Its hallucinogenic heyday certainly left its mark on art and culture. Psychedelics have inspired the work of artists, writers and musicians for over 60 years, and their creative influence has not gone unnoticed.
These substances are no longer limited to a counterculture. Psychedelics infiltrate modern medicine and revolutionize psychiatric practice, but their effect on creativity lingers. We are now seeing an increase in the use of psychedelics in the workplace, in the form of microdosing.
It's where science meets art: can microdosing inspire creativity?
What is microdosing?
Microdosing is the consumption of subhallucinogenic doses of psychedelic substances, especially LSD and psilocybin-containing 'magic mushrooms'. A microdose is about one-tenth of a standard recreational dose; it's not enough to trigger a psychedelic trip, but perhaps enough to subtly alter our cognitive ability.
The clinical potential of using high doses of psychedelics has long been explored. Since the fifties, LSD showed promise in the treatment of alcoholism and addiction. Psilocybin can be effective in treating depression, existential anxiety and many more mental disorders. Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy is on the cusp of success and clinical interest in these drugs is increasing.
Unlike the use of high-dose psychedelics, reliable, peer-reviewed research on the effects of microdosing is lacking, but that doesn't stop people from trying it for themselves.
Microdosing is gaining popularity, but why do people do it? Some people find that a psychedelic microdose can relieve symptoms of anxiety or depression. Others find it improves their productivity and concentration. But perhaps the most common reason for microdosing is to stimulate creativity.
Psychedelics give creativity space
Psychedelic trips are accompanied by wild and prodigious hallucinations, arguably the pinnacle of inner creativity. This psychedelic experience has inspired artists around the world for decades. In fact, LSD's influence on musicians in the 60s, including the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Pink Floyd, led to the emergence of psychedelic subgenres of music.
Creativity is the use of our imagination to generate new ideas. It is both subjective and situational, which makes it rather difficult to define experimentally. Some would even say that creativity is the antithesis and counterpart of science.
Scientists are determined to understand creativity in the brain. A recent study found that a single dose of psilocybin increased spontaneous creative thinking during cognitive tasks. Participants gained more insight and were able to generate more new ideas even a week after the first dose. Does the same apply to microdosing? This is what researchers are trying to find out.
Microdosing and creativity: the proof
Silicon Valley, the center of high-tech companies such as Apple, Google and Meta, is arguably one of the largest case studies of microdosing. Professionals have turned to LSD and psilocybin to boost their creativity and advance their careers, claiming that microdosing is the ultimate productivity hack.
There is even data to back this up. Studies of microdosers have shown that both current and former microdosers exhibit more creativity, open-mindedness and wisdom than non-microdosers. In an analysis of 278 microdosers, improved creativity was reported by nearly 13% of participants and was the third most reported benefit, after improved mood and focus.
To date, only one study has directly examined the effect of microdosing on creativity. Published in Psychopharmacology in 2018, researchers examined how psilocybin-containing truffles changed the performance of 36 participants during various tasks. After the microdose, participants showed greater out-of-the-box thinking, more original problem-solving ideas, and greater fluency and flexibility in their creative thoughts.
However, as an 'open-label' study, the participants knew what they were taking. The study was also conducted on members of the Psychedelic Society, who may have already been aware of the reported benefits of microdosing. So there is nothing to say that the results that were seen were not just an example of the placebo effect.
Several double-blind, placebo-controlled studies — the gold standard of experimental design — have shown the effects of microdosing on creativity, if anything at all subtle. The science still has a long way to go, but it appears that the effects of microdosing are less clear-cut than previously thought.
Plea for mental clarity
A calm mind is the key to unlocking creativity. When our anxious thoughts are loud, our creative mind is silenced. As anecdotal reports suggest, microdosing psychedelics can help relieve stress and anxiety. And since stress is the ultimate creativity killer, microdosing could help reverse this.
Creativity may be difficult to measure experimentally, but stress is not. Researchers have shown that microdoses of the psychedelic DMT can alleviate anxiety in animal models. If similar results are found in humans, microdosing psychedelics could promote a state of calm and mental clarity that could help us access an infinite reservoir of creativity.
The future of microdosing
Attitudes towards psychedelic drugs are changing. As the evidence for psychedelic therapy piles up, many are riding the wave of the psychedelic renaissance in the form of microdosing.
Despite reports that microdosing improves productivity and creativity in the workplace, HR departments are not quick to recommend magic mushrooms. Psychedelics, including LSD and psilocybin, remain Class A and Schedule 1 drugs in the UK. Possession and supply are illegal, even in small quantities, so it's important to consider these legal implications and other potential risks before deciding to use microdosing.
The evidence is lacking and science is lagging behind, but it's hard to believe that using such potent hallucinogens — even on a microscopic scale — has no effect whatsoever on the way we think or perform. So the investigation continues. Does microdosing of psychedelics stimulate creativity? Time will tell.