Wednesday, November 11, 2015
Silicon Valley's Best-Kept Productivity Secret: Psychedelic Drugs
Psychedelic drugs like LSD and psilocybin, the active chemical in hallucinogenic mushrooms, are having a moment in the tech community.
It is well-known that the godhead of technology and entrepreneurship, Steve Jobs, said using LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) when he was young was one of the most enlightening experiences in his life and helped his creative process. It's little wonder then that others in Silicon Valley, where creativity is valued above almost all else, are turning on to psychedelics. They're a staple among many of the startup founders, investors, and developers at the annual Burning Man festival, and have crossed over to a wider crowd throughout the year.
Rather than using them for recreational purposes, though, some people in the Valley and elsewhere have begun viewing these substances as practical tools for harnessing creativity and solving complex problems. Beginning with the legal acid tests of the 1950s and 1960s, users have taken hallucinogens in doses of 100 to 200 micrograms, causing them to trip. Instead, entrepreneurs and others lately have been experimenting with ingesting "micro-doses"--typically one-fifth of a standard dose for psilocybin and one-tenth of a standard dose for LSD--in an effort to perform better at work. At those levels, the user does not get high and does not trip.
James Fadiman, a psychologist and author of The Psychedelic Explorer's Guide, conducted some of the last legal acid experiments in 1966 as a researcher for International Foundation for Advanced Study in Menlo Park, California. A few years ago, Fadiman started collecting surveys from professionals who undertake six weeks of a standard micro-dosing protocol on their own--dose on day one, abstain on day two and three, dose on day four--while going about their normal daily routine. Fadiman, featured briefly in Tom Wolfe's book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, says he has received around 100 surveys and the reports are overwhelmingly positive.
"People report an overall increased capacity and productivity. It seems to be in the realm of having a good breakfast--your day will be better if you micro-dose," Fadiman tells Inc.
Clarity through mushrooms
Few people have publicly endorsed the use of hallucinogens for performance enhancement. (Tim Ferriss, the iconic investor and author of The Four-Hour Workweek, is one notable exception.) So the idea of taking sub-perceptual doses of an illegal hallucinogen for such a purpose may sound crazy--unless you've spoken with someone who has done it.
John Andrew, a Canadian documentarian who is legally blind, took small doses of psilocybin mushrooms every day for six months in 2014 (a greater frequency than the standard protocol calls for). He says he started to feel positive effects after four weeks.
"I experienced this clarity that is almost indescribable," Andrew said last week while attending the Horizons: Perspectives on Psychedelics conference in New York City. "I felt a homeostasis, a feeling that despite what's going on, bad or good, everything was OK. I felt present, focused, a clarity that was telling me this is how I am supposed to feel."
At the six-month mark, he says, he felt he was "maximizing [his] potential." He says he would have continued, but he ran out of mushrooms and had to wait for the rainy season to get more.
One of Fadiman's favorite reports came from an engineer and entrepreneur in his early 20s. When building a complex physical machine, he said, he finds it difficult to think about the whole system because there are so many moving parts. Micro-dosing, the engineer added, makes it much easier. Fadiman explains why: With psychedelics, which work by attaching themselves to the brain's 5-HT2A serotonin receptor, "you are able to see patterns more easily and move from abstraction to visualization."
Micro-dosing isn't Fadiman's brainchild. Albert Hofmann, the Swiss chemist who first synthesized LSD in the 1930s, believed micro-doses could be a non-toxic and non-addictive replacement for drugs like amphetamine and methylphenidate (Ritalin), to enhance focus and productivity. According to Fadiman, Hofmann saw micro-dosing as "the most under-researched area of psychedelics," and the long-term effects of the practice still are unknown. Psychedelics can bring out symptoms in people with latent mental issues, but they generally are not known to cause mental illness in healthy users. They have not been found to damage the brain or other organs, and users can't fatally overdose on them.
Now, after 50 years of a government ban on all research, both private companies and academic institutions with the approval of the FDA are exploring the medical benefits of entheogenic substances, though the research has yet to extend to micro-dosing. Researchers have found that psilocybin helps in treating anxiety, addiction, and depression. Neuroscientists are studying LSD to help break habitual thinking in addicts and people suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. And Entheogen Corp., a startup in Boston, is working on a drug for cluster headaches made from LSD with an added molecule that blocks its hallucinogenic effects.
Another recent study helps shed some light on the drug's appeal to entrepreneurs and others hoping to increase their creativity and problem-solving skills. Researchers at the Imperial College of London found from fMRI brain scans of volunteers dosed with LSD that the drug doesn't stimulate the brain as previously thought. Instead, such substances reduce the activity of the brain's default mode network, which filters out stimuli. In a sense, hallucinogens open the mind's "reduction valve," as Aldous Huxley wrote in his mescaline memoir The Doors of Perception, and allow you to experience the world as infants do--completely unfiltered and uninhibited.
A dose of creativity
Meanwhile, some in the tech industry also are using hallucinogens the old-fashioned way--one big dose to induce a trip. Some of the technology we rely on every day for our work and entertainment was created by entrepreneurs who credit these types of drugs for spurring their innovations.
One such entrepreneur, who asked not to be named, is a highly successful Silicon Valley denizen in his twenties who has held high-level positions at some of the best-known technology companies in the world. Every month, he ingests MDMA, psilocybin, ayahuasca, or LSD, depending on what he is trying to accomplish, and dives deep into his subconscious. While he says the practice doesn't necessarily yield eureka moments, it is essential to his creative process and spirituality.
"Psychedelics give me a new sense of emotional freedom, and a new perspective," he tells Inc. "Over the subsequent days and weeks, I start to integrate it with more practical ideas and things come out of that."
For him, psychedelics are but one tool among many--he views meditation as equally critical. But they work quickly and perform a function crucial for any entrepreneur: getting the mind into what he calls "a state where it's naturally creative all the time."