The last time I took acid, I was 19 and living in a Volkswagen van. Twenty years later, I didn't expect I would do it again. I had no desire to. Acid was great for breaking down everything you know about the world when you're a teenager, but as a middle-aged person who has spent decades just trying to build up a world that always seems perilously close to crumbling, the last thing you want is to tear that down. But then I heard about microdosing.
I was walking along a beach in North Carolina when a friend started talking about super-small doses of LSD. He had heard a story on a podcast: Microdosing, he'd learned, wasn't about getting high. The doses were too small for that ("subperceptual" is the technical term), but rather about performing better by improving focus, concentration, memory, and creativity. He was convinced it might just help him change his life.
Not since college had I seen someone so excited about a means of chemical enhancement. I mean, both my friend and I have done plenty of drugs — both licit and illicit — in recent years, but it was always as a matter of course rather than transformation. We didn't expect anything spectacular or revelatory. The idea that drugs could make a significant change in one's quality of life was something that seemed almost archaic, the '60s promise of "better living through chemistry."
But it seemed that very small doses of acid could, according to some, make you more focused, athletic, attentive, and creative.
Intrigued, I spent the next couple of months reading all the glowing reports coming out on microdosing. The walls of the internet were practically breathing with praise in Rolling Stone, HuffPo, Vice, and even business publications like Forbes and Tech Insider. Instead of the "turn on, tune in, drop out" ethos that accompanied the psychedelic craze of the 1960s, this time it was more like tune in, turn on, and drop in with Rolling Stone reporting on it as a "hot new business trend" and Forbes calling it a Silicon Valley "job enhancer."
After decades of drugs such as Ritalin, Adderall, and a vast array of antidepressants promising to help us function better in the never-ending struggle to be good subjects of the modern economy, we expect our drugs to help us work smarter, to make us more efficient and less distracted. And LSD, in very small doses, seemed to offer precisely that.
A brief history of acid
A chemist named Albert Hofmann first synthesized LSD in 1938. Five years later, he discovered its profound psychological effects after accidentally ingesting some while handling it in the lab.
Thanks to people like Timothy Leary, Ram Das, Abbie Hoffman, and Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters touting its mind-bending virtues, LSD kick-started the psychedelic wing of 1960s counterculture. But in addition to the electric Kool-Aid antics of the hippies and Yippies, there was a lot of serious research going on, with international conferences and well-funded experiments taking place all over the world.
But with LSD's popularity came dramatic stories of "bad trips" and flashbacks haunting users for years. A backlash to the drug mounted, culminating in its criminalization in 1968.
In 1971, with the Nixon administration's Controlled Substances Act, LSD was scheduled in the most prohibitive category — schedule 1 — meaning there was no recognized medical use for the drug. The serious work being done with the drug was suspended, and LSD went entirely underground, being made by outlaw chemists and circulating the country with Deadheads and drug dealers.
Now, as public attitudes toward drugs have softened, psychedelic research has picked back up with the government granting permission to tightly controlled labs to work with the drugs again. Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore has conducted numerous studies on psilocybin, the drug in magic mushrooms, over the past 15 years. And now a new generation has grown curious about the mind-enhancing effects of psychedelics.
What is microdosing?
The idea of microdosing, at least in its current iteration, can be traced back to the work of James Fadiman, a "transpersonal" psychologist who has studied psychedelics since the early 1960s. His 2011 book The Psychedelic Explorer's Guide: Safe, Therapeutic, and Sacred Journeys is a near-comprehensive guide to the therapeutic uses of psychedelic compounds such as LSD, psilocybin, and DMT, and it was this work that began to catalyze a movement around the little dose.
A chapter called "Can Sub-Perceptual Doses of Psychedelics Improve Normal Functioning?" featured testimonials from regular users of small amounts of acid or mushrooms who found that they were able to work not just harder but, to echo the bizarre corporate cliché, smarter. They were better film editors or musicians as a result of the drugs, with very few side effects.
People say a generation of jazz musicians got hooked on smack because they wanted to play like Charlie Parker. But with Parker, who died at 35, the negative effects were also all too obvious. According to these accounts, microdosing might not promise revolutionary genius, but it also doesn't destroy your life.
In the testimonials, the microdosers all report that their experiences with small doses of psychedelics were both quite productive and quietly profound. "James," described as a warehouse manager in Waco, Texas, took a small dose before work and reported, "I liked how I felt. Got my work done easier, rarely lost my temper, my paperwork done on time, and when I got home at night I was a lot more fun to be with."
Of course, the danger is that these are purely subjective reports. Perhaps you actually aren't more fun to be with. But Madeline, a married New Yorker who has a young daughter and works as a film editor, reported: "Sub-doses of 10 to 20 micrograms allow me to increase my focus, open my heart, and achieve breakthrough results while remaining integrated with my routine. ... I would venture to say that wit, response time, and visual and mental acuity seem greater than normal on it." She reports that she's taken these doses about six times a month for 10 years.
Charles reported physical, emotional, creative, and spiritual advantages, noting, "My cells and systems are pumped up with a noticeable kind of buzz that is very different from caffeine ... speed ... or pot." He likens it to slightly rearranging his "neural furniture so that glimmers of full-on psychedelic states are constantly pouring into my awareness."
In the book, Fadiman — who is kind of far out and, as a drug researcher, has been the subject of some controversy — is careful to say that he hasn't come to "any general conclusions about these low doses beyond noting that all the reports in my files indicate, as these individuals have, that the low-dose use has been positive."
When I called Fadiman on the phone, I found that he has become even more optimistic since the book's publication. "What I've learned is that [LSD] seems to be useful for such a wide range of conditions that it almost doesn't make sense from a conventional, kind of organ-specific sense," he said from his home in California, where he is a professor at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, which he founded, in Palo Alto.
I wasn't exactly sure what that meant.
"It's as if your body, which always has your best interest in mind in spite of you, gets a larger number of votes," he says and cites an example of someone who wrote him saying, "It had nothing to do with willpower, I looked at the menu and said, 'Oh, my god, I want the salad.'"
It was still all pretty mystical-sounding. But Fadiman isn't alone in his psychedelic exuberance. James Oroc, an athlete and the author of a book on the psychedelic toad, goes even further in his work on psychedelics and extreme sports. "LSD can increase your reflex time to lightning speed, improve your balance to the point of perfection, increase your concentration ... and make you impervious to weakness or pain," he writes.
Dock Ellis, who pitched a no-hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates while taking acid in 1970, would probably agree.
To me, proponents like Fadiman and Oroc seemed a bit too optimistic. I was looking for a more measured response. But very few of the reporters who have written about the phenomenon actually tried it. I did.
How does microdosing work?
Scientifically, there is not much more than Fadiman's anecdotal evidence to go on. There are numerous psilocybin experiments happening at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, but none of them involve microdosing LSD. William Richards, who recently published Sacred Knowledge, a book about 50 years' worth of psychedelic experiments, and who runs the program at Hopkins, told me there are no rigorous studies of microdosing anywhere in the world.
Without any formal studies, and with no legal source of LSD, I was largely on my own. But I wanted to see if microdosing really could change my life. I managed to find some LSD, (at least what a dealer told me was LSD; I had no means of testing it chemically) and got to work.
Fadiman has a protocol for microdosing based on his field research. I wasn't sure I trusted it, but after he sent it to me, I figured it was the best guide I had. The protocol involves a three-day cycle: The effects are most intense on the first day and a little slower and more subdued on the second. The third day is supposed to be restorative.
You can mix the dose in distilled water to more easily and evenly divide it. But I didn't trust that (I imagined someone accidentally drinking the water). Instead I got a sharp, short pair of scissors and snipped away the smallest corner I could of the thick blotter paper acid tab I'd bought. When the blades came together the speck flipped, and for a moment I lost it. I was worried that it flew onto the floor, where the dog would lick it, but finally I managed to spot the minuscule dot on the fake marble surface of my counter. I put the tiny triangle of paper on my tongue.
Immediately after I took the dose, I went to meet an old friend for coffee. As we drank the warm brew and the sun shone through the autumn leaves into the window and my microdose kicked in, the conversation grew deeper and more open. Maybe it was a placebo effect, but I felt like I was a better listener, exceedingly engaged in what my friend had to say instead of just waiting for him to finish talking so that I could say something related.
After the coffee, I went to my office and got to work. I was writing a book proposal at the time, which meant spending a lot of time thinking about the structure the project would take, the way the themes and chapters would coincide. It's almost like playing with blocks, and it seemed like the perfect thing to work on. As I stood at my desk or paced around the room, I realized that I felt it. I wasn't high. It wasn't like being stoned or tripping. It was just this extra sense of awareness and focus. Fadiman likes to compare it to a tune-up.
What was actually happening was that the LSD molecules were playing with my serotonin receptors, much like how modern antidepressants do. In fact, one of the biggest caveats the Hopkins experimenters make is that no one on antidepressants should take psychedelics, because no one knows how they might interact together.
If I flooded the receptors with a large dose, according to Richards's book, I could expect to experience the "unitive consciousness" — the feeling of oneness with the world that he says is the basis of the mystical experiences of all religions.
But with a microdose, there isn't enough of an effect to kick off a religious awakening: The drug merely heightens one's experience of the ordinary. It made me appreciate the mundane aspects of my life, the things I ordinarily ignored or took for granted. Richards suggests the same effects may be achieved by meditation, and that's a good way to think about what microdosing felt like: It might make you more mindful, especially over time, and its cumulative effects might be revolutionary, even if the more immediate effects are rather subtle.
At one point during my first session, I looked up and realized I'd been totally engrossed in my work with no real awareness of anything else for an hour. But the focus wasn't like the amphetamine compulsion that comes with Ritalin or Adderall. It couldn't be satisfied by cleaning the floor or digitally screaming at a stranger on Facebook. Instead, I found myself more deeply absorbed in that zone we all hope to be in where the doer and the deed dissolve together into the pleasure of pure work.
This absorption happens relatively often without drugs, but it felt especially easy to slip into that day. But even if it was easy, it wasn't compulsive. I went for a short walk, something I rarely do in the middle of a workday. The afternoon sparkled. There was a spring in my step as I strolled. It wasn't like the engine was externally cranked, but rather that it was a bit oiled. The desire to work seemed driven by the task.
The next morning I woke up feeling alert, and I easily slipped back into the groove of the work I had been doing the day before. Ordinarily, I spend an hour or so reading stories on Twitter and Facebook before getting down to real work. But in the afterglow of my first dose, I didn't feel the need.
How microdosing helped me kick my internet habit
The most remarkable effect of the microdose, which I noticed on the first day, was that it broke — or significantly disrupted — my addiction to the internet.
Like many people, I often find myself scrolling aimlessly through Facebook when I tell myself I'm too tired for anything else. But that day, I stayed away from it almost completely.
I didn't really want to go online much the next day either. I rode the bus around town a lot, and as I waited on our slow public transportation I was not as impatient as usual. I wasn't clutching my phone up in front of my glowing face, but instead felt more empathy with the other people who were also standing around waiting.
Instead of sinking into my own private digital mindset, I was aware that we, carless Baltimoreans, were all in the same boat as we stood around waiting for the ever-elusive next bus. I felt we were all in this together, and often ended up in actual conversations rather than virtual ones.
I didn't avoid the internet entirely. I could still go online and do the tweeting and email I needed to do for work, but it wasn't compulsive. I could take it or leave it. It felt great.
But on the third day, the desire for the electronic jolt of information into my head began to come back. I felt anxious and jittery about it.
When I dosed again, my addiction vanished again. For another three days I felt no desire for online stimulation. My wife noticed that she was now pulling out her phone far more often than I was. We'd be waiting for a carryout order or something, and she would be on the phone — but instead of checking Twitter, as I would have done a few days earlier, I was just standing there and enjoying the movement happening around me, eavesdropping on the other customers.
I had to ask how much of this was the placebo effect. After all, I'd already started to break my addiction to the news cycle when I'd gone to part time at the alt-weekly where I worked to write a book and focus on longer projects. I was already starting to feel like I didn't have to know everything happening at every moment.
On the phone, I asked Fadiman about the placebo effect. After all, accounting for that possibility could make his results more powerful. But he was somewhat dismissive of the idea. "What I think will help your thinking is if you throw out the word 'placebo,' which doesn't mean much, and put in instead the 'natural healing function,'" he said. He was arguing that the very idea of a placebo, that believing a drug may cause an effect produces that effect, shows the power of the body on which the LSD was drawing.
He said people use microdoses to do more yoga or eat healthier. "Someone used it to get off smoking," he said and referred me to the work of his former student Albert Garcia-Romeu, who is currently a researcher at Johns Hopkins who uses psilocybin to help people quit smoking.
Garcia-Romeu was intrigued by the idea of using microdoses to deal with addiction but said his research — like the rest of the Hopkins studies, which treat everything from PTSD to cancer — are predicated on the idea of the mystical experience that comes from the large dose.
When Garcia-Romeu published his results, they were impressive. Six months after the experience, 80 percent of the participants had remained off cigarettes.
He wished me luck with my experiment.
What to watch out for
On my second day of microdosing, my work involved interviewing a guy who wanted to smoke weed while we talked. (I was working as the pot critic at the alt-weekly, so it's not that odd.) It was only halfway through the conversation that I remembered I'd microdosed and started to feel that Oh, fuck, I'm too high vibe as he gesticulated in my face.
If you're not sure what I'm talking about when I say, "Oh, fuck I'm too high," you might not want to try microdosing. But it's not that much different from the way you feel when you wake up in the middle of the night, contemplating death in a state of classic existential anxiety — when you are afraid, but of nothing.
This is not the same as not being afraid of anything. You actually become terrified by nothingness as your ownmost possibility. Or at least that's the way it struck me at the moment.
But one of the most valuable skills I've gained from half a lifetime of drug use is the ability to talk myself down. When you learn to say, "It's the chemicals in your brain, dummy, you can get through this" to yourself when you are high, you can also carry that over and say it to yourself when you are anxious or scared or angry. It is still just chemicals. I've talked myself out of many an emotional scrape that way.
I pulled it together, and we kept talking. The interview went exceptionally well. I'm always a better listener in a professional context than I am in private — once you've transcribed your own grating voice saying idiotic things in an interview a few hundred times, you start to be more careful — but I feel like I had a particular empathy that day. The transcriptions bore it out. It wasn't dramatically or radically different from an ordinary interview — and we were stoned — but it wasn't gibberish that only seemed brilliant in the moment either.
I continued to smoke weed with most all of my other microdoses and it was never again a problem, even if it renders my study far less "pure." But not everything mixed so well with LSD.
On the last day I took a microdose — my fifth time — I had a meeting at a bar. We ended up drinking. And, as with bigger doses, microdosing acid allows you to drink a lot without feeling it. I drank a ton of beer and some liquor and still felt great when I went to bed.
The next morning wasn't so bad either. I was feeling the second-day microdose effect right under my hangover. But by that night, when I had to go see a friend's band play, I felt nervous, distracted, and sketchy, as if a low level of static were underlying my thoughts, like when you can hear the song on the radio station but static and snippets of another song break in.
My conversations were all distracted and disengaged. Rather than feeling connected, I felt alienated and isolated. I suffered through the show and walked home in a nervous shuffle as I kept glancing back over my shoulder.
The next day I felt better. Some friends were in town, and we drank more and had a pleasant day. It was slow and relaxed, but I still went to bed drunk. I woke up feeling equally out of sorts. I had night terrors followed by sleeplessness the next night.
I felt like I was falling into a deep, dark hole during my sleep and would start awake, sitting stark upright with a desperate gasp for breath. Then each time I was drifting off, I'd feel like I was falling again and lie awake for hours.
It wasn't pleasant, but I think it was useful. In the following weeks I had a few beers here or there, but I was much less interested in alcohol. By the third day, the sketchy feeling was gone, but the desire for alcohol remained diminished, at least for a little while longer. If I actually wanted to quit drinking altogether (which I don't), I think I'd probably try microdosing before I started sucking down cigarettes and coffee at AA.
In the four months since I last dosed, my internet addiction has made a fierce comeback, though it took weeks to return to its pre-acid level. And I still feel like when I'm not working, it is easier to subvert the unconscious compulsion toward the screen.
I imagine that in order for the effect to last, it would need to be reinforced with more drugs or with some kind of therapy or meditation, or even the conviction that I needed to stay offline. The election cycle is in full swing and there are court cases to cover and stories unfolding, and I love the internet and Twitter. But I don't like feeling that I can't step away, so it was a powerful, if temporary, experience to actually feel like I simply wasn't interested anymore. Microdosing did not transform my life in a radical way, but it did offer some promise in the direction of making it better.
I still think some of the claims Fadiman and Oroc made for microdosing are a bit overblown. It didn't improve my mediocre athletic abilities, and my study of modern Greek was as haphazard and ineffective as ever. (One guy claims to have learned German in a couple weeks on microdoses — viel gluck!)
Ultimately the night terrors were a rather fitting end to my midlife psychedelic experiment. Like everything else in middle-aged life, microdosing was a mixed bag. It's fascinating and has a lot of promise and potential — but it's not going to fix everything for everybody. And it can make you feel a little wiggy if you do it too much or mix too many things or end up in the wrong emotional situation. It takes some psychological fortitude, and if mixed with booze the LSD can leave you feeling temporarily damaged in what might seem like a electrical hangover: too much juice went through the wires and fried them a bit, even if you end up taking less than half a tab over two weeks.
But blame me as much as the drug. Had I been a little more circumspect, I probably could have avoided some of the negative effects, which were, after all, far less than those we read on the bottles of the medicines we take every day and were caused at least as much by alcohol as by acid.
Phenomenologically, it was a valuable experiment. But we need a rigorous study that doesn't rely solely on the self-managed efforts of people like me, who are willing to break the law and go to the effort of finding illegal acid. If we give children amphetamines — look at the prescription for generic Adderall — we can certainly get beyond the 1960s hysteria that keeps us from recognizing the potential that psychedelic drugs can offer.
Baynard Woods is the author of Coffin Point: The Strange Cases of Ed McTeer, Witchdoctor Sheriff. He writes about Baltimore for the Guardian and is editor at large for the Baltimore City Paper. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and numerous other publications.