How You Can Use Psychedelics To Optimize Your Daily Creativity

Can microdosing magnify your creativity?

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | July 5, 2022

A new study investigates how microdosing psychedelics enhances creative thinking.

I recently spoke with Luisa Prochaskova, a psychologist at Leiden University in the Netherlands and the lead author of the new research, about the nature of creativity and how it can be enhanced by microdosing. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to investigate the topic of microdosing and its effect on creativity?

The idea that unusual states of consciousness might induce creativity seems rather intuitive.

Creative thinking is often characterized by its out-of-the-box nature, and altered states of consciousness are arguably a prototype of out-of-the-box-ness.

Indeed, history is full of examples of great artists, musicians, and scientists whose creativity occurred under an altered state of consciousness.

Previous psychedelic research has mostly focused on the effects of single, relatively high doses of psychedelic substances which are known to render cognition highly disorganized.

A state of highly disorganized cognition makes measurement of high-level cognition (such as creativity) and its sub-processes difficult as participants struggle to comply with experimental instructions and show impairments in basic memory and executive functions.

Taking small doses of psychedelics over time was anecdotally associated with various benefits, including improvements in creativity, while avoiding strong psychedelic effects, which are generally undesirable in routine life.

As such, microdosing practice presents a promising approach for cognitive enhancement as well as an avenue to study the interaction between psychedelics (its underlying psychopharmacology) and cognition in a more controlled manner.

How did you study it and what did you find?

First, we ran a small pilot study that was already published where we examined the effect of microdosing with psilocybin on creativity.

Results showed that after a non-blinded microdose, both convergent and divergent thinking performance improved, but fluid intelligence was unaffected. These findings could be interpreted within two possibilities:

  1. Firstly, we could speculate that microdosing improved both convergent and divergent thinking because of a mild serotonergic boost and thus installing optimal balance between cognitive persistence and flexibility.
  2. Secondly, considering the nature of the trial, observed effects could be driven by placebo effects.

In the next study, we described findings from three double-blind placebo-controlled longitudinal trials with microdosing on creativity across a pooled sample of 175 participants.

The study's design was unique considering the legal status of psychedelic truffles in the Netherlands, permitting us to combine a well-controlled laboratory assessment with a naturalistic microdosing protocol.

This made our study the most robust lab-based microdosing research to date.

However, the results were less optimistic regarding the cognitive-enhancing properties of microdosing on creativity.

We found a significant and relatively replicable effect on divergent originality after microdosing.

However, no effects were observed for convergent thinking or divergent fluency, or flexibility.

Overall, the results suggest that the effects of truffle microdosing are limited to specific aspects of divergent thinking and are thus more nuanced than anticipated.

Can you give a brief description of what you mean by convergent and divergent creativity?

There are numerous definitions for creativity, yet most would agree that creativity is a process, during which a person has to generate ideas, solutions, or products which are original but still appropriate to the task at hand.

Thus, rather than conceptualizing creativity as a personal trait that is reserved for a talented few, we consider creativity to be a state of mind or a series of cognitive processes that anybody can engage in when trying to generate innovative ideas.

In other words, as with any state of mind, creativity is a multilayered state with dissociable subprocesses and neural underpinnings.

To isolate the underlying processes in creativity, two approaches are frequently discussed (but not always properly disentangled) in the literature. In research, divergent thinking is considered to be the main ingredient of creativity, wherein one has to generate as many creative ideas as possible to answer a single open-ended question.

This principle is operationalized in the alternative uses task where the participant has to report as many possible uses for an ordinary object such as a bottle (e.g., as a magnifying glass, as a weight, as a weapon, etc.).

In contrast, other studies argue that convergent thinking is the key to creativity, being the process during which an individual finds a single logical association between seemingly unrelated objects, for instance, by assessing the co-occurrence of features or bridging remotely related elements.

An example would be the Remote Associates Test where the participant has to search for a meaningful concept that can be combined with three other objects (e.g., "-man", "-market", and "-bowl"; with the connecting concept being "super").

However, it is imperative to point out that all available creativity tests involve the interaction of both convergent and divergent thinking.

For instance, the act of trying to think of an alternative use of an object first triggers information retrieval from associative memory, through which loosely associated representations are generated, followed by more analytic-focused processing to derive a single meaningful answer.

The interaction between divergent and convergent thinking will ultimately impact the quality of artistic products and account for some degree of individual differences in creativity.

Importantly, the relative contribution of divergent and convergent thinking is dynamic and seems to be systematically modulated by the current state of consciousness.

For instance, several behavioral studies have shown that each of the two processes can be enhanced or impaired by mood, arousal, meditation, or psychopharmacological agents.

Did you find any other surprising results that were not part of your preliminary aims?

Sure, we found salient placebo effects. Of all the participants who reported feeling some symptoms of microdosing, 48% were in the placebo condition.

We also observed that previous psychedelic experiences significantly mediate perceived psychoactive effects (making them stronger for the previous user).

Notably, the microdosing symptoms were most predominantly reported as positive 49% (including placebo condition), 30% reported mixed symptoms, and 14% reported negative symptoms.

Relevantly, the majority of the participants who reported negative symptoms were those in active microdosing condition (76%), suggesting positive bias in the placebo group toward microdosing.

Furthermore, the most significant difference among groups was observed in reported somatic changes. Specifically, participants in the active microdosing condition were more likely to report changes in body awareness, such as a sense of elevated heart rate, change in temperature, or nausea.

You mention that divergent thinking is characterized by cognitive flexibility that is potentially induced by microdosing psychedelics. Can you expand on that?

Psychedelics are structurally related to the endogenous neurotransmitter serotonin (5-HT). Seven classes of 5-HT receptors are identified (i.e. 5-HT1 to 5-HT7), each having several subtypes.

LSD, like other psychedelic substances, exerts its signature psychological effects mainly through agonizing the 5-HT2A receptor subtype. Stimulation of the 5-HT2A receptor has been associated with neurogenesis, which is important for learning and memory.

While the neuro-cognitive mechanisms in microdosing remain hypothetical, several interpretations can be drawn from existing research conducted with regular psychedelic doses.

After 2A stimulation an increased salience of stimuli was reported which might be associated with decrements in sensory gating. This may be interpreted as the brain filtering less information from the environment, making environmental stimuli more salient after intake of a psychedelic. Disinhibited information processing may be a component of divergent thinking, a core component of creative thinking.

Specifically, psychedelics were proposed to relax such high-level beliefs (priors) and liberate bottom-up signals which can in turn access conscious experience more easily.

By reducing the weight of prior beliefs, psychedelics were suggested to abolish pervasive thoughts and biases, inducing more unconstrained, disinhibited cognition that was previously associated with creativity.

Reduction in top-down priors was further argued to increase sensitivity to bottom-up signals and enhance the level of detail of sensory input.

An increase in bottom-up signals may allow for a broader exploration of the feature space (e.g. shapes, edges, textures) through which new creative connections can be discovered.

Indeed, it was recently found that divergent thinking is increased after (large dose) psychedelic intake, whereas the convergent thinking component of creativity is decreased.

Another form of behavioral flexibility is reversal learning, which involves the detection of a shift in contingency, inhibition of a prepotent, learned response, overcoming 'learned irrelevance', and new associative learning.

In sum, we hypothesize that while large doses of psychedelics acutely induce hyper-flexible, unconstrained cognition, microdosing facilitates only a slight increase in flexibility (i.e. state of low inhibition) and in turn facilitates increased spread of divergent associations.

Do you have plans for follow-up research? Where would you like to see research on microdosing go in the future?

We do not have plans to expand our research at the moment.

Overall, the effects seem to be quite subtle and domain-specific. For instance, in my yet unpublished work, we did not provide convincing evidence towards cognitive enhancement (depression, well-being, memory) in the healthy sample.

But we did show evidence of generally good tolerability of microdosing and salient placebo effects. This is promising in terms of future clinical research.

In other words, we cannot eliminate the possibility that participants with cognitive impairment (depression, social anxiety, and ADHD/ADD) could benefit from microdosing as they may have different baseline psycho-pharmacology and the effects of microdosing may be more salient.