Although the term microdosing has been in use only in the last decade, the phenomenon itself has a long history, with evidence of microdosing practices existing in many cultures across the world.
The first humans: Evolution due to psychedelics?
Most people are familiar with Charles Darwin and the Theory of Evolution. But have you heard of Terence McKenna’s “stoned ape” theory? According to McKenna’s theory, psychedelics were the impetus that caused the Homo erectus to eventually become Homo sapiens. In his book, Food of the Gods, he explains that the North African continent was becoming drier and drier, turning into grasslands towards the end of the most recent ice age. Our ancestors, who previously lived in the trees, had to adapt in order to survive. McKenna claims that these humans were hunter-gatherers who were in the vicinity of herds of animals. Therefore, it’s plausible that they found psilocybin-containing mushrooms that are known to grow on cattle droppings.
An experiment by psychologist Roland Fischer in 1970 showed that low doses of psilocybin (microdoses!) improve our vision. The theory states, that this vision improvement could have helped our ancestors hunt, gather food, and discover predators. The introduction of these mushrooms in the diet of early humans could have enabled them to live (more) consciously, increase their learning and subsequently move up the food chain. That would be the beginning of the symbiotic relationship between magic mushrooms and humans.
The first wave: Indigenous cultures
Although the stoned ape theory has yet to be proven, it appears plausible. It’s true that psychoactive substances can be found in herbs, roots, plants, seeds, and mushrooms everywhere on the planet. It seemed to have been only a matter of time before cultures all over the world would discover and started to use them in various ways.
Until this day, many indigenous cultures have a shaman, a person who serves both as a doctor and spiritual leader of a community. In South America, the shaman (also known as a vegetalista or curandero/a) uses psychoactive plants to get into contact with “the higher realms.” Many cultures believe that such plants are the embodiment of a plant spirit and that by consuming them, one can improve contact with this wise primal force. This occurs not only with consumption of high doses, but also with low doses, or microdoses as we have coined them today.
Tangible evidence that mushrooms were consumed in the Old World comes from cave drawings of 10,000 B.C. on the Tassili plateau in the Sahara of Algeria, showing anthropomorphic dancing mushrooms. On various images of mushrooms and objects from the Bronze Age that were decorated with mushroom-like images. The “Mushroom stones” of Mexico—dancing figures with a mushroom hat—date from 1000–500 BC.
The second wave: the Western 'Discoverers'
When Albert Hofmann, a Swiss pharmacological researcher, accidentally synthesized LSD in 1938 from the ergot fungus and experienced the ever-first LSD trip, it marked the beginning of a second wave of psychedelics in Western society. With it came profound research into psychedelics and the famous counter-culture or hippie movement.
LSD was first utilized in psychotherapy and scientific study in the 1950s, mostly to treat anxiety, depression, addiction, and psychosomatic diseases. LSD was the subject of intensive (psycho) pharmacological study, which resulted in almost 10,000 scholarly papers. In the years that followed, medical experts, scientists, and even the U.S. government expressed an interest in the novel chemical. The CIA’s infamous MK ULTRA program looked at the use of LSD for “mind control” and chemical warfare. The scientific and ethical standards of the experiments were questionable, to say the least.
Psychedelics and increased performance
In 1966, a team of a scientist under the leadership of Dr. James Fadiman studied the influence of psychedelic agents on participants’ creative problem-solving skills. In the “Psychedelic agents in the creative problem-solving” experiment, they tested 27 people working in creative professions such as engineers, architects, scientists, and designers. They gave them 200 milligrams of mescaline sulfate (This is comparable to 100 micrograms of LSD, so hardly a microdose) and had them work on a work assignment or problem. The results were positive, leading many participants to come up with technologically advanced project proposals, products, and solutions that have been mostly accepted by their clients.
Participants reported various forms of increased performance:
- Less burden of inhibitions and fears
- The ability to see a problem in the right context
- Increased idea generation
- Better ability to visualize and use fantasy
- Better concentration
- Increased empathy for external processes and issues
- Increased empathy for people
- Access to unconscious information
- Increased motivation to complete a project
- Visualizing solutions
Shortly after this experiment, the FDA banned all scientific research on psychedelics. The influence of psychedelics on our creativity and problem-solving ability could not be investigated further for decades that followed.
From macro to micro
We know from that Albert Hofmann microdosed for a few decades. When he microdosed, he took walks in the forest, where it would help him think more clearly. He lived to be 102, and at the age of one hundred still gave long lectures. He introduced the concept of microdosing to others and is known to have suggested that microdosing should be researched scientifically.
Eventually, Robert Forte, who was aware that Albert Hofmann had positive experiences with microdosing, made Dr. James Fadiman aware of the practice. Dr. James Fadiman started to independently investigate microdosing and has since been collecting reports from people who experiment with microdosing. His book, The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide, is the first book to extensively discuss microdosing, and most scientific articles about microdosing to date lean on the work of Dr. James Fadiman.
After years of independent research, Dr. James Fadiman suggested a microdosing protocol to guide people who wanted to experiment with microdosing. This protocol includes a number of concrete guidelines of when to microdose and the invitation to keep a daily journal of the experience. Since then, the number of inquiries and reports has been rising exponentially. To date, he has received more than 1850 reports, part of which he has analyzed together with Sophia Korb.
NOTE: At this moment, Fadiman is solely interested in reports from people who microdose for medical reasons. Soon more information via the website of the study.
The third wave: Community and Therapeutic applications
The third phase in the history of microdosing is that of a rapidly increasing awareness of psychedelics and microdosing. The awareness has been surging after microdosing gained significant media attention in 2015 with articles in Rolling Stone Magazine, Forbes, and a podcast by Tim Ferris. Soon after that, Microdosing Institute and other pioneering organizations like The Third Wave began to provide education and community support.
Research into the effects and medical applications is rapidly increasing with organizations like The Beckley Foundation, Imperial College London, and Maastricht University leading the way. Additionally, we see many other institutions and companies collaborating to research the potential of microdosing as a treatment for many conditions such as migraines, inflammatory pain, cluster headaches, ADHD/ADD, OCD, TBI, and hormonal imbalances in women.
Unfortunately, many microdosing substances are still not legally accessible in most countries (except for Caapi Vine and Truffles containing psilocybin in the Netherlands). Nevertheless, those who wish to microdose safely and effectively have access to a variety of online courses, workshops, retreats, and microdosing-assisted coaching.
LEARN MORE: Listen below as team member and medicine woman, Xochitl Ashe, shares insights on moving forward to create a microdosing space that honors Indigenous practices while incorporating modern scientific understanding. Listen to the full conversation with Xochitl here.
- Fadiman, J. (2011) The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide: Safe, Therapeutic, and Sacred Journeys. Park Street Press.
- Fischer, R., Hill, R., Thatcher, K., et al. Psilocybin-induced contraction of nearby visual space. Agents and Actions
- Everything You Wanted To Know About Microdosing (But Were Afraid To Ask). Huffingtonpost.com
- Harman, W. W.; McKim, R. H.; Mogar, R. E.; Fadiman, J.; Stolaroff, M. J. (1966). “Psychedelic agents in creative problem-solving: A pilot study”. Psychological Reports.
- McKenna, T (1992). Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge. Bantam Books (N.Y. et al.).