Paul Austin’s talk about ingesting tiny amounts of psychedelic drugs to enhance performance at this month’s Tech Open Air conference in Berlin was met with enthusiastic applause—perhaps no surprise considering he’s addressing a hall of young techies in one of the world’s most free-wheeling cities.
The practice of taking sub-perceptual amounts (about a tenth of a recreational dose, or between 1 and 10 micrograms) of psychedelics like LSD or psilocybin (magic) mushrooms on a regular basis has been gaining attention for a few years now. It’s a trend mainly linked to Silicon Valley.
“I started microdosing in June 2015 and I did it for seven months, and through that I came up with the idea of the Third Wave” Austin told Quartz. The Third Wave is an online resource aimed at educating people about microdosing, which Austin says “is sitting at a delta of all these things that are going on.”
“A lot of people are becoming disgruntled with pharmaceuticals, especially in the United States, a lot are reevaluating previously illicit substances, like cannabis, and a lot are looking at optimization—‘I wanna be my best self,’” he says.
LSD was first created by Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann in 1943, and psychedelics have long been associated with the tune-in-drop-out counter-culture of the 60s, Now Austin is touring conferences in the US and Europe advocating psychedelics as a productivity hack for modern business leaders.
Leaders in the 21st century, he tells his audience, must be able to “form a coherent vision of the future and piece together more accurate models of where the world is going.” Taking tiny amounts of non-addictive and non-toxic drugs, he says, will become an increasingly useful tool for leaders as they help the brain be more present in the moment, more adaptable and creative, and better at unlearning and relearning.
Bosses “must be able to draw on the strengths of team members to create a shared purpose and meaning—especially as the rise of AI will do away with rote tasks in our daily jobs,” he says.
The advocate sees the microdosing trend dovetailing with the evolution of business culture. “We’re recognizing the futility of zero-sum competitive nature business, and more and more businesses are moving towards a collaborative, entrepreneurial model of sharing.” He points to the recent backlash against Uber for its patriarchal, misogynistic work culture as an example that these aspects of “domination” and “coercion” in business culture are starting to crumble.
Silicon Valley’s punishing work culture and the resulting depression and isolation may be one factor fuelling a rise in microdosing. “I think that’s the reason why people are doing this [microdosing],” says Austin. “And what they’re noticing is that it has this antidepressant effect and because of that they’re able to work better, to be more efficient and more effective.” He divides microdosers into two camps: those who use to treat mental illness, and those who want to enhance their wellbeing and enter “flow states,” i.e. be present in the moment.
Silicon Valley’s openness to brain-bending substances is nothing new—Steve Jobs and Bill Gates both experimented with LSD—but Austin says that many who do can’t publicly say so at the moment as psychedelics drugs are illegal.
He notes that in places like the Netherlands, substances like psilocybin can be obtained in smart shops. Also, there’s 1P-LSD, which is an analogue of LSD and legal to buy for research purposes, but a person is breaking the law if they consume it. The dark side, of course, would be going to a drug dealer, and not being sure what you’re really getting.
That illegal drugs are not subject to any manufacturing regulations or dosing supervision means they remain a dangerous gamble. Barbara Sahakian, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Cambridge, notes that: “Those who microdose incorrectly risk having unwanted, full-blown trips or even experience unpleasant trips.”
Austin sees the issue of illegality as the big hurdle to discovering more about microdosing. “As long as these remain illegal and extremely expensive, research is going to be limited,”he says. “At the end of the day, even if you want to do it super-responsibly and very goal-orientated way, there’s still this massive hurdle.”