Here’s What Happens When a Few Dozen People Take Small Doses of Psychedelics

There’s new—and possibly dubious—evidence that “microdosing” hallucinogenic drugs makes people more creative.

Mendowong Photography / Getty / The Atlantic

In high school, my rebellious friends used to tell me I was way too neurotic to handle hallucinogens such as mushrooms and acid. But science is beginning to show that some forms of psychedelics may be able to calm anxieties and lift people out of depression. Prominent thinkers such as Michael Pollan and Ayelet Waldman have begun exploring the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics in certain contexts.

In Silicon Valley and beyond, some people are taking small amounts of psychedelics, a practice known as “microdosing” that is thought to aid productivity. Now a new study suggests that microdoses of magic truffles—the underground portion of magic mushrooms—can boost creativity, too.

The study, from a research team based in the Netherlands, Germany, and the Czech Republic, recruited a few dozen attendees at an event organized by the Psychedelic Society of the Netherlands. These participants were first tested on different cognitive skills. To assess divergent thinking, a form of creative thinking, the team asked subjects to think of as many potential uses for a common household object as possible. To assess convergent thinking, also a form of creativity, the researchers had the subjects identify the common association between several images. And for a test of fluid intelligence, the participants had to deduce what image was missing from a given matrix of images.

After taking the initial tests, the participants were given a microdose of dried psychedelic truffles, and after approximately 90 minutes—the tail end of the drug’s “peak period”—they retook all three tests. On average, the participants scored higher on the two creativity measurements, divergent and convergent thinking, after microdosing. The results for fluid intelligence, which can be roughly described as reasoning and problem solving, were about the same.

“Our results suggest that consuming a microdose of truffles allowed participants to create more out-of-the-box alternative solutions to a problem,” the authors write in the study. (The authors did not return requests for comment.)

While an intriguing study, it’s worth holding off on purchasing a baggie of magic truffles until we have clearer data. The study was posted as a preprint and has not yet been peer reviewed. And Matthew Johnson, an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins University who has researched psychedelics, brought up some concerns about the study’s results. “I have virtually no confidence that this isn’t driven by placebo effect. The effects that they have presented are so subtle that they’re exactly what one would expect from a placebo effect to result in,” he says. “Someone might say, ‘I had one of those days where I felt more alert, in the zone, connected with people a little better, I was just in the zone.’ But we all have those types of days, and sometimes expecting to have those days, you’ll have one of those days.”

The authors address this potential placebo effect in their study, acknowledging that they can’t absolutely rule out that their results are influenced by subjects’ expectations. Johnson notes that the effects of microdosing psychedelics aren’t just unclear in this study; they’re unclear in general. “We know nothing about microdosing scientifically,” he says. “There’s lots of anecdotal evidence … [but] we don’t know anything about its effects in labs.”

Matthew Baggott, a neuroscientist who has studied psychedelics’ effects on people, also mentioned the lack of clarity regarding microdosing. “People have many beliefs about benefits from it, but there’s very little research to support any of the proposed benefits. This is partly, perhaps even mainly, because controlled studies in a laboratory have not yet been done.”

Likewise, there’s been little research on psychedelics’ effects on creativity, though a few were conducted in the 1960s, before President Richard Nixon called the psychologist Timothy Leary “the most dangerous man in America” for promoting psychedelics’ therapeutic potential, and the United States government halted most research involving psychedelics. One study, from 1966, suggests that LSD could improve subjects’ creative-problem-solving ability. Conversely, a study from 1967 found that while anxiety symptoms decreased after taking a high dose of LSD, creative thinking did not increase.

Psychedelics in general, however—in doses large enough to make a subject trip—have more research behind them. Johnson published a study in 2016 that found that high doses of psilocybin (the main drug in magic mushrooms) decreased depression symptoms and “death anxiety” in cancer patients. A study released this year showed that psilocybin use in otherwise treatment-resistant depressive patients relieved symptoms for six months after dosage; still another, published in June of this year, found that neuroticism decreased while openness increased in depressed patients after ingesting psilocybin.

“You’re not taking a pill every day to alleviate some symptoms; you are having one medication-facilitated psychotherapy session which can result in some profound subjective experiences,” Johnson says. “Sometimes people hold these as some of the most meaningful experiences in their life, where people report transformative changes and profound insights.”

Baggott agrees, saying that research has shown that psychedelics can have powerful effects on people’s lives. Still, he says, “it’s clear from people taking psychedelics on their own that psychedelics aren’t a magic bullet for depression or anxiety. In the people who might benefit, it seems helpful to have a therapist providing emotional guidance.”

The effects of microdosing, while so far elusive, aren’t an impossibility. It’s plausible, Johnson says, that microdosing psychedelics could improve depression symptoms, “sort of like another form of an SSRI,” or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, a class of drugs commonly used as antidepressants. But as he and Baggott said, and the study notes in its conclusion, more rigorous studies need to look at microdosing before anyone can say definitively that microdoses of psychedelics will boost our creativity.

“Psychedelic research overall is very promising,” Baggott says. “It’s likely that there are many different types of psychedelics that have different potential for helping people. We’ll need careful research to learn their true benefits and risks.”