This essay is part of an online supplement to the Openings collection on “Chemo-Ethnography,” which was edited by Nicholas Shapiro and Eben Kirksey and featured in the November 2017 issue of Cultural Anthropology.
Psychedelic substances are currently illegal in much of the world, including the United States and Europe. Since the 1990s, though, researchers—especially in the fields of neuroscience and psychiatry—have worked to bring these substances back into the mainstream, assessing and testing their benefits with renewed scientific rigor (Langlitz 2007). The resurgence of psychedelics and the investigation of their effects have taken shape through what Richard Doyle (2011, 19) calls the “open-source psychedelic movement . . . whose innovation on some measures far exceeds that of the multibillion-dollar official pharmaceutical industry.” While the so-called psychedelic renaissance seeks to understand, facilitate, and regulate the powerful effects of psychedelics more generally, one particular set of practices has been central to the traction it has gained: microdosing.
Microdosing involves what my informants call “sub-perceptual” doses (from ten to thirty micrograms of LSD or other equivalent substances). Media accounts often emphasize the connection between microdosing and work, noting its popularity among Silicon Valley CEOs, programmers, and creatives. The dosing in microdosing, or so the story goes, offers the advantages of psychedelics’ powerful effects while allowing users to remain in control. This fits the psychedelic experience within social roles and dynamics, not only allowing work but actually helping with work. That potential has been seized by the techno-financial sector that calls Silicon Valley home. In what follows, I want to complicate that narrative by describing some of the practices of microdosing I encountered during my fieldwork with psychedelic users in the Netherlands and the United States.
Take the example of Nina and Michael. Both in their mid-twenties and enrolled in a neuroscience doctoral program in the Netherlands, they decided to start microdosing after recreationally consuming larger doses of psychedelics with friends. Some of their friends designed personalized, tailor-made microdosing protocols, mixing and matching information found on Internet forums and blogs of microdosing advocates. Others simply adopted what their peers were doing. When I first met Nina and Michael, they told me about how a microdose helped them to focus and be creative while working on their research projects at the university.
“It’s not like taking a full dose,” Nina explained. “Yeah,” Michael added, “with a full dose you are gone: you know, what did [Timothy] Leary say, ‘turn on, tune in, drop out’?” Nina emphasized that microdosing
is not at all like that. The tiny dose counteracts the airy-fairy psychedelic effect . . . And it lets you take advantage of the focus, the creative ways you can make new connections between different pieces of information, and even just the good mood it puts you in! Without the come-down of other stuff, like Modafanil and Ritalin.
When I made arrangements to observe one of their microdosing sessions, it became clear how careful they were in planning their enhanced workday. As Michael told me, “Cutting those small tabs isn’t easy!” Drops are easier to dilute, but are also harder to come across.
While much of the recent interest in microdosing has focused on whether psychedelics enhance creativity and focus, what has emerged as more interesting is the question of how they might do so. This line of inquiry builds on a sensitivity to practice that has developed in science and technology studies (e.g., Mol 2010), where scholars have long grappled with tensions between understanding science and criticizing it. If molecular and neurochemical mechanisms do not reveal an objective and static nature “out there,” they still shape the world in ways that inform how we live our lives (Hardon and Sanabria 2017).
By focusing on the potential of psychedelic substances, the psychedelic renaissance provides fertile ground to think about efficacy, causality, and the workings of the (socio-material? material-semiotic?) world. But asking how psychedelics work immediately problematizes the very category of work—for psychedelic users as much as for social scientists. Rather than characterizing work in reductive and generic terms, we need to consider it in its situated transformations, circulations, and traffics. Over the course of my fieldwork, I learned that for psychedelics to work—to help with creative or cognitive labor—requires personal, relational, and organizational preparation. Microdosing thus becomes meaningful for work through a set of practices. As people tinker with their work practices, microdoses do their work.
Although scientific efforts to understand the workings of psychedelics were of interest to some of my informants, most were more interested in whether microdosing worked for them. Sjef, while organizing a microdosing work session with a friend, realized too late that their dose—“less than a real dose”—was still too high. They ended up being too high as well. “It was a bit ridiculous,” Sjef recalled, “we were so happy and laughing . . . and everything was slightly surreal. It was absurd to be at the library, so we left. We had to go for a walk.” Too large a dose and working will be impossible; too small a dose and the substance might not do anything at all. Even when the dosing is just right, my informants also spoke about the work to be done on oneself to be able to navigate and make the best of the session. This description bears a resemblance to the kind of daily body work that María Carozzi (2005) brings to light in considering the mind-body dynamics of laboring academics. While academics often imagine themselves as talking minds, their work environment turns out to require a lot of body work as they focus and manage their attention—personally and interpersonally.
So, too, microdosers need to focus to make the psychedelics work, even as they do the other work they set out to do in the first place. During the microdosing session that I observed, Nina and Michael still had to sit at their desks and read, think, write, delete, and write again. Thus, if microdosing can shed light on the relations between chemicals and work, it does so by complicating what we think of as work. The use of psychedelics by Silicon Valley professionals to optimize creativity was certainly a part of my informants’ imaginaries. But to put that imaginary to work—and to allow the biochemical, physiological, psychological, and pharmacokinetic processes catalyzed by chemical substances to help them in their own work—there was also relational work to do. If, then, instead of focusing on whether psychedelics work, we attend to how they work, we might learn more about these chemicals and the practices with which they emerge. Through microdosing, psychedelics stand to rework what work can be.
Carozzi, María Julia. 2005. “Talking Minds: The Scholastic Construction of Incorporeal Discourse.” Body and Society 11, no. 2: 25–39.
Doyle, Richard M. 2011. Darwin’s Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noosphere. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Hardon, Anita, and Emilia Sanabria. 2017. “Fluid Drugs: Revisiting the Anthropology of Pharmaceuticals.” Annual Review of Anthropology 46: 117–32.
Langlitz, Nicolas. 2013. Neuropsychedelia: The Revival of Hallucinogen Research since the Decade of the Brain. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Mol, Annemarie. 2010. “Actor-Network Theory: Sensitive Terms and Enduring Tensions.” Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie 50: 253–69.