Tripping on nothing

Placebo studies often produce hilarious results.

Researchers from McGill University had recently published a study entitled “Tripping on nothing: placebo psychedelics and contextual factors.” They were testing if it is possible to have a psychedelic experience from a placebo alone. In a setup resembling typical psychedelic party, they have given participants a placebo and measured changes in conscious experience. I have learned that there’s a test for that called “5-Dimensional Altered States of Consciousness Rating Scale.”

The majority of the participants verbally reported some effects of the drug. Several reported changes in experience greater than those associated with ingesting moderate or high doses of psilocybin. The funniest fragment of the manuscript was where researchers debriefed participants about placebo and collected reactions. One person asked: “So we were all sober and just watching these paintings for 45 minutes?!”

These results should not come as a surprise. Our brain is a powerful instrument. We can trick ourselves into believing in many different things and triggering corresponding biochemical changes in our bodies. Forming these beliefs can be faster if the environment is leaning towards supporting them. That is why people like Timothy Leary advocated preparation and proper atmosphere in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy:

Of course, the drug dose does not produce the transcendent experience. It merely acts as a chemical key — it opens the mind, frees the nervous system of its ordinary patterns and structures. The nature of the experience depends almost entirely on set and setting. Set denotes the preparation of the individual, including his personality structure and his mood at the time. Setting is physical — the weather, the room’s atmosphere; social — feelings of persons present towards one another; and cultural — prevailing views as to what is real.

If you can convince yourself that you have a psychedelic trip, what easier-to-believe-in things you can imagine that would be useful?