Emma Hogan in More Intelligent Life:
Every three days Nathan (not his real name), a 27-year-old venture capitalist in San Francisco, ingests 15 micrograms of lysergic acid diethylamide (commonly known as LSD or acid). The microdose of the psychedelic drug – which generally requires at least 100 micrograms to cause a high – gives him the gentlest of buzzes. It makes him feel far more productive, he says, but nobody else in the office knows that he is doing it. “I view it as my little treat. My secret vitamin,” he says. “It’s like taking spinach and you’re Popeye." Nathan first started microdosing in 2014, when he was working for a startup in Silicon Valley. He would cut up a tab of LSD into small slices and place one of these on his tongue each time he dropped. His job involved pitching to investors. “So much of fundraising is storytelling, being persuasive, having enough conviction. Microdosing is pretty fantastic for being a volume knob for that, for amplifying that.” He partly credits the angel investment he secured during this period to his successful experiment in self-medication. Of all the drugs available, psychedelics have long been considered among the most powerful and dangerous. When Richard Nixon launched the “war on drugs” in the 1970s, the authorities claimed LSD caused people to jump out of windows and fried users’ brains. When Ronald Reagan was the governor of California, which in 1966 was one of the first states to criminalise the drug, he argued that “anyone that would engage or indulge in [LSD] is just a plain fool”.
…LSD works by interacting with serotonin, the chemical in the brain that modulates mood, dreaming and consciousness. Once the drug enters the brain (no mean feat), it hijacks the serotonin 2A receptor, explains Robin Carhart-Harris, a scientist at Imperial College London who is among those mapping out the effects of psychedelics using brain-scanning technology. The 2A receptor is most heavily expressed in the cortex, the part of the brain in which consciousness could be said to reside. One of the first effects of psychedelics such as LSD is to “dissolve a sense of self,” says Carhart-Harris. This is why those who have taken the drug sometimes describe the experience as mystical or spiritual. The drug also seems to connect previously isolated parts of the brain. Scans from Carhart-Harris’s research, conducted with the Beckley Foundation in Oxford, show a riot of colour in the volunteers’ brains, compared with those who have taken a placebo. The volunteers who had taken LSD did not just process those images they had actually seen in their visual cortexes; instead many other parts of the brain started processing visions, as though the subject was seeing things with their eyes shut. “The brain becomes more globally interconnected,” says Carhart-Harris. The drug, by acting on the serotonin receptor, seems to increase the excitability of the cortex; the result is that the brain becomes far “more open”.