The Science of Psychedelics: Should Artists Be Microdosing?

It’s no secret that psychedelics like LSD and psilocybin have long played a role in certain sects of the art world, but historically speaking the use of these substances tended to involve the occasional consumption of large doses with the intention of riding the proverbial snake through hallucinatory landscapes of inspiration. More recently, however, people from a range of artistic and professional fields have begun consuming barely noticeable doses on a regular basis with the hopes of channeling a more narrowed, steady stream of psychedelic support. This practice is called “microdosing”.

Microdosing first gained popularity amongst the tech companies of Silicon Valley, where adherents believed that by taking tiny amounts of psychedelics on a daily or at least regular basis they could boost their creativity and productivity. The hope was to glean some of the mind-expanding benefits offered by the drugs without becoming affected to the point of dysfunction.

Today microdosing has spread beyond the tech industry as people from a range of disciplines seek to indulge in its potential inspiration—artists included.

Anecdotal evidence seems to support the benefits of microdosing for artists, but with the first-ever hard studies being performed on the practice, what does science say? Can microdosing help artists with their work, or are these purported benefits just an illusion?

Microdosing Under the Microscope

The golden age of psychedelic research spanned the 1950s and 1960s, when scientists and amateur psychonauts began plumbing the therapeutic possibilities offered by the drugs, with many studies indicating strong potential for the treatment of conditions like addiction, depression, and PTSD. At the same time there was a massive push for the recognition of various cultural and artistic benefits. This was the era of when high-profile figures like Aldous Huxley, Robert Kennedy, and Cary Grant were promoting the value of psychedelics.

"One might speculate that creative occupations may benefit from microdosing, while this may not necessarily be the case for positions where analytical thinking and persistent focus is required."

Luisa Prochazkova, Leiden University

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, governments around the world had cracked down on LSD and psilocybin mushrooms, effectively pushing research underground or halting it altogether.

Then around the turn of the millennium there came a resurgence of interest on the subject. Universities and other organisations began conducting small studies, and promising results fueled more funding and larger trials. Eventually governments were forced to begrudgingly accept that there really might be something to all this psychedelic buzz, and increasing access was granted. This is all best detailed in Michael Pollan’s definitive work on the topic, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, which became a New York Times #1 bestseller.

While the majority of this research has centered around the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics, recently the first studies have begun into how these drugs affect creativity. A handful of these have specifically looked at microdosing, the results of which have illuminated great potential for artists.

Divergence, Convergence, and Creativity

The first research into the effects of microdosing on creativity was performed at Leiden University in the Netherlands. This study, which was headed by Luisa Prochazkova, involved giving participants a series of tasks before and after consuming a microdose of psychedelic mushrooms. These tasks focused on essential aspects of creativity, including convergent thinking (the ability to find a single solution to a problem), divergent thinking (the ability to find many potential solutions to a problem), and fluid intelligence (the ability to reason and solve novel problems).

“We used divergent and convergent thinking tasks which are important components of creativity and classical intelligence tasks to measure analytical thinking”, Prochazkova explained to me via email. “The results indicated that both convergent and divergent thinking performance was improved during an acute effect of a microdose, whereas performance on the intelligence test was spared. We hypothesised that this is because microdosing induces cognitive flexibility and ultimately improves the repertoire of possible representations hence improving creativity”.

In other words, the research showed that microdosing can increase one’s capacity to imagine solutions without impeding their ability to think logically: greater creativity with no loss of function.

“No impairments were found after microdose in our study. Negative impacts are a possibility after larger doses—especially for artists with history of psychotic or schizophrenic illness in their family”, said Prochazkova. “We expect that large doses of psychedelics might induce an ultra-flexible mode of brain functioning and possibly a breakdown of control while microdoses may be able to drive brain functioning towards an optimal balance between persistence and flexibility or better adaptivity between the two states. Optimal balance in cognitive control would indicate why people are able to generate many ideas but also converge on one a single correct solution”.

To put that another way, with microdoses you can wield greater control over your creative expression. Take the dose too far, however, and the paint might paint you.

So to get to the bottom line—should artists try microdosing?

“It’s a similar question as asking if someone would recommend drinking a few beers to have fun with friends. It can be useful for some individuals. Others won’t benefit from it as they may have undesirable side-effects (light headache, feel distracted, too emotional). Furthermore, it is never a good idea to rely on a substance to gain certain state of mind”, said Prochazkova.

“Overall, our study provided very preliminary evidence that microdosing may be beneficial to boost creativity, showing improvements in both divergent and convergent thinking but not analytical thinking. Thus, one might speculate that creative occupations may benefit from microdosing, while this may not necessarily be the case for positions where analytical thinking and persistent focus is required. However, this speculation is to be approached with caution as more rigorous placebo-controlled designs still have to confirm these preliminary findings”.

In the end, more study is needed, but early research is indicative that the anecdotal evidence supporting the benefits of microdosing could be true.

I myself have gone through periods of experimenting with microdosing, and these highly personalised trials have certainly provided welcome results. Not only did I find myself churning out pages of quality work, but my mood was noticeably more buoyant (which is an effect that other non-creativity-based microdosing studies have revealed). At worst there were occasions when I over-measured the dose, the outcome of which meant little to no writing, but plenty of walking around and enjoying a beautiful day.

There is one warning I’ve encountered, however, that we should perhaps heed when considering the culture around microdosing. It came from Michael Pollan, who in researching his book became an avid proponent of psychedelics, but remains wary of how our society looks at microdosing applications.

“It strikes me as a funny thing”, said Pollan. “We’ve taken this drug that is so transformative and disruptive and we’ve turned it into—with microdosing—just another productivity drug. Make you a better cog in the machine. It’s like, what would capitalism do with psychedelics? Microdosing”.

So what will we do with microdosing? Will we use it to help artists fire their creativity on all cylinders, or will it become just another way for businesses to bolster their bottom line? I, for one, hope that we can find more creative applications for the still-barely-realised potential of psychedelics.

Article written by Nick Hilden

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