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Why is Silicon Valley on psychedelics? Do they really make you more creative? What are the associated risks?
A growing number of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and others working in Silicon Valley appear to be embracing psychedelic drug use to enhance their creativity and treat anxiety and depression. Experts say that more research is needed to understand the benefits and dangers of psychedelics.
Here’s a look at psychedelic use in Silicon Valley.
Silicon Valley Is Getting High
Reports suggest that psychedelics are permeating corporate culture in Silicon Valley, with executives and employees alike taking the drugs to open their minds, amplify their performance, and manage what ails them.
What’s behind the alleged growing embrace of psychedelics in Silicon Valley? We’ll examine experts’ varied views on these questions.
Psychedelics come in many forms, including psilocybin (magic mushrooms), ketamine (Special K), LSD, and MDMA (ecstasy).
Reports suggest that the use of psychedelics in Silicon Valley is growing:
- Elon Musk has said that occasional use of ketamine—which he allegedly microdoses—is a better option to address depression than taking “zombifying” antidepressants.
- Google cofounder Sergey Brin reportedly uses magic mushrooms.
- Steve Jobs has touted his experiences with LSD.
- Venture capital firms are said to be throwing psychedelic parties.
- Tesla is purportedly receptive to workers’ use of psychedelic drugs while en route to work.
- One coach to Silicon Valley corporate executives and startup founders says that five years ago psychedelics were a taboo subject; today 40% of his clients want to try them.
Silicon Valley psychedelic enthusiasts and newcomers reportedly acquire and use the drugs by turning to traditional drug dealers, employing chemists, and attending invite-only psychedelic parties organized via encrypted messaging apps like Signal. Invitees sometimes pay hundreds of dollars to attend these gatherings where they’re asked to sign nondisclosure agreements.
Why Are Psychedelics Popular in Silicon Valley?
Reports suggest that tech entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, and others using psychedelics in Silicon Valley view the drugs as a fast-track path to:
- See their minds and the world with unparalleled clarity.
- Increase their creativity, focus, and likelihood of developing groundbreaking innovations.
- Make themselves more attractive to investors, who some say will only sink money into people and companies they believe are extraordinary, not “normal.” Psychedelics, they assert, give them this edge.
Many of Silicon Valley’s psychedelics users reportedly “microdose”—in other words, take 5% to 10% of a full dose of a psychedelic to reap the rewards of the drugs’ alleged mental health benefits and alleviate anxiety and depression without getting a hallucinogenic high.
Risks of Psychedelics
But experts warn that taking psychedelics in unsupervised, non-clinical settings isn’t risk-free:
- The potential for drug dependence and abuse grows as more people self-medicate with psychedelics.
- Psychedelics research offers an inconsistent, sometimes troubling picture of the drugs’ effectiveness and impacts.
- The drugs can cause a host of problems, including:
- Mood swings and erratic behavior, raising questions about whether people using them in non-clinical settings might harm themselves or others.
- Lethal toxicity when combined with prescription drugs like antidepressants.
- Enduring psychotic episodes and hallucinations in rare circumstances.
What Do Psychedelics Do to the Brain?
In his book How to Change Your Mind, Michael Pollan discusses the science behind psychedelics. While research into the neurological effects of psychedelics is young, and researchers haven’t yet pieced it all together, some theorize that the substances may affect the way our brains filter or interpret information. Pollan says this research challenges conventional notions that the experiences are “hallucinations.”
Researchers at Imperial College in London in 2009 looked at brain scans of people undergoing psychedelic experiences with psilocybin. They expected to see increased brain activity, and that was the case for some regions, including those associated with emotions and memories—particularly otherwise subconscious ones. Considering the experiences people describe, this was not surprising. But what was surprising was the reduced activity in the “default mode network”—a network of brain regions responsible for our sense of self as a distinct individual.
This network is also responsible for filtering information from the outside world. Pollan says this filter allows us to operate more efficiently by allowing only the most important pieces of information in at any given time. So, he explains, because this default mode network is suppressed during a psychedelic experience, that means the brain is letting in sensory input that’s normally restricted. We know, for example, that people see colors differently (often perceiving them as brighter) and hear music in a more intense and nuanced way under the influence of psychedelics.
So, Pollan says the brain research suggests that the way we perceive things in the altered state could be the unfiltered reality, while our brains usually act as filters—weeding out all the “unnecessary” information—to simplify our everyday experience. In other words, he says one could argue that our everyday consciousness is essentially a hallucination in itself—it’s composed only of the information the brain lets in and is processed against our prior experiences. And Pollan says it’s likely that this one particular mode of consciousness evolved to be our default one because it best allows us to efficiently complete tasks necessary for survival. But he says it’s only one of multiple possible modes of perception.
Psychedelic proponents assert that the drugs can be safely and productively integrated into the workplace but the process must be thoughtful and deliberate. But a roadmap to make this happen, which includes a better understanding of psychedelics’ effects and risks, doesn’t yet exist. Experts say that more research on the drugs is needed.
To this end, new legislation in the House of Representatives may help bring the goal of better understanding psychedelics to fruition. The bipartisan bill instructs the defense secretary to offer grants for research on the use of psychedelics to treat active-duty military members with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries. With seven Republican and five Democratic co-sponsors, the bill has the potential to pass the House, which could open the door to studies that shed more light on the drugs’ benefits and dangers.
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