Microdosing—taking fractional doses of psychoactive compounds—has gained popularity recently as a way to lessen anxiety and stimulate creative thought. Some believe that taking small doses of psychedelic substances can enhance a person’s cognitive flexibility, allowing them to think of problems from different perspectives and create novel solutions.
Most of these claimed effects of psychedelics are anecdotal and there is a distinct lack of quantitative experimental data on the matter. Psychedelic compounds tend to be either illegal or extremely controlled, so it is hard to run controlled clinical trials to test their effects. Now, in the first study of its kind, a team of scientists based in the Netherlands has run controlled experiments investigating the cognitive effects of ingesting psilocybin, the active component in “magic” mushrooms.
In the study, the researchers investigated the cognitive effects of psilocybin on a group of 36 subjects. They found that taking small doses of mushrooms (~0.37 grams) improved the subjects convergent and divergent thinking process on a number of tasks, allowing them to both more quickly identify a single solution to a task and dream up potential alternative solutions. The results seem to imply that microdoses of psilocybin compounds can give a person more cognitive flexibility and allow them to engage in thought patterns they would otherwise be unlikely to engage in. The researchers’ findings can be read in full in the journal Psychopharmacology.
Magic Mushrooms And Creativity
Psychedelic drug use has always had a lingering association with creative thought in American culture. The author Aldous Huxley was famous for his writings inspired by his experiences using LSD and mescaline. Francis Crick, one of the people who discovered the double helix structure of DNA, was a vocal supporter of the use of psychedelics, and several great musicians such as The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix credited their generation-defining music and worldview to the mind-altering powers of psychedelics.
Despite the existing cultural connections between psychedelics and creativity, there is little quantitative data on the cognitive effects of psychedelics. Most existing studies involving psychedelics investigate their qualitative effects by collecting first-person reports on the subjective experience of taking psychedelics. Some recent studies suggest that magic mushrooms can help deal with neurological symptoms of depression, but the jury is still out on the question. There are also some studies that imply microdosing LSD can help stimulate creative thought.
To remedy this lack of quantitative knowledge, the current study examines the effects of ingesting psilocybin magic mushrooms on subject performance in a number of well-defined tests meant to measure the strength of convergent and divergent creative thinking processes. Convergent thinking requires finding a single solution to a well-defined problem (What single word can be added to –man, –market, and –bowl to create a new word? Answer: super), while divergent thinking involves generating a list of potential solutions to a more nebulously defined problem (how many ways can one use a brick?).
Current models of creativity hold that convergent thinking is driven more by attention/focus related mechanisms while divergent thinking is more related to cognitive flexibility, though both are necessary for creative thought. To test the two kinds of thinking the researchers used two metrics, the Picture Concept Task (PCT) for convergent and the Alternate Uses Task (AUT) for divergent. The PCT asks subjects to identify a common theme or concept among presented objects and the AUT gives respondents 5 minutes to list different uses for common household objects, such as bricks. AUT responses are gauged on 4 metrics: fluency (number of responses), flexibility (categories of response), elaboration (how precise the description of use is), and originality (how many others gave the same answer). The researchers also tested for changes in fluid intelligence—the ability to asses and integrate new data—with a 12-item version of the Raven’s Progressive Matrices Task (RPMT).
The team began their experiment by administering the above-mentioned tests to the 38 participants to get a baseline reading of levels of convergent/divergent thinking and fluid intelligence. After gathering baseline readings, the subject then each ingested about 0.37 g of psychedelic truffles and were asked to retake the tests once the drugs began to show effects.
The researchers found that after ingestion, subjects showed significant improvement in convergent thinking tasks; a mean increase of 1.03 where p=0.17 (very significant). Likewise, subjects saw a significant increase in the 3 of the 4 metrics of the AUT, fluency, flexibility, and originality. There was no significant increase or decrease in elaboration scores. With respect to fluid intelligence, the researchers observed no significant changes in scores after ingestion.
So what do these results mean? Prima facie the data seems to imply that microdoses of psilocybin have an immediate and measurable positive effect on creative thinking processes. Increased scores on the PCT test imply that psilocybin can help people focus and give more attention to a cognitive task, allowing them to zone in on the correct answer more quickly. Increased scores on the AUT indicate that psilocybin helps people think outside the box and come up with alternate solutions that they otherwise would not think of. In particular, the increased flexibility and originality scores are evidence that psilocybin can help people produce novel and unique thought, generally considered the essence of human creativity. These findings are in line with other studies showing a positive effect of psychedelics, such as ayahuasca, on creative thinking. Notably, though, the researchers did not observe any increase on measures of fluid intelligence, implying that magic mushrooms specifically target creativity performance but not general analytic cognition. In other words, magic mushrooms probably won’t make you necessarily smarter, but they can allow you to see connections or ideas you might not have noticed before.
Of course, as with any study, this one has its limitation. The lack of a distinct control group puts some doubt on the data. It is possible that the changes in scores might not be solely the result of psilocybin but of the subjects learning between the two administerings of the tests. Additionally, the expectations of the subjects could have a confounding effect on the data. Most of the subjects tested indicated some previous experience using psychedelic drugs, so it is possible that increased scores reflect the subjects’ expectations of being on the drug. This is not incompatible with the claim that psilocybin positively affects creative thought, but it could lessen the significance of the results. Additionally, other studies report that heavy psychedelic use actually impairs convergent thinking, but the difference could be due to a difference in the dosage amount. Ask anyone experienced in using psychedelics and they will tell you that a little bit can stimulate mental perspicuity, but too much can cause extreme anxiety and paranoia (a bad “trip”)
Either way, the study provides another brick in the growing edifice of scientific studies on psychedelics. Ideally, the positive effects of psychedelics (euphoria, feelings of connectedness and openness, contentment) can be isolated to help treat depression and anxiety. Microdosing might be a way to get those positive effects without risking the negative effects. Given the decreasing societal stigma against recreational drug use, we may soon start to see legitimate psychopharmacological treatments that take advantage of the unique properties of psychedelics.