The thesis of Limitless, the 2011 film starring Bradley Cooper as a pathetic, financially destitute writer who takes a fictitious drug to “unlock 100 percent” of his brain, is that to be a genius is to be a sociopath with a photographic memory. In an early scene, Bradley Cooper’s character first feels the effects of “NZT” and the audience is given a glimpse of a man operating at full human potential: He seduces his landlord’s wife, helps her edit a paper for law school, and cleans his disgusting hovel. Gradually, over the rest of the movie, Bradley Cooper’s disgusting hovel turns into a high-rise apartment and the writing job is shed for a career in—you probably guessed it—finance. Despite the title of the film, the limits of personality—and economics, it seems—are very real; there will be no liberating transcendence for the genius bro, from either the ego or the marketplace. Just the same game on another level. A much more articulate rat deftly moving through the same maze.
This is roughly the use Ayelet Waldman has for psychedelics in her new book A Really Good Day: How Microdosing Made a Mega Difference in My Mood, My Marriage, and My Life. Everything is safely administered, researched, and tailored so as to not upend her life, but instead to slightly twist the knobs and make everything run more smoothly. History repeats itself: first as tragedy, then as a trend among young professionals to stay sharp and productive at work.
Waldman’s goal is to use acid as a mood stabilizer to treat unpredictable emotional fluctuations (snapping at her children and being paranoid about her husband), which seems laudable enough, but her constant analytical negotiations with herself nevertheless stand as part of the same LSD counter revolution happening in Silicon Valley. Waldman is, after all, a Bay Area creative whose microdosing goals are bound up with creating a positive work-life balance, not a political revolution. She writes, “I’m not looking for anything big or great . . . I have so very little interest in mysticism and religion.”
As our most recent Nobel Laureate sang, “As great as you are a man, you’ll never be greater than yourself.” At least you can be richer. Being “greater than yourself,” shedding the comfortable constraints of your moribund old habits and transforming into something new, was the unique promise of psychedelic drugs. It’s what made LSD so appealing to the muddy legions of mid-century American college kids hungry for an alternative to their technocratic “best and brightest” Cold-War inheritance, and the reason the “establishment” they were rebelling against considered the drug so dangerous. Timothy Leary didn’t just want to stabilize the moods of kids who had grown up trembling under desks during air raid drills—he wanted to change the world, one consciousness at a time.
You can “turn on, tune in, drop out” without missing this year’s hottest IPOs.
Judging by the war on drugs that the mind-alteration movement helped to kick off, the straight authorities took their potential to alter society just as seriously. In retrospect, one has to wonder why. Drugs themselves don’t de facto pose a revolutionary threat to the socio-economic order of America. The Midas-in-reverse touch of market capitalism can turn even the most ardent thrillseeker into just another entrepreneur. Elliot Neaman writes in the book Free Radicals, “There were actually at least two countercultures in 1968. The street mutineers dreamed of a political revolution, which was acted out as theater, using old scripts. In the second, politics became personal; emancipation came in the form of consumer choices. The first was collectivist and failed, the second was libertarian, individualistic, futuristic, and carried the day.” So it isn’t so much that the acid dreams of the sixties died but, freed from communitarian political goals, entered popular culture through the backdoor, transformed into a novel kind of identity-based consumerism. Denuded of political content hostile to the free market, “acid culture” became just an alternative template for playing a dutifully productive role in the American economy.
There’s a direct line to be drawn between the counterfeit “at one with everything” consciousness revelations of the Golden Gate Park Human Be-In and the phony “disruption” revolutions of Palo Alto today. You can “turn on, tune in, drop out” without missing this year’s hottest IPOs. And now, in the form of microdosing, the banal ghost of a failed revolution has returned to happily haunt its old stomping grounds. Waldman’s guide through her microdosing sojourn is a Stanford-educated doctor named James Fadiman. She cites numerous studies that were conducted at Stanford, and the institution reappears through her text with the regularity of a heavy motif. Appropriately so. If one wishes to understand how the radical dreams of the sixties were domesticated into Uber and Spotify, look no further than the Stanford campus itself. Stewart Brand, the creator of the hippie proto-Amazon Whole Earth Catalogue, claimed that there was a perceptible divide between radicals as early as at least 1968, summing up the difference as being between “Berkeley and Stanford: Around Berkeley, it was Free Speech Movement, ‘power to the people.’” Around Stanford, not so much.
A microdose of LSD is roughly a tenth of the dose normally administered in order to experience a trip. If a normal dose on one square of blotter acid is around 100 micrograms, then a microdose would be around ten. No bright mandalas of color or intimate conversations with God for the microdoser. “Ken,” a microdosing Silicon Valley professional described his “epic time” microdosing to Rolling Stone: “I was making a lot of sales,” he elaborates on the epicness, “talking to a lot of people, finding solutions to their technical problems.” GQ calls microdosing, “the drug habit your boss is gonna love,” claiming that “the guy down the hall” might be microdosing at this very moment before asking ominously, “Can you afford not to keep up?” Marie Claire claims that “power women” are microdosing, and Konbini calls it an “alternative to coffee for some Twenty-Somethings.” LSD has become another chic, productivity tool of yuppies, in the same bougie category as Soylent or the fitbit.
GQ calls microdosing, “the drug habit your boss is gonna love.”
Only, unlike the other fetishes of the curator class, LSD is still technically illegal, classified as a Schedule I drug and carrying serious jail time if you’re caught with it. And while these glowing, if slightly ironic, trend pieces agree that it’s a good thing that people are chemically altering their brains to be more productive, pity the poor blue-collar worker who develops a habit after being overprescribed opiates, or the black teenager who is thrown in jail for having a little weed on his person. Or, more realistically, no pity. We decide which drugs are respectable and which are inordinately criminalized ad hominem.
As a former public defense attorney herself, Waldman is aware of the schism between the rich and the poor (especially people of color) when it comes to doing drugs. She admits that she’s “so little at risk of prosecution [despite] not only taking LSD but writing about it. Why? Because the sad fact is that my race and class make prosecution less likely.” Her book is a journal of simply using microdoses of LSD to deal with mood issues and, if you can stand spending so much time in the mind of someone wound so tight, it serves as a nice antidote to popular D.A.R.E. program myths about LSD.
Ultimately, the political failures of LSD culture—tech microdosing being just one lurid example— were victim to the same limitations that Dylan sang about. Revolutions have to be communal to be truly revolutionary, or else risk becoming false awakenings that take whatever shape is most economically convenient. Freud cynically warned that what the most passionate revolutionaries seek is “consolation.” But in such a politically fraught time in America, it’s worth remembering that the whole point is to create a culture that would render current consolations—be it microdosing, or fantasies of Bradley-Cooper-style limitlessness—unnecessary.