It’s a typical Monday morning for Michael Angel. At 7 a.m., he sits in the opulent kitchen of his 30th floor Upper East Side apartment overlooking the Manhattan skyline and eats his daily serving of Fage yogurt. He walks over to the freezer and takes out a tiny piece of paper and places it on his tongue, following the twice-weekly habit he’s had for the last six months. He waits for a few minutes, allowing the pre-soaked solution to absorb into his tongue and slowly flow into his bloodstream, allowing the escape of the fine molecules of LSD to hit his brain. He then swallows the paper; he’s eaten worse on the weekends.
As he exits his lobby, he sees your otherwise average morning crowd: women drinking espressos, people walking their dogs. But they have hollowed looks in their eyes, as if they’re recovering from doing too many lines of coke the night before, or too much Xanax. That’s because many are. A weekend in the Hamptons—along with all the all the comfort that comes with living in one of the richest zip codes in the world—does not buy happiness. Unlike his neighbors, though, Angel walks with a sense of ease. He is ready to tackle the day.
Today, a renaissance of hallucinogen drug use is fueling creatives from Silicon Valley to New York City as part of a bigger movement called biohacking. Geoff Woo, the CEO of Nootrobox, a popular legal biohacking supplement, describes the culture as driven by techies who apply systems design thinking toward their biological shortcomings. The idea of biohacking is to be precise and analytical about one’s own biology, have more autonomy and take back power into one’s own hands versus giving all authority to a doctor. Biohackers believe they have access to the same knowledge as medical professionals via “systems monitoring” and that, because each individual has a unique biology, the best person to figure it out is the subject, not the doctor.
Doctors, like consultants, are helpful, but the person who lives in his or her own body 24/7 has the resources and ability to know far more. Woo, for example, monitors his glucose levels through a tiny implant, the Freestyle Libre monitor, because sugar is evil stuff. Once it’s embedded under his skin on the back of his arm, the monitor transmits data via bluetooth. Originally designed for diabetics, anyone can order a Freestyle Libre online and many insurance companies cover its cost, making it widely accessible. Just order online, open the box and place the sensor (a bit bigger than a nicotine patch) onto your skin. A tiny needle pricks into your dermis and you are wired up. Loads of YouTube videos claim it doesn’t hurt one bit. Woo, whose team also uses this technology, follows strict weekly regimens, which include a 36-hour fast.
Change an aspect of your physiology, minimize variables, monitor the results, analyze the data and tweak again. Rinse. Repeat.
In sum, biohacking comes down to this: change an aspect of your physiology, minimize variables, monitor the results, analyze the data and tweak again. Geekify the human body. Rinse. Repeat. Besides diet control and taking nootropics, or pills that increase congnitive functions and are bought online, biohackers also tweak their routines with different types of exercises, meditations and sleep patterns. They even use LSD, like Michael Angel. Enter microdosing.
Microdosing involves taking tiny doses (1/10th of a normal dose, or .00001999 of a teaspoon) of LSD or psilocybin every few days to enhance cognitive performance. Taking LSD everyday might cause tolerance, and taking too much would send the user or on a bona-fide trip. Think Limitless, not Alice in Wonderland. As a report in the New York Times notes, these levels are intended to be sub-perceptual—"too small to inspire Technicolor hallucinations, but large enough to enhance a sense of mental flow.“
Discovered in the 1930s by mystical scientist Albert Hofmann, LSD and psilocybin, the psychedelic compound in mushrooms, gained momentum for decades in therapeutic settings as a mode of treatment. Then hippies and 1960s counterculture co-opted them for groovy trips of self-discovery drowned in a world of serenading colors. The government soon after banned LSD, classifying it as a Schedule I substance and preventing further medical or therapeutic research.
Today, as biohacking increases in Silicon Valley and anywhere else where creativity gets commodified, so does the popularity of microdosing, especially as a replacement for Adderall. Long popular on Ivy League campuses and in the startup world, Adderall leaves a nasty hangover of emotional numbness, insomnia, panic attacks and trips to the emergency room. Adderall also acts on dopamine receptors, which makes it crazy addictive, and has spawned an entire generation of people using it as a smart drug versus its medical use: to control ADD and ADHD.
James Fadiman is a preeminent researcher of microdosing. Because both LSD and magic mushrooms are Schedule 1 drugs, few studies on them exist, with the most having 15 participants. In 2011, Fadiman published the first research on microdosing, which garnered media attention from every major outlet. Now, Fadiman’s latest crowd-sourced study has garnered 1,500 participants from Berlin, London, Finland, Venezuela, Iran and even remote towns in India. Fadiman is planning on uploading the research online to make it open-source so all may benefit from the data. Having data of this quantity will be a game changer for both the medical community and the intelligentsia of psychonauts and biohackers.
Microdosing not only enhances cognitive performance, but cures a multitude of problems such as depression, headaches and low sex drive.
Through his research, Fadiman ascertained that microdosing not only enhances cognitive performance, but has a normalizing effect on the body and cures a multitude of problems such as depression, headaches, low sex drive, menstrual cramps and migraines. He says that the longest user in his studies has microdosed for 16 years and is “functioning extremely well.” The majority of prescription drugs act by changing one aspect in the mind or body; Fadiman suspects microdosing works so well because it works on the entire body holistically and treats specific ailments abnormal in that user. He says it’s like Vitamin D, affecting all systems of the body in ways we haven’t completely grasped.
Angel, the Manhattanite, is a tech wiz and banking entrepreneur who built a $10 million business in nine months. He speculates his microdosing ritual is a direct cause of his success. When he microdoses, he says, he becomes acutely aware of details and can see, understand and solve complex problems by seeing connections that didn’t exist before. He describes this feeling as being in a state of flow, or “in the zone,” and that it’s accessible throughout his day. Work that would normally take days started taking hours.
It is precisely because of this edge—and the rampant media coverage of success stories—that a flock of users is growing in Silicon Valley, where there is intense pressure to perform. Tim Ferriss, a Silicon Valley investor and famed author of The 4-Hour Workweek has said, "The billionaires I know, almost without exception, use hallucinogens on a regular basis.”
Paul Austin, a successful entrepreneur turned microdosing advocate, surmises the utility of microdosing is that it’s not just effective in achieving the “flow state,” but that it helps entrepreneurs unlearn something. In Silicon Valley, where the mantra is Fail hard, fail fast and fail often, it’s important to be able to re-examine your product or market by absorbing new knowledge while purging the old from your thought process. With microdosing, the critical un-learning process becomes honed; ideas come together and memory recall, a coveted aspect of biohacking, becomes significantly easier. Bad data out, good data in. Operating system upgraded.
Besides cognitive improvement, microdosing aids in emotional regulation. Austin suggests because serotonin levels increase with microdosing (but without the “Black Tuesday” crash associated with MDMA and other drugs), thoughts literally change. “Serotonin accelerates destruction of negative thought patterns and allows for a rebuilding of positive thoughts.” Angel says his relationships have “evolved”; he feels more emotionally sensitive and can freely express gratitude and love, which has impacted his intimate relationships profoundly.
Angel says his relationships have ‘evolved’; he feels more emotionally sensitive.
Changes in neural pathways then impact the life of users because they begin to make positive changes in their lives. Indeed, in Fadiman’s latest research, participants report significant lifestyle changes such as giving up alcohol, taking on self-care routines like exercise and meditation and becoming hyper organized with their physical spaces.
Austin adds that microdosing helps with impulse control because users become more mindful and present. By not being fixated in the past, anger is released. By not focusing on the future, anxiety is gone. By being in the present, there is greater joy in each moment, which domino effects into productivity.. “There is a sense of incongruence between our values and what’s going on in the world. Microdosing allows you to re-examine that and make that a reality in our subjective experiences.”
At the end of the day, there is no actual evidence, clinical trials or a stamp of approval from mainstream institutions that shows microdosing works. As passionate as Austin is, he cautions against doing it long-term since there isn’t enough longitudinal data yet to know if it’s safe.
The evidence is primarily anecdotal, even if there is much of it and even if it’s compelling. Matt Johnson, a psychologist at Johns Hopkins University, has studied the behavioral effects of psychedelic drugs and believes such reported effects are plausible. However, there is the risk of placebo effect. Johnson likens microdosing to the caffeinated rush from a cup of coffee. “It falls within that category of barely perceptible, and it’s right in a range where people can so easily fool themselves.”
Dr. Eshan Ali, a Beverly Hills doctor with a robust celebrity clientele, including Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Charlie Sheen, and Lana Del Rey, also thinks microdosing is susceptible to the placebo effect. He has a lot of patients who have tried microdosing and doesn’t see a huge improvement. “People state they either don’t notice anything or just a touch of enhanced mood and productivity.” The majority of his patients who have experimented with microdosing end up sticking with Adderall, which he suspects is a better choice, especially since it’s backed by hard science.
The long-term effects of microdosing is still uncharted territory, but with the gaining momentum and body of research, we may soon have answers to the biggest health challenges of humanity and the most complex problems riddling Silicon Valley and beyond.