Researchers found that setting and context played a bigger role in psychedelic experience than previously assumed.
Imagine volunteering for a clinical trial where Johns Hopkins University researchers would gift you free psychedelics. They’d also provide the ultimate psychonaut setting — comfy floor cushions, ambient music, light shows, and trippy movies like Baraka playing in the background. You would probably expect to experience serious hallucinations, right? Now imagine all of this is true, but no one told you the drug was a fake placebo.
That’s what happened two years ago for a study recently published in the journal Psychopharmacology. When researchers previously used double-blind models in psychedelic experiments — meaning some participants would receive real drugs and some would take the placebo without knowing which was which — the placebo group didn’t often report any results. But researchers wanted to know if “these effects may have been obscured by the study design, setting, or analysis decisions.”
Turns out they were onto something. In their study, they gave participants a placebo they described as resembling psilocybin, the hallucinogen found in “magic mushrooms.” The majority (61%) verbally reported feeling some drug-like effect, with some even describing sensations associated with moderate to high doses of psilocybin.
“Several stated that they saw the paintings on the walls ‘move’ or ‘reshape’ themselves, others felt ‘heavy… as if gravity [had] a strong er hold,’ and one had a ‘come down’ before another ‘wave’ hit her,” researchers wrote.
Researchers eventually told those in the study the truth — they weren’t on any psychedelics at all.
“So we were all sober and just watching these paintings for 45 minutes?!” one participant said, according to VICE.
Yes, they were. But the study’s authors weren’t attempting to debunk the effects of psychedelics or prank participants. They were suggesting that setting and ambiance — or to use a hippie word, the “vibe” — affected how users experienced a “trip.” If they understood what role those variables played, they could help those use psychedelics for their mental health benefits, such as treating symptoms of depression and anxiety.
The study concluded that, “Understanding how context and expectations promote psychedelic-like effects, even without the drug will help researchers isolate drug effects and clinicians to maximize their therapeutic potential.”