A Not-So Freewheelin' Time: The Microdosing Freelancer - UnderPinned

While microdosing is not a new phenomenon, it has seen a rise in popularity and press in the past few years while being hailed by many as life-changing. But is it a viable tool for creative freelancers?

For centuries, writers and artists have set out the link between substance use and ‘creativity’. It’s a relationship as old as time itself, even if the particulars have a tendency to change.

From the opioid riddled Romantic poets, to the deep-set faith in the powers of alcohol among the heavyweight American novelists of the 1920s, all the way through to the countercultural elite of the 1960s and 70s experiments with psychedelics: each generation accords a certain kind of mystique to a certain approved group of substances thought to properly enable and boost creative labour.

But ‘microdosing’ comes packed with a twist. Though it’s not a brand new phenomenon, its recent quiet rise to prominence in the UK represents the birth of a new frontier for something that remains half-understood, at best.

Microdosing involves imbibing small amounts of psychedelic drugs, often as part of a regimented daily routine, in the same way you might take vitamins with breakfast, or a short constitutional in the afternoon.

The dosages used are comparatively minor, as the object isn’t recreational escapism, spiritual awakening, or any of the other motives usually associated with hallucinogens. The idea is to take roughly a tenth of a normal dose (about 10-20 micrograms), over a number of days, before, quite literally, going about your business. As James Fadiman, American psychologist and writer, puts it “there are no hallucinations, no traumatic experiences, not even any sluggishness. Those who do it correctly… report having better days, feeling less anxious, and sometimes even conquering long-held mental hang-ups”.

“Small doses of psychedelics affect the brain in different ways to larger ‘recreational’ doses. In simple terms, LSD in low dosage, acts a bit like serotonin does at 5-HT2A receptors… This probably contributes to psychedelic long-term effects on cognition, perception and mood”.

And though the UK ‘community’ of such users may be tiny, anecdotal evidence suggests it’s on the rise – with its proponents adamant that not only does it boost productivity and ‘creativity’, but that it can also be helpful in working through deep-set traumas, as well as offering more immediately tangible health benefits.

If that sounds too good to be true, that’s because it might well be. There is little to no serious academic research on the subject – a point of contention among its advocates, although  James Fadiman has become something of a defacto expert on the subject – while a slew of publications have woken up to its rise, over the last few years. Indeed, Faidman’s name is the one that crops up, again and again – part of a legacy that includes a seminal 1966 paper on the relationship between psychedelic drugs and creative problem-solving.

Phil* is a freelance visual artist in his 20s, who started microdosing a couple of years ago. For him, the tiny amounts involved mean that it doesn’t sit in the same conceptual ballpark as regular, recreational drug taking, something that he isn’t “particularly into anyway”.

He stresses how routine it is – something that sits in his day-to-day as snugly as his weekly food shop. “I wouldn’t class myself as a hippy or anything like that. To be honest, I just see it as a boost to my working day, even if I totally understand how a lot of people can’t quite wrap their head around it”. LSD is his substance of choice, which he picks up locally, though he is understandably less forthcoming on its procurement. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how much more ‘productive’ it makes him, though he does laughingly add that it means he spends less time sucked into the black hole of social media.

As harmless as it sounds, it’s difficult to glean a more rounded picture of its long-term effects and ramifications from patchy anecdotal evidence. Aside from the impact on mental wellbeing, there’s the not-so-small matter of its illegality. Rightly or wrongly, the maximum sentence for possession of both LSD and magic mushrooms, (the other most frequently used drug to microdose) is seven years in prison, as both are Class A substances.

“Other common effects of agonism at 5-HT2A receptors include anxiety, insomnia, and sexual dysfunction. However, due to the current lack of research, an individual choosing to microdose is putting themselves in the position of an experimental subject, and taking a step into the unknown”.

Phil is pretty sanguine about it. The quantities he buys are so small that it seems unlikely he’d be laden with such a punitive sentence, even if he were caught. The hypothetical risk is a small price to pay, considering the benefits, he says. “I’m a freelancer, so that question of ‘productivity’ is always in my mind, you know? And if this helps, it helps. I doubt it’ll be a forever thing, either.”

Someone else I speak with mentions one abortive attempt to microdose that went off-beat, in a way she can laugh about now, even if it was slightly traumatic at the time. 28-year-old Claire* splits her time working between graphic design and whatever other odd jobs she can to supplement her fluctuating freelance income.

“I’d heard about it through old friends from university that had sort of started microdosing out of curiosity. I thought ‘yeah, why not, I’ll give it a go’, after hearing them go on and on about it”, she explains to me over the phone. Only, it wasn’t to be the smooth experience of boundless focus and productivity she’d been expecting. “I ended up taking slightly too much and having a trip, thankfully in the comfort of my own flat”, she recalls. It’s not something she’d be bothered to try again, even though there are a few semi-regular microdosers left in that same cluster of friends, even if most aren’t quite as evangelical as when they started out.

Chloe Saunders is a London-based psychiatrist. She outlines what happens in the brain when the likes of Phil and Claire microdose, though she’s quick to say she’s by no means an expert on a critically underreported phenomenon. “Small doses of psychedelics affect the brain in different ways to larger ‘recreational’ doses. In simple terms, LSD in low dosage, acts a bit like serotonin does at 5-HT2A receptors” she tells me. “Downstream effects alter the expression of genes within brain cells which lead to persistent changes in the patterns of connectivity between neurons. This probably contributes to psychedelic long-term effects on cognition, perception and mood”.

It’s the lack of reliable evidence that makes it so difficult to draw conclusions about its applications in creative work. And there are the other obvious potential drawbacks. “Low doses of LSD over long periods of time could theoretically promote psychotic states in individuals, particularly those with a personal or family history of schizophrenia”, Chloe adds.

“Other common effects of agonism at 5-HT2A receptors include anxiety, insomnia, and sexual dysfunction. However, due to the current lack of research, an individual choosing to microdose is putting themselves in the position of an experimental subject, and taking a step into the unknown”.

Although, there is to be some progress on the subject. As of September, Imperial College London announced the first ever placebo-controlled study into microdosing in conjunction with the Beckley Foundation. Balázs Szigeti, the study leader, told The Guardian just how important a landmark it could be.

As both the price and illegality of LSD would make a conventional study prohibitively expensive, they have hit on what the report calls a novel “way of running it by inviting those who already microdose to join a ‘self-blinded’ study. They will take either what they usually use in a capsule or an identical dummy capsule instead, without knowing which is which. They will then complete questionnaires and tests and play cognitive games online, and only at the end will they learn whether they were happy and focused because of LSD or because they thought they were using LSD”.

“It’s interesting”, says Phil. He’s got no way of proving the benefits he feels, though he remembers things being more fragmented before he started his course of self-medication. “I’d never recommend it to people who didn’t already have a predilection towards the idea. And I’m no scientist, though I know how to deal with my own dosage, even if I do worry about getting it wrong and having a full-on trip in an inappropriate place. And yeah, the idea of long-term ramifications is a bit worrying, but there’s just no saying what they might or might not be.”

It goes without saying that microdosing isn’t for everyone. Even for those that swear by its effects, there’s not much rigour to back up their claims, or dispel the possible anxieties around it. But there are far more damaging routes for the ‘creative’ to go down in search of stimulus, even if we can’t be sure of its supposed wonders.

In a 2015 Motherboard piece on the self-professed benefits of microdosing, the writer asks an expert at John Hopkins University about the scant evidence on offer. “The scientific basis is pretty shaky right now,” he says, “[while the] benefits are plausible and very interesting, the claims of ‘everything fits together and goes right and you’re in a good mood and in the flow,’ well, we all have those types of days regardless of any pharmacological intervention.”

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