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It has been an open secret for many years that Silicon Valley techies—even billionaires—regularly microdose themselves with psychedelic drugs like LSD or psilocybin to stay creative and focused. A microdose would be about 10 micrograms of LSD, which would work at a “sub-perceptual level" (It is estimated that you need at least 100 micrograms for a hallucinatory “trip").

Steve Jobs, the Valley’s most hallowed figure, often spoke about how “taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life". The late Apple CEO even joked that Microsoft would be a more original company if Bill Gates had experienced psychedelics (Gates later said that he had tried LSD).

LSD and psilocybin—the active ingredient in magic mushrooms—are illegal almost all over the world. But over the last decade or so, there has been growing scientific research on how these drugs affect our brains. The US banned LSD in the 1960s amid increasing popular perception that it fried people’s brains and even led to deaths. But studies have shown that there may be no such thing as an LSD “overdose", and there is no proof that it is even addictive. In fact, there is now evidence that some of the strange things that these drugs do to our brains could be beneficial.

Psychedelics mimic serotonin, a chemical in the brain which modulates mood, feeling and consciousness. Once it enters the brain, the drug stimulates a serotonin receptor, located in the prefrontal cortex, called 5-HT2A. This increases transmission of glutamate, the neurotransmitter most responsible for brain functions like cognition, learning, and memory.

The drug also causes parts of the brain that usually do not communicate with one another to start talking among themselves. Simply put, the brain becomes a much better-connected and information-rich network. This helps explain why these substances could be used to lead to insights and creative perspectives that otherwise remain inaccessible to us.

Psychedelics came to Silicon Valley in the late 1950s. Engineers regularly took hallucinogens because they believed this helped them think out of the box. When the drugs were banned, the practice stopped, or at least went deep underground. But in recent years, in this highly competitive tech world, microdosing is back big time.

Little formal research has been done on microdosing. Almost all the information available is anecdotal stuff from users. But a recent study conducted by the Psychedelic Society of the Netherlands shows that what the microdosers have been claiming may be true.

The researchers looked into how a microdose of magic mushrooms affected cognitive brain functions. Thirty-six participants were given a one-off dose and asked to solve three puzzles. The researchers claim that they observed some subtly profound changes in their subjects.

People appeared to be drifting through the puzzle-solving tasks with great ease while creating solutions that were notably more original and flexible than what they came up with before they microdosed. The study authors called this “changes in fluid intelligence".

“Our results suggest that consuming a microdose of magic mushrooms allowed participants to create more out-of-the-box alternative solutions for a problem, thus providing preliminary support for the assumption that microdosing improves divergent thinking," lead researcher Luisa Prochazkova of Leiden University explained. “Moreover, we also observed an improvement in convergent thinking, that is, increased performance on a task that requires the convergence on one single correct or best solution."

Psychedelics may have important medicinal uses too, for instance, in treatment of addiction and depression, especially among terminally ill patients. In fact, last month, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted a “breakthrough therapy" designation to a treatment that uses psilocybin as a therapy for treatment-resistant depression. The FDA designates a drug as a breakthrough therapy if preliminary clinical evidence shows that it may demonstrate substantial improvement over available therapy. Breakthrough therapies are supported by the FDA through the clinical development programme.

The 1960s counterculture saw the use of “mind-expanding" psychedelic drugs as a means to universal brotherhood and world peace. That may never happen, but it seems they may lead to good things in ways not anticipated by the pioneers. Turn on, tune in, be better at your jobs, and shed your blues?

Sandipan Deb is a former editor of The Financial Express, and founder-editor of Open and Swarajya magazines.

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