Recently Ayelet Waldman, who is the wife of Michael Chabon, an award winning novelist, wrote an entire book on her experience of microdosing LSD, and how the experience "transformed" her. She was the loudest voice of many(many of whom are twentysomethings working in silicon valley) who are speaking of this experience. She had compiled a laundry list of psychological problems that were aggravated by some trauma she chose not to discuss, that combined with the challenges of menopause. She didn't think of herself as a "hippie," or a "druggie," or a "deadhead," or someone who was particularly interested in the history of the experiences that came before her. In fact, these people seemed strange to her. She was someone who was in a lot of pain, and microdosing LSD alleviated it. I admit I didn't read her book. After listening to her talk about it on public radio a couple of times, I didn't wish to. But, I know the process works, and I know why it works, so I thought I'd write a bit about it.
Microdosing is exactly what the world implies. It is taking a microdosage of a psychedelic material(usually LSD or psilocybin) at 1/10 to 1/20 the dosage of what you would take to experience a full blown psychedelic experience. The operative word in microdosing is "sub-perceptual." Nothing psychedelic occurs. None of your senses are affected. At this level of psychedelic use, none of the what is traditionally associated with psychedelics occurs. You can do all the things you usually do during your day, without being compromised, or altered. What you will notice, however slightly, is a difference in your state of consciousness. Your brain, and your nervous system(and often your body) relax as you find the exit off ramps from your usual neuropathways and take in the sensations, feelings, and insights that are available to you in the other areas of your brain that usually exist outside your attention. Think of it like traveling from Los Angeles to San Francisco. The most efficient way to get there is on Highway 5. It cuts right down the center of the 330 miles between the two cities. It's not particularly aesthetic, or inspiring, and very little perceiving, or actual driving is required using this route. That is how our brain functions most days. If you are goal oriented, you could take this journey to the exclusion of all others for a lifetime. There's an alternative way to get to San Francisco though. This journey requires using Highway 101, and even taking the lesser utilized(but much more beautiful) Highway 1 that will take you by Hearst Castle in San Simeon, through Big Sur and Monterrey, and past their inspiring vistas. This is a brain on psychedelics, and also a brain in deep, long term, meditation.
In recent years, brain scans of psychedelic users(whether they be using LSD, Psilocybin, or DMT), and long term meditators have been discovered to be functioning in the exact same way. While neuroscientists were not surprised by the observable quieted brain functioning of long term meditators, they were extremely surprised to see that the brain scans of someone undergoing a psychedelic experience showing nearly identical functioning. They anticipated seeing an overstimulated brain responsible for altered experience of sights sounds and self, and what they found was a vastly quieted brain in communication with parts of itself that it usually ignores through habit.
It has long been an open secret in the American Buddhist Teacher community that every single Buddhist Teacher of the first wave of the 1960's and 70's, found their way to their meditation practice through their use of psychedelics. Psychedelics are a rigorous and demanding path, and can be exhausting and destructive if used incorrectly. I once heard a Buddhist Teacher refer to meditation as "psychedelics in slow motion." All that is available through the use of psychedelics is available through meditation, but it is slower and requires a lot of will, determination, and patience.
Albert Hoffman, the chemist who discovered LSD among the hundred of chemicals he synthesized during his accomplished career, believed LSD possessed qualities that had greater mass utility at much lower dosages. He thought LSD at sub perceptual doses increased focus and creativity. Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA in 1953, had said that microdosing LSD helped him map DNA's structure. Hoffman believed LSD at low doses far superior to ritalin and other stimulants in its ability to increase focus and attention with fewer physical side effects. The stigma associated with the drug because of its use by the counterculture in the 60's kept a lot of these uses from being realized.
While the affects of LSD at perceptual dosages(say above 100 micrograms) are said to be attainable to advanced meditators in the Tibetan Tantric Tradition, and Zen traditions, for most people who meditate, the experience of unpacking reality isn't available, necessary or desirable. However the things that happen in initial states of meditation are. As you can see in the photograph that accompanies this article, the brain scans at the top of the photo are brains in their usual state of functioning. Below, in the second line, it is possible to see both the psychedelic and meditative brains are quieter. Their centralized chatter has decreased significantly, and areas of the brain that have been awash in a unified wave of activity, are now separate and in finer communication with other parts, that were camoflaged to it by its usual state. Both instances demonstrate the neurobiology of insight into ones circumstances, recovered memory and sometimes trauma, lost creativity and capacity, become exposed when the tsunami of everyday consciousness recedes and reveals the finer functions of consciousness that have been there all the time, un-experienced and unknown. This is the revelation of both psychedelics and meditation. A quiet brain reveals the previously unseen relief of its content, un-obscured by the fog of everyday consciousness. No CNN, no bank account, no Trump Presidency, no historical emotional traumas to be avoided. A brain at peace is engaged, relational, insightful, and freely gives up its visionary treasures.
Which brings us to a brain not at peace. A brain awash in worry, or just overstimulated increases the production of the stress hormone cortisol. Not only does cortisol do things like make it harder to sleep, and stimulate hunger, it suppresses the production of serotonin, the neurochemical that makes the brain work at an optimal level. A brain that is low in Serotonin is like a car engine that is low on oil. There is friction, and function(as well as focus)decrease. A brain that is under producing serotonin gets trapped in a cycle of lowered performance and the increased anxiety it causes. Serotonin allows brain signals to shoot the gap between neural receptors that are not physically connected. When it is low, these gaps are not crossed, and thought patterns tend to reoccur and stagnate. This is the reason SSRI's(anti-depressants) are the most prescribed medication on earth. Neurobiology posits that if we can only increase the amount of serotonin that the brain produces, it will be a better brain. However the brain is not a machine, it is a living organ, and a system. Once you begin to alter its homeostasis with catalyzing chemicals, you risk effecting the levels of other neurotransmitters, and its overall operation. This is why SSRI's are sometimes not effective, and can also affect other bodily systems like sexual libido. While in some instances raising serotonin may be helpful and necessary, in almost all instances when SSRI's are prescribed to affect neurotransmitter levels, they are being prescribed as an educated guess.
It is this reason that meditation has been so effective(far more effective than SSRI's) in the treatment of depression(coincidentally so is surfing). Meditation(like psychedelics or surfing) settles the brain down. It quiets the usual overused neural pathways and allows the brain to build and utilize other pathways to other parts of the brain. This experience whether through meditation or through microdosing, lowers the level of anxiety by the brain reconnecting regions lost to the tyranny of the ego, and its entrenched thinking patterns. This reconnection lowers cortisol creation. The brain gets closer to its original state and broader experience, and is less panicked by its alienated regions. The brain goes from Friday night rush hour congested traffic, to Sunday morning open lanes with lots of options, and lots of possible off ramps to new neighborhoods that you may not have even noticed were there.
So is microdosing a panacea? No. I believe that meditation is a more dependable, consistent, and safer process. I am sure that Ayelet Waldman and the twenty somethings of Silicon Valley would be better served investing themselves in a long term meditation practice. But that takes time and effort and discipline, which are all important investments to make. But does microdosing work by altering consciousness and integrating parts of the brain(and subsequently consciousness) that have become alienated.? Yes, it does. it takes the brain from a conditioned, sub optimal state, into a slightly vaster and wider aperture of function. The long term goal is for microdosing to create new neural pathways that remain operational after the cycling is finished. Today, it is a unregulated and mostly under researched undertaking. James Fadiman, a long term psychedelic advocate and researcher, has created a microdosing research bank containing the self reporting of volunteers that have followed his guidelines. He suggests microdosing twice a week for six months. Like the heretefore mentioned Buddhist teacher, his suggestion is really, "psychedelics in slow motion." Microdosing emphasizes that your state of consciousness ultimately repairs your brain chemistry which is inverse to what Neurobiology thinks. Five thousand years of meditative technology have proven this to be true, and microdosing may very well be chemical shortcut to of this exact same state.