Lucy in the Sky and Microdosing

In April 1943, Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann wrote a memo to his boss at pharmaceutical company Sandoz explaining that he’d had to leave his laboratory early having felt “a remarkable restlessness combined with a slight dizziness”. Back at home, the chemist described a “not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition” accompanied by an “extremely stimulated imagination”. With the sunlight causing a sudden discomfort, Hofmann closed his eyes to an “uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures” alongside “extraordinary shapes” whose colours were “intense” and “kaleidoscopic”. Hofmann had, via skin absorption, unknowingly microdosed on a chemical compound he had earlier developed (unsuccessfully) to stimulate respiration and circulation. The compound was a lysergic acid combination, or LSD.

A few days later Hofmann, informing no-one but his lab assistant, decided to experiment further. Swallowing a miniscule 250 millionths of a gramme of LSD, Hofmann expected little to happen until his intake increased significantly, which he planned to do in equally infinitesimal incremental measures over the following days. But, less than one hour after the first dose, the scientist wrote in his journal “…feeling of anxiety, visual distortions, symptoms of paralysis, desire to laugh”. 


Hofmann needed to be escorted home by his lab assistant as he essentially experienced a ‘bad trip’ replete with dizziness and malevolent hallucinations. A doctor was called but could find little wrong with his patient other that dilated pupils. Even Hofmann’s pulse and blood pressure were fine. Soon, Hofmann’s fear gave way to a feeling of fabulousness. Writing of his state the following morning in his memoir, LCD: My Problem Child, Hofmann recounts how, with heightened senses, everything “glistened and sparkled in a fresh light” as if the world was “newly created”. 

A New Reality

Animal tests were equally compelling. Cats dosed with acid became afraid of mice, fish swam strangely around their aquarium and, most fascinatingly, spiders changed the way they built their webs. Though the arachnids’ architectural prowess was greatly diminished following large doses of LSD, smaller hits resulted in spiders crafting webs that “were even better proportioned and more exactly built than normally”. Hofmann grew ever more convinced that LSD posed no risk to his health and continued with his self-experimentation.


The following years saw Sandoz manufacture LSD under the name Delysid as a treatment for mental health issues, even recommending psychiatrists drop some acid to better understand their patients! The notorious Project MkUltra (which was actually 162 separate projects) saw the CIA carry out secret tests during the 1950s on thousands of Americans—often without their consent—while attempting to harness LSD’s powers as a weapon of mass mind-control to be used during the Cold War. Two decades later, the US Senate concluded the project not only violated citizens’ rights but demonstrated “a fundamental disregard for the value of human life” with long-lasting psychiatric, occasionally fatal, consequences. As later noted by Hofmann, LSD’s effects’ unpredictability is its “major danger”.


By the mid-1960s Sandoz had stopped manufacturing LSD. It was banned in the US and the UK in 1966, and in 1967 in New Zealand, the year, of course, that also spawned the Summer of Love. LSD had gone mainstream within the counterculture, embraced by artists, musicians and writers, inspiring 1960s’ masterpieces such as The Beatles’ Revolver and Tom Wolfe’s tome, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. It was one of many drugs of crammed into the trunk of the car in the rip-roaring road trip of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S Thompson’s semi-autobiographical novel, and spawned new musical genres such as acid house and psychedelic rock. LSD certainly didn’t appear to hamper the genius of Steve Jobs either, who revealed taking the substance to be one of the more important things he’d ever done (and that Bill Gates would have been “a broader guy if he had dropped acid”).

If you’re microdosing, you might even forget you’re doing drugs in the first place,” writes Simone Kitchens for The Cut. “The amounts are sub-perceptual, without seeing the side effects.

Tiny Highs

Rather than seeking new dimensions of consciousness, millennials are now microdosing for everyday purposes, more likely to be searching for ways to grow their property portfolio rather than their hair. As the name suggests, ‘microdosing’ is the ingesting of a minuscule amount of LSD (or sometimes magic mushrooms) usually to the tune of one-twentieth to one-tenth of the traditional recreational amount.


“If you’re microdosing, you might even forget you’re doing drugs in the first place,” writes Simone Kitchens for The Cut. “The amounts are sub-perceptual, without seeing the side effects. They’re still themselves, users say, only a little better.”


A way of enhancing, not escaping, everyday life, microdosing (which, it should probably be pointed out, is still illegal) is said to increase energy, bolster focus, enhance creativity and better mood; some even claim it helps kick addiction (or, at least, swap it for a less harmful one). The trend can be traced back a decade to Silicon Valley types turned on by the preachings of pioneering LSD researcher and psychologist James Fadiman in his book, The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide.


In 2018, the first ever placebo-controlled microdosing trials of LSD took place, and the results, Scientific American reports, showed it “appreciably altered subjects’ sense of time, allowing them to more accurately reproduce lapsed spans of time”. Though the study did not definitively prove microdosing to enhance mental capability, it did point to “a compelling story on how LSD alters the brain’s perception and cognitive systems in a way that could lead to more creativity and focus”.


A controversial 2015 study even concluded LSD made the brain more “complete”. Lead researcher, Dr Robin Carhart-Harris—the first scientist to test LSD on humans in 40 years—reported how the drug “unified” the brains independent networks responsible for the likes of vision, movement and concentrations. While our thinking becomes more rigid with age, under LSD, our brains almost resemble those of a child, “free and unconstrained”.


Last year, clinical psychologist Rosalind Watts of Imperial College London told the Telegraph of a small study that showed magic mushrooms to reduce symptoms of depression. She believes microdosing to harbour interesting potential, “for creative mood management, PMT, anxiety and a whole host of things”, but laments the lack of scientific studies. Auckland University will belatedly embark on such a study this year (delayed due to coronavirus) that lead researcher Dr Suresh Muthukumaraswamy hopes will make up for 50 years’ worth of potentially missed opportunities owing to LSD’s global prohibition. He describes microdosing as “an underground phenomenon”, yet scientists still have little clue about the cognitive consequences.


Countess Amanda Feilding, founded of the Beckley Foundation that promotes drug policy reform, first took LSD in 1965, and describes microdosing as “adding a little sparkle” to the everyday, “like a psychedelic vitamin”. Many of those she knows—but won’t name—that microdose “enthusiastically” are Silicon Valley types responsible for “some of the big breakthroughs of our time”.


Perhaps another San Francisco-inspired Summer of Love is just over the horizon. We sure could do with it.