Why Silicon Valley (and Tech) Keeps Turning to Psychedelics

The recreational and medicinal use of hallucinogenic drugs in small amounts has grown massively since 2015.

More than 90,000 people fled Silicon Valley during the first two years of the COVID-19 health crisis. But burnout in the tech sector remains inescapable — and it’s a great societal issue that only worsened during the pandemic. According to the newly released report by Alfack WorkForce, 59% of American workers reported experiencing at least moderate levels of burnout in 2022, which was a significant uptick over the 52% figure recorded for the same survey in 2021.

Burnout is insidious. It festers and builds and grows, oftentimes unnoticed until something happens that blows the proverbial cap off the bottle. It happened about four years into a job at Google for Adam*, who was promoted to senior software engineer at the company in 2020. To get through it, he turned to an increasingly popular strategy in tech: microdosing “magic mushrooms,” the group of fungi famous for giving you doses of the feel-good chemical psilocybin.

“What they don’t teach you in programming school is how to cope with the emotional labor that comes with a tech job in the Valley,” said Adam, who joined Google in 2014 as an intern after graduating college. At first elated with the promise of opportunity, but when the glow started to fade, so did he. “That’s when a fellow Googler recommended I start experiencing shrooms.”

Heeding the advice, Adam started taking “a small amount” (in the ballpark of a gram) of dried magic mushrooms three to four times a week.

“After my first microdose, I almost immediately felt calmer and less anxious. Things just seemed clearer in my head,” Adam said. “I’ve been doing this for a while now, and the benefits still stick, and my tolerance for magic mushrooms is still the same, which is interesting to me.”

Microdosing shrooms have become a more mainstream topic recently, with Oakland, Denver, and now both San Francisco and Santa Cruz passing laws to decriminalize hallucinogenic fungi (they’re still very much illegal elsewhere though, hence why Adam and others we spoke with asked to remain anonymous).

In 2022, products from Bliss Mushroom — an SF Bay Area company that’s become famous for its psilocybin-infused milk chocolate bars, each one fetching around $45 — began showing up in Oakland dispensary for over-the-counter purchases. Customers can purchase bars not only based on their flavor profile, but the dosage of psilocybe cubensis, a species of psilocybin mushroom, included; the highest concentration can be upwards of 6,000mg.

Typically, micro-dosing means taking about a gram or less while a full trip would usually require two grams or more, but the amount varies on the person.

This modern movement can trace its roots back to San Francisco when James Fadiman published The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide, the first publication to describe microdosing in detail. Fadiman — a psychologist and writer who co-founded the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology Foundation — goes over his personal spat of microdosing, describing it as a glorious clear-headed time.

“There was no fear, no worry, no sense of reputation and competition, no envy, none of these things which in varying degrees had always been present in my work,” he writes.

Lowering stress is one of the main reasons techies are turning to microdosing — 60% of tech workers admit to feeling burnt out.

Fadiman remains one of the world’s foremost pioneers in the study of psychedelic compounds. Through his institute, he runs an ongoing study in which participants take roughly half a gram of psilocybin — some participants opt instead for small doses (less than 10 micrograms) of LSD to obtain a similar effect — every three or days or so and then report back on their experience. So far, he’s collected more than 1,500 participant accounts. Most people in high-stress environments report being happier, more content, and less stressed and experience increased creativity.

Celebrated author Michael Pollan’s book, How to Change Your Mind, can be largely credited to bringing micro dosing back to the forefront of Silicon Valley discussions when it came out last year. Pollan does a deep dive into the history of psychedelic drugs, the mental health field’s resurgent interest in them, and describes his own “mental travelogue” on micro dosing acid, which supports Fadiman’s claims.

“Mushrooms have taught me the interconnectedness of all life forms and the molecular matrix that we share,” Pollan writes in the book. “I feel that I am part of this continuum of stardust into which I am born and to which I will return at the end of this life.”

Fadiman’s study isn’t peer-reviewed, and given shrooms’ illegality, there’s a lack of true scientific studies on the effect of magic mushrooms. One that may come closest is a recent peer-reviewed study led by cognitive scientist Vince Polito, in which he collected daily reports from 98 regular microdoses on their psychological functioning over a six-week period. Participants didn’t express any spikes in creativity, a common claim about microdosing, but half reported a decrease in “mind-wandering” and lower levels of stress and depression.

Lowering stress is one of the main reasons techies are turning to microdosing — 60% of tech workers admit to feeling burnt out according to a 2019 survey conducted by the community workplace app Blind.

“I needed a second wind, and when I read up on the microdosing trend, I thought maybe this is a way I could get out of this funk,” said Mountain View-based graphics designer Brandon, who wanted to try psychedelics rather than the traditional pills he’d turned to in the past. He now ingests a small number of mushrooms twice a week with two days in between. “I was at my wit’s end and really didn’t want to start taking antidepressant medication again because it did more harm than good — for me at least.”

Michael, a freelance software engineer, heard about shrooms through Pollan’s book and podcasts like Gimlet Media’s Reply All, which has an episode — albeit a lighthearted one about trippy office shenanigans — that covers the potential benefits of using hallucinogens.

Admittedly, he had some hesitation about starting.

“I didn’t know what to expect, and I had a bunch of anxiety going into it at first, just waiting for something to happen,” Michael said. “But once I did it, I finished all these things that I’ve been putting off at work and personal life by lunchtime; I was so much more productive, focused, and aware of my surroundings.”

Michael also felt more subdued than expected. “I wouldn’t even call it a trip,” he said. “Microdosing is more like a weak version of a cup of coffee and Adderall that doesn’t make you jittery or keep you up until 3 a.m. — I felt more creative, more focused.”

“Psychedelics allow the brain to let down its guard, which can lead some people to experience past trauma that they haven’t properly worked on and through.”

Michael now takes a somewhat large quantity — in excess of four grams of dried magic mushrooms — every few weeks to experience a full trip, which he says helps to “center and calm his mind.”

The people we spoke to were quick to note that while they had positive experiences on shrooms, many don’t. People can have negative effects from a shroom trip, especially if they’re not in the right headspace. Much like the trend of fasting, microdosing is seen as something that successful tech people should do, and peer pressure plays a huge role. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates both famously experimented with LSD, commonly taking some 10 to 20 micrograms to “transcend common thinking” and find new creative corners to ideate from.

“Psychedelics allow the brain to let down its guard, which can lead some people to experience past trauma that they haven’t properly worked on and through,” says licensed psychotherapist Shrein Bahrami. “That’s why it’s so important to make sure you’re in the right headspace before taking any psychedelic, no matter how much you ingest.”

Microdosing can often pair well with therapy because it can bring up unresolved shame and past traumas, says Bahrami, who credits its recent rise in popularity to a desire to return to natural medicine. She emphasizes that microdosing is individual and that everyone will have their own “frequency and dosage.”

“Psychedelics offer people an environmental prescription to the pharmaceuticals we see today,” Bahrami says. “And even though they’ve been well studied for decades, their recent cult-like following has attracted a new, huge number of guinea pigs.”

Downsides? Bahrami believes there’s still a need for more clinical work and research conducted in the area.

“We don’t really know the long-term effects of microdosing regularly and what implications that has on the brain.”

To boot, psilocybin-assisted therapy is illegal virtually everywhere in the United States outside of government-approved clinical and research trials. A licensed therapist or psychologist, for example, can’t currently prescribe magic mushrooms to a patient — which is another reason why “psilocybin retreat centers” have surged in popularity in countries like the Netherlands, where the drug is widely available and perfectly legal.

Surprisingly, microdosing’s biggest contribution to society is its ability to help us construct pathways to our inner selves and others in deeper ways.

“Magic mushrooms allow us to be vulnerable with ourselves and experience the full humanity inside us,” Bahrami says. “They help build bridges connecting our mind and body and allow us to connect with others in profound ways.”

*All names were changed to protect the identity of those interviewed.

Feature image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

If you or someone you know is considering taking magic mushrooms for therapeutic uses, contact a trained mental health professional for help. For serious circumstances of life-threatening depression, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800–273–8255).

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