Effects of psilocybin microdosing on awe and aesthetic experiences: a preregistered field and lab-based study

This double-blind placebo-controlled study (n=30) found that microdosing psychedelics (psilocybin; 1.5mg; 5-7 doses) increased awe but not aesthetic experiences (e.g. viewing art). Many participants knew which group (receiving placebo or psilocybin in which timeframe) they were in (‘breaking blind’) and the researcher presume that expectancy-effects may explain the effects found.

Abstract

There is an increased societal trend to engage in microdosing, in which small sub-hallucinogenic amounts of psychedelics are consumed on a regular basis. Following subjective reports that microdosing enhances the experience of nature and art, in the present study we set out to study the effects of psilocybin microdosing on feelings of awe and art perception. In this preregistered combined field- and lab-based study, participants took part in a microdosing workshop after which they volunteered to self-administer a psilocybin microdose or a placebo for three consecutive weeks, while the condition was kept blind to the participants and researchers. Following a 2-week break, the condition assignment was reversed. During each block, participants visited the lab twice to measure the effects of psilocybin microdosing vs. placebo. We used standardized measures of awe, in which participants reported their experiences in response to short videos or when viewing abstract artworks from different painters. Our confirmatory analyses showed that participants felt more awe in response to videos representing funny animals and moving objects in the microdosing compared to the placebo condition. However, about two-third of our participants were breaking blind to their experimental condition. Our exploratory findings suggest that expectancy-effects may be a driving factor underlying the subjective benefits of microdosing.

Authors: Michiel van Elk, George Fejer, Pascal Lempe, Luisa Prochazckova, Martin Kuchar, Katerina Hajkova & Josephine Marschall

Notes

A group of 30 people completed a study on microdosing and perceptions of awe. The participants were given capsules with 0.7g dried truffles (magic mushrooms) that contained 1.5mg of psilocybin. Over the course of three weeks, the participants microdosed and were presented with a few different tests to measure awe whilst microdosing. During the second block of three weeks, they were given a placebo (or the other way around) and tested again.

Anecdotal evidence points towards many benefits of microdosing psychedelics. Yet controlled studies have trouble finding solid effects of microdosing that can’t be attributed to expectation effects. The current study looked specifically at measures of awe (for more on awe see Hendricks, 2018), “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.”

Did they find something?

  • Participants scored higher on a rating of awe when presented with awe-inspiring videos
  • But there was no difference between aesthetic feelings when looking at a variety of paintings
  • And, unfortunately for proponents of microdosing, the data showed that two-thirds of the participants guessed correctly which condition they were in (when they received a placebo or microdose)

This study, again, shows that when people are microdosing, there are positive effects. In this particular study, ratings of awe were higher (of videos, not paintings). But the study also shows that the expectation of positive effects could be the explaining factor.

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