Ground control to microdoses: How are you feeling today?
In 2018, Brandon Goode was trying to bike through the rain. Every time he pulled his hood up, the wind whipped it back. At first, Goode, a former professional soccer player, was wet and annoyed. Then he noticed something: Rain really brought out the smell of the trees and the flowers. It was nice.
That was Goode’s first-day micro-dosing, the practice of regularly taking a small amount of a psychedelic substance (in his case, psilocybin, aka magic mushrooms) — far, far less than the amount that would induce a “trip.” So little, in fact, that a person is supposed to be able to go about their daily routine. People typically microdose with the aim not of getting high, but of improving mood, creativity, productivity, and other goals.
“It was like a very subtle nudge to be more present and enjoy the things around me,” Goode said of what micro-dosing felt like on that first day to him.
Microdosing and psychedelics became a bigger part of Goode’s life, and career, after that rainy day on his bike. He went on to design research studies focused on psychedelics with Imperial College London and became the first full-time employee at therapeutic ketamine clinic Field Trip Health. On Wednesday, Goode launched an app called Houston, which his company describes as the first user-oriented micro-dosing companion app.
There are other psychedelics-oriented apps out there. But the other two micro-dosing-specific apps, microdose. me and Mydelica (which can also be used with larger doses), both came out of academic settings and were created for the purpose of collecting data and doing research. Houston is purely a service for users. It is free, though Goode is considering a premium subscription version down the road.
Houston will let users track the days they do and don’t microdose, log what they’re taking and the amount, chart their daily mood, set intentions, and reflect on how the day went. There are also learning modules, music suggestions (called “dose day radio”), a community feed, and a personal dashboard.
Why the name “Houston”? Because it’s “your guide to inner space,” Goode said. “It’s who you can check in with while you’re on your journey.”
When signing up for Houston, you’ll share your micro-dosing habits, experience, and goals. Credit: Houston
The practice of micro-dosing has gained popularity over the last decade — and especially during the pandemic — among people self-medicating for mental health, with Silicon Valley workers looking to optimize their bodies with “biohacking,” and for people with many reasons in between. Devotees say micro-dosing can reduce depression and anxiety, and increase mindfulness, empathy, and focus.
Despite growing use in the western world, and a long historical practice of micro-dosing in indigenous societies, scientific evidence for the reported effects of micro-dosing is largely anecdotal. There have been three double-blind, placebo-controlled studies of micro-dosing, none of which fully back up those reported effects — that’s in contrast to an increasing amount of studies finding sustained, positive effects from full doses of psychedelics like LSD. But when it comes to micro-dosing, one recent study suggests positive results could be due to the placebo effect, or the expectation that even an indiscernible dose of mushrooms or LSD might make you feel good. Furthermore, psychedelic substances are also still largely illegal in North America, although their status is changing in Canada and several U.S. cities.
“We’re a little bit further than we were a couple of years ago for sure when there was almost nothing on the topic,” Joseph Rootman, a clinical psychology doctoral student at the University of British Columbia, who recently co-authored a study published in Nature of over 4,000 microdoses, said. “But we still have a long way to go before we really understand this medicine.”
Pick your micro-dosing substance of choice by picture. Credit: Houston
While people who take psychedelics may still have a loosey-goosey, “chill out, man” reputation, the best way to describe microdoses is regimented and scientific. On Reddit forums like r/microdosing and r/psychedelics, there are journals, spreadsheets, debates, and exhaustive guides. Users discuss what substances to take and in what doses, the benefits of tracking other metrics like sleep and diet, fastidious catalogs of moods and other subjective qualities like productivity, and overall, an active, dedicated community.
Goode actually used these forums as a resource for building Houston, engaging with users to see what would be useful and what sorts of things they like to track. Houston is essentially a way for tracking-oriented micro-doses to do what they’re already doing, in one contained digital space that happens to also be pretty. Goode tapped a designer from Headspace to design Houston, and aesthetically, the influence is noticeable. The interactive nature of an app was also important in Houston’s creation: Goode said that he used to track micro-dosing with a notebook that he came to largely ignore.
“Having something that’s pretty non-invasive and already integrated into our lives like an app is just a simple friendly way for people to responsibly track their experiences and provide a little bit of curation for set and setting whether it’s a recommended article, or some community connection, or a notification to check in how you’re feeling,” Goode said.
When you open Houston, you create a profile and answer some questions about your micro-dosing practice (or lack thereof), and your motivations. After logging in, you’ll answer some questions about how you’re feeling that day, choosing an emoji along a spectrum of sad and happy faces. Then you’ll drill down into the specifics of that emotion a little later.
You’ll also mark whether it’s a micro-dosing day. When you do, immediately, a screen pops up asking, “What’s your intention today?” You can easily tap options like “Be more present” or “Focus on my work.” Then, you’ll answer what you’re doing, by choosing between illustrations of a mushroom, an LSD tablet, a marijuana leaf, or a flower (meant to represent an herb). You’ll also mark the dose. After putting in your data, you’ll get a screen with a suggested dose day radio based on your intention, and the ability to check in at any time. The app will also send you notifications to ask you how you’re feeling intermittently. You can view all of this data on a personal dashboard.
Rootman agrees that an app makes sense for microdoses, as long as any data assessments are clearly and accurately explained. He and his co-authors actually used an app, microdose. me made by Quantified Citizen, for collecting data for their study.
“What we’re finding out by the fact that you know, we were able to get 4,000 people to even participate in a study just because they are passionate about the science is that psychedelics users are a motivated bunch that cares about their well being,” Rootman said. “There is a science-y, experimental edge to them that pushes psychedelic users to be a little bit more quantitative in their own well-being, in their own medical decisions. So I think an app is great, and it makes sense that it’s coming out of the psychedelics movement.”
While data from Rootman’s app was collected for the purposes of the study, he also thinks logging, in general, is beneficial for people. There’s still a lot about micro-dosing that’s unproven and unknown. But for people curious about their wellness, the practice of tracking mood and other mental health signifiers can be beneficial whether or not psychedelics are involved.
“The best way to be able to figure out how you’re doing is to write it down, and take a look back,” Rootman said.
UPDATE: Dec. 20, 2021, 11:44 a.m. EST A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Imperial College London as Brandon Goode’s former university of study. Goode attended Quinnipiac University for his undergraduate education and received his Master of Science at Durham University in the UK.