain would never be the same again.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever had a bad trip, but it feels like all the tumblers in your brain are turning and reconfiguring; unlocking doors that should stay shut, closing windows that should stay open, all the while re-etching the blueprints of your psyche and the foundation of your soul. Psilocybin fuses your synapses into new configurations, permanently rearranging the architecture of your mind.” —Christopher Bergland, The Athlete’s Way
When I had a classic bad trip after ingesting way too much psilocybin on a completely empty stomach, I felt like Major Tom, who is the “psychonautic” protagonist in David Bowie’s songs “Space Oddity” and “Ashes to Ashes.” As my bad trip kept going on and on and on... during fleeting moments of being lucid enough to actually use language, all I could do was hum and mumble the lyrics, “Want an ax to break the ice. Wanna come down right now. Hitting an all-time low.”
Suffice to say: Psilocybin is powerful stuff. In fact, as someone who is prone to substance abuse, having a really bad trip on magic mushrooms was a catalyst for turning my life around. After tripping my brains out and thinking my mind would never recover from consuming excessive amounts of psilocybin, I was so grateful to feel lucid and clear-headed again. I made a vow to stop drinking, abstain from smoking weed, and never take a microgram of psilocybin again. Aerobic exercise became my “drug of choice” and I started self-medicating with finely-tuned doses of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) that helped me optimize my mental health. (See "Aerobic Exercise Has Clinically-Proven Antidepressant Powers.")
As someone who fell in love with running during my process of giving up drugs, I discovered through first-hand experience that aerobic exercise triggers the production of endogenous mind-altering substances (e.g., endocannabinoids, endorphins, dopamine) that make me feel good and never fail to get my creative juices going.
Although this post is inspired by a pioneering new study that has identified a possible link between microdoses of psilocybin and creativity, as a public health advocate, I would never prescribe microdosing psychedelics as a way to improve cognitive flexibility on a regular basis. In my opinion, sustained aerobic activity and bipedal motion (such as walking) are readily-accessible and underutilized ways to facilitate divergent thinking and fluid intelligence without the use of exogenous drugs.
That being said, despite my bias against the recreational use of any type of drug, there is growing empirical evidence suggesting that using psychedelic substances, such as psilocybin, LSD, and ayahuasca in supervised and controlled medical settings may offer effective alternatives to currently available pharmaceuticals for treating a wide range of mental health issues. (See “Psilocybin May 'Reset' Brain Circuitry of Depressed Patients: Magic Mushrooms May Kick-Start Recovery from Treatment-Resistant Depression.”)
On October 23, 2018, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) designated psilocybin as potential “Breakthrough Therapy” as part of an upcoming international study on psilocybin-assisted therapy by Compass Pathways for patients with treatment-resistant depression (TRD). Compass Pathways was founded in 2016 as a consortium designed to accelerate patient access to evidence-based innovations in mental health.
The recent “breakthrough therapy” designation for psilocybin comes amid a so-called “psychedelic renaissance" and could lead to the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms" and “psychedelic truffles” being approved by the FDA for medical use in the United States. In a statement, George Goldsmith of Compass Pathways said, "This is great news for patients. We are excited to be taking this work forward with our clinical trial on psilocybin therapy for treatment-resistant depression. The FDA will be working closely with us to expedite the development process and increase the chances of getting this treatment to people suffering with depression as quickly as possible."
Microdosing Psilocybin May Improve Divergent Thinking and Creativity
Let's get back to the pioneering new study on the effects of microdosing psychedelic truffles by Prochazkova et al. (2018). Although there's lots of anecdotal evidence about the "mind-expanding" powers of psilocybin, clinical research is relatively rare. For this study, Prochazkova and colleagues set out to investigate how a microdose of a psychedelic substance (.33 grams of dried "psilocybin truffles" for average body weight) affected cognitive brain function in 36 study participants who were attending a conference organized by the Psychedelic Society of The Netherlands (PSN).
The mission statement of PSN says:
“We promote the safe, informed and responsible use of psychedelics and altered states of consciousness to support healing, personal growth and the evolution of culture. We aim to foster a positive image of psychedelics and advocate for their safe, informed and socially constructive use. We believe psychedelics are an integral part of the evolution of human consciousness, making apparent the sacredness and interconnectedness of all things, generating greater creative inspiration and fostering unity at a time when humanity appears increasingly divided and cut off from our wider ecosystem.”
Previous research has found that typical doses of psychedelics containing enough milligrams to trigger hallucinogenic responses target serotonergic 5-HT2A receptors in the brain and can disrupt “normality” in ways that promote cognitive flexibility and divergent thinking, which often leads to creative insights. Prochazkova and her team believe that microdosing may be a way for people to experience the creative benefits of psychedelic drugs without the risk of experiencing the "bad trips" that can be triggered by high doses of psychoactive hallucinogens.
The new study by Prochazkova et al. is the first of its kind to investigate how very small amounts of a psychedelic drug influence three cognitive domains: (1) convergent thinking (e.g., the identification of a single solution to a problem), (2) divergent thinking (e.g., the ability to recognize many possible solutions), and (3) fluid intelligence (e.g., the capacity to reason and solve new problems.)
"We found that both convergent and divergent thinking performance was improved after a non-blinded microdose [of psilocybin], whereas fluid intelligence was unaffected," the authors said.
Prochazkova is optimistic that her team's latest findings will lead to more research into the potential benefits of microdosing psychedelics. "Apart from its benefits as a potential cognitive enhancement technique, microdosing could be further investigated for its therapeutic efficacy to help individuals who suffer from rigid thought patterns or behavior such as individuals with depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder," she said.
The authors conclude:
"While this study provides quantitative support for the cognitive-enhancing properties of microdosing psychedelics, future research has to confirm these preliminary findings in more rigorous placebo-controlled study designs. Based on these preliminary results, we speculate that psychedelics might affect cognitive meta-control policies by optimizing the balance between cognitive persistence and flexibility. We hope this study will motivate future microdosing studies with more controlled designs to test this hypothesis."
Luisa Prochazkova, Dominique P. Lippelt, Lorenza S. Colzato, Martin Kuchar, Zsuzsika Sjoerds, Bernhard Hommel. "Exploring the Effect of Microdosing Psychedelics on Creativity in an Open-Label Natural Setting." Psychopharmacology (First published online: October 25, 2018) DOI: 10.1007/s00213-018-5049-7
Robin L. Carhart-Harris, Leor Roseman, Mark Bolstridge, Lysia Demetriou, J Nienke Pannekoek, Matthew B Wall, Mark Tanner, Mendel Kaelen, John McGonigle, Kevin Murphy, Robert Leech, H Valerie Curran, and David J Nutt. "Psilocybin for Treatment-Resistant Depression: fMRI-Measured Brain Mechanisms." Scientific Reports. (First published online: October 13, 2017) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-13282-7