For the past five years or so, early adopters from Silicon Valley and Burning Man have been spreading the word to Silicon Beach and Hollywood about using performance-enhancing microdosing, which some scientific studies have shown to increase cell growth, called neurogenesis, as well as connectivity within certain parts of the brain. Steve Jobs was a big fan, once saying: “Taking LSD … reinforced my sense of what was important, creating great things instead of making money, putting things back into the stream of history and of human consciousness as much as I could."
Some Angelenos are taking it as a lifestyle choice. "LSD is similar to cutting out dairy or meat, how can I safely experiment on myself while becoming a healthier person," says a private art dealer with A-list and indie clients. Sitting among the Whole Foods groceries in the fridge at his Hollywood Hills home are 100 hits of liquid acid in a small, hard-to-procure $500 container of “Ice Drops" from one of the main suppliers for the Hollywood Burning Man crowd.
Tamara Edwards, founder of Hollywood wellness center The BeHive, adamantly advises against using illicit substances and recommends a legal, plant-based formula called “Soul Drops" by Fabian Piorkowsky, a German former JP Morgan assets manager-turned-herbalist who hosts popular microdosing workshops at the center. “These plants work on a microscopic level; like Vitamin C, there is nothing you feel when you take them. Think of them as essential nutrients for the body," says Piorkowsky.
One creative director for boldface clients in music, film and fashion describes microdosing as a careful process: "There is a set way to microdose. My microdosing practice has been to mix spirulina, maca powder, turmeric, carrot juice and a bit of [psychedelic] mushrooms. It's like a superfood smoothie. I take it every four days for a month, then take a break and then increase the dose. I would weigh it. I would take .20 grams one month and then .25 grams." He adds that he doesn't consider microdosing as doing drugs. "These plant medicines are straight from the earth and they are there to help you. After a few months of microdosing, you feel better. There are times when they help me with mental stimulation, memory and awareness. It's a healthy way to stay tuned in."
Alexandra Roxo, who recently developed and shot a Viceland pilot with Spike Jonze, says: “In L.A., so many people are sucking on weed vape pens all day or on Adderall. Microdosing psychedelics is totally different. They expand the way your brain processes and your heart, too. I read a script based on a YA novel while I was microdosing once; the timing didn't work for me but I was like, 'Hey, maybe I'll direct a YA script one day!' Who'd have thought?"
Less researched are nootropic supplements, which Neil Thanedar, CEO of testing company LabDoor, defines as "a broad class of chemicals pushing boundaries of legality and safety to boost mental performance," from caffeine and Adderall to unregulated or even illegal research compounds and stimulants. "There are no available analytical or clinical trials comparing these products," he says.
Developed and sold in the form of proprietary pills, cubes and tinctures by companies such as Neurohacker Collective, TruBrain and Nootrobox, nootropics are becoming more popular in Hollywood. “It's their competitive side," says the co-founder of the Encinitas-based Neurohacker Collective Jordan Greenhall, who was previously CEO of video codec company DivX, based in San Diego. “People want to take full advantage of all their brain has to offer."
Skrillex's OWSLA label A&R rep Team EZY and Hive Ventures CEO and tech entrepreneur Ryan Allis are fans of his Qualia capsules, which contain a large dose of B, C and D vitamins, green tea and "nootropic compounds" that include caffeine and antioxidants, all purportedly to boost brainpower.
LabDoor's Thanedar points out differences between Hollywood and tech nootropic converts: "Silicon Valley customers are more interested in using psychedelics like LSD to boost inventiveness. Los Angeles buyers are more diverse, but tend to request products to boost energy and focus."
To show evidence supporting the claim that his line of drinks and capsules improve verbal fluency and mental endurance, Santa Monica-based TruBrain founder Chris Thompson established neurotechnology lab Peak Brain to measure brain waves under high-pressure conditions. "In pilot studies with TruBrain, without sufficient sample size yet, the scientists found more alpha brain waves in the parietal lobe," says Thompson. "This correlates to better attention and better control over the executive function, or mental endurance."
Still, skeptics abound, even in the Silicon Valley quarters from whence nootropics came. Tech billionaire and Shark Tank judge Chris Sacca scoffed on Twitter at a December presentation on the show of Nootrobox's caffeinated Go Cubes (pictured above) — essentially jelly sugar cubes containing 100 mg. of caffeine, equal to one cup of coffee. Identifying nootropics as just another form of marketing, he tweeted: "Are they engineering nootropics? Are they selling sugar coffee cubes?"
A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.