E13. Vince Polito – Microdosing

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Today I speak with Dr. Vince Polito (@vincepsy), Research Fellow in the Department of Cognitive Science at Macquarie University. Vince works on developing better measures of self representation and investigating how this capacity is altered in different contexts, clinical conditions and states of consciousness.

Vince and I discuss microdosing, which refers to regularly taking very small doses of psychedelic substances. Earlier this year, Vince published one of the most rigorous studies conducted on microdosing to date.

This is an interesting topic because of its link to the promising therapeutic psychedelic studies currently being undertaken, the positive reports of microdosing in the media, and the lack of empirical research into the practice. We discuss these preliminary investigations and the outlook for this field.

Show Notes

1:10 – On Vince’s research background

7:20 – How Vince came to be interested in microdosing

13:30 – On the methodology and findings of Vince’s microsdosing paper.

22:00 – On the plausibility and continuity of microdosing effects with higher dose psychedelics

25:30 – On how to square the reported benefits of microdosing with the fact that the therapeutic effect of psychedelics are related to the intensity of experience (eg. Griffiths et al., 2017).

31:50 – What do altered states of consciousness, more broadly, have to offer cognitive science?

36:50 – Advice to students interested in similar areas.

39:10 – On meditation as an altered state of consciousness.

43:00 – What’s coming up for Vince in terms of research.

1:10 – On Vince’s research background

Vince’s work has included studying cognitive processes involved in self-representation (how we make sense of the world and where our bodies are in the world) and sense of agency (the feeling of intending things to happen in the world). In studying how sense of agency can be disrupted, Vince has looked at hypnosis, flow states and passivity phenomena in schizophrenia.

7:20 – How Vince came to be interested in microdosing

Vince has also done studies on belief formation – both how delusional beliefs come to be held and how beliefs spread through groups of people. Microdosing was an interesting topic from a belief formation perspective due to a combination extremely positive media coverage, the costs involved and virtually no empirical research. And so, apart from the effects of microdosing itself, Vince’s study investigated the impact of prior beliefs on reported effects.

13:30 – On the methodology and findings of Vince’s microsdosing paper.

Given the barriers to studies involving actual microdose administration, Vince thought that the most rigorous way to proceed would be to find people who were already microdosing and track their experience systematically.

The first part of the study tracked the immediate effects of microdosing through daily ratings of connectedness, contemplation, creativity, focus, happiness, productiveness, and wellbeing. Results suggested a broad positive impact on dosing days, but no residual positive impact on the following days.

The second part of the study looked at the longer term effects. At baseline and again after 6 weeks of microdosing, participants completed a battery of questionnaires assessing effects that are often talked about in connection with microdosing as well as with high dose psychedelics, including mental health, attention, wellbeing, mindfulness, mystical experience, personality, absorption, creativity and agency. Depression, stress and mind-wandering decreased, while absorption and neuroticism increased.

The third part of the study involved comparing expected effects to reported effects. People did have very positive expectations, but it didn’t seem like the observed effects were driven by expectations. For example, creativity was the trait that people most expected to increase yet this was not found in the actual results.

22:00 – On the plausibility and continuity of microdosing effects with higher dose psychedelics

Yes, broadly the findings are consistent. However, the finding of higher neuroticism seems inconsistent with higher dose research and the finding of unchanged creativity seems inconsistent with other studies of microdosing.

25:30 – On how to square the reported benefits of microdosing with the fact that the therapeutic effect of psychedelics are related to the intensity of experience (eg. Griffiths et al., 2017).

Firstly, despite some instructions that microdosing should be imperceptible, microdosing is generally accompanied by noticeable changes in cognitive functioning. Still, these effects are orders of magnitude lower than those reported on high doses of psychedelics, which Vince likens to a positive version of trauma. Because of this, it is difficult to square the reported benefits of microdosing with how we conceive of the therapeutic mechanisms of high doses of psychedelics. Presumably the effects of microdosing result from a more direct pharmacological effect, perhaps relating primarily to effects on the default mode network.

31:50 – What do altered states of consciousness, more broadly, have to offer cognitive science?

We are so bound to our normal waking consciousness, that altered states of consciousness offer an important tool to separating out the dimensions that are part of normal waking consciousness. This is basically a neuropsychological approach. Meditation and virtual reality are other related technologies of consciousness.

36:50 – Advice to students interested in similar areas.

Some good advice might be not try to build a career around psychedelics of altered states of consciousness, but to find a topic that is important and respectable, then use altered states as a case study of how your topic might be effected. This is what Vince has done with sense of agency.

39:10 – On meditation as an altered state of consciousness.

I propose to Vince that the best way to consider meditation might be not necessarily as an altered state of consciousness, but as an attentional practice that can give rise to altered state of consciousness. Vince agrees and reaffirms the legitimacy of deep states of meditation as altered states of consciousness.

43:00 – What’s coming up for Vince in terms of research.

Vince will be working on better measures of self-representation – measures that capture sense of agency, embodiment and presence. He doesn’t have immediate plans for follow-up psychedelic research, but stay posted.

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Episode References

Robin Carhart-Harris and Karl Friston’s recent (2019) paper proposing a relaxing of prior beliefs within a hierarchical predictive coding framework as a model of how psychedelics have their effects. “REBUS and the Anarchic Brain: Toward a Unified Model of the Brain Action of Psychedelics“.