Scientists find psilocybin microdosing can boost cognitive creativity

Could magic mushrooms be the solution to solving more problems.
Could magic mushrooms be the solution to solving more problems.
Image: Reuters/Koen van Weel
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Scientists are all about psychedelics right now.

Recent research on LSD indicates the drug has potential to treat mental disorders and improve our understanding of human consciousness. Meanwhile, studies in recent years have explored the effects of psilocybin—the psychoactive compound occuring naturally in magic mushrooms—on quitting smoking; lowering violent crime; treating depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder; and triggering spiritual epiphanies.

Now, an Oct. 25 study in Pharmacology—the official journal of the European Behavioral Pharmacology Society—adds to this growing body of knowledge. It examines another potential benefit of psilocybin. Researchers from Leiden University in The Netherlands studied the cognitive effects of microdosing psilocybin truffles (technically not mushrooms, but instead the hardened vegetative part of a fungus). They found that tiny doses can stimulate brain function and boost creativity without harming reasoning abilities.

The researchers were intrigued by this topic because microdosing has become popular among high-achieving Silicon Valley tech types. Users say the drug, which proponents claim is non-toxic and not addictive, helps with flexible thinking, creativity, and even employee management. But until now, the evidence has been anecdotal and scientists hadn’t actually studied psilocybin microdosing, according to the new study.

Microdoses contain about 10% of the psychoactive components of a standard dose of psilocybin. The idea is to get the benefits but not the downsides of the drug, minimal effects that can stimulate thinking but not lead to extremes, like hallucinations.

For this study, the researchers tested the effects of about .035 grams of a psychoactive truffle on 36 subjects. (They later did a chemical composition analysis of the truffles to make sure psilocybin was evenly distributed throughout the truffles.) They investigated three types of thinking by presenting the subjects with different three tasks—developed by psychologists to test cognition—which were performed both before and after ingesting the drug. The scientists studied subjects’ convergent thought, which involves identifying a single solution for a single problem; their fluid intelligence, or reasoning and problem-solving; and their divergent thinking, the ability to recognize many solutions.

After microdosing, participants’ convergent thinking improved based on these cognition tests. Subjects generated more ideas, and their possible solutions were more “fluent, flexible and original,” according to the study. Microdosing with psychedelic substances therefore improved both the divergent and convergent thinking of participants. But the subjects’ ability to reason wasn’t affected by the microdoses. This, researchers say, indicates that mushrooms, taken in very small amounts, boost creativity without harming fluid intelligence.

While the study is small, it is a first step in examining the effects that users have touted anecdotally. Next, scientists will have to compare subjects who microdose with those who take a placebo, and investigate the effects on many more people.

Nonetheless, based on these preliminary findings, the researchers believe that microdosing could be beneficial for more than just improved creativity and more flexible thinking. “Apart from its benefits as a potential cognitive enhancement technique, microdosing could be further investigated for its therapeutic efficacy to help individuals who suffer from rigid thought patterns or behavior, such as individuals with depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder,” suggests cognitive psychologist and lead researcher Luisa Prochazkova in a statement.