Can we have psychedelic experiences through the placebo effect?

Can the placebo effect produce psychedelic experiences, similar to those produced by a real drug, in an individual? To what extent can expectations and context influence our beliefs and psychophysiological responses?

A survey conducted this year (2020) deals with the study of this question, through the recreation of a psychedelic evening where thirty-three people are led to believe that they have consumed a real drug. Through him, in this article we will analyze placebo-effect psychedelic experiences.

    The placebo effect in research

    Researcher Lilienfeld (1982) argues, in one of his articles, that the first placebo-controlled (or at least known) trial was carried out in 1931, with a drug called “sanocrysin”.

    Specifically, its effects have been compared to those of distilled water (placebo) to treat tuberculosis. Since then, the placebo effect has been used to treat certain illnesses, such as pain, anxiety or asthma, among others.

    In this article, we will analyze the psychedelic experiences by placebo effect that can occur as a result of the same, through recent research by Jay A. Olson and his team at McGill University (Canada).

    Placebo-effect psychedelic experiences, without drugs

    The aforementioned experiment, titled “Stumbling Over Nothing: Psychedelic Placebo and Contextual Factors”, was developed by researcher Jay A. Olson of McGill University (Montreal, Canada), alongside his team.

    The study was published in March 2020 in the journal Psychopharmacology. But what was the study aiming for? Find out if psychedelic experiences can be caused by a placebo, without the actual use of drugs.

    To date, and in general, studies related to this subject have found few psychedelic effects produced by the placebo effect. however, it is not known if this was due to the design of the experiment or to other variables.

    Recreation of a “psychedelic evening”

    The aim of the research we described was to analyze individual variations in the placebo effect, in relation to the possible effects produced by the “non-drug”.

    This is why the experimenters designed it a naturalistic environment similar to that of a “typical” psychedelic party, With elements such as: music, colored lights, pillows, visual projections, paintings, etc.

    The total number of participants was thirty-three people (students). However, the research was conducted in two experimental sessions; in each of them there were 16 real participants and 7 allied people (Covert), which we will discuss later.

      How was the experiment conducted?

      To develop it, they managed to bring together 33 student volunteers to analyze psychedelic experiences by the placebo effect. It was posed as an experiment for examine how a psychedelic drug might affect or influence creativity.

      These participants first underwent a rigorous medical examination. They were then admitted to a hospital room designed, as we have argued, to look like a “psychedelic party”.

      The duration of the experiment was four hours. Participants consumed a placebo pill, but were tricked into thinking that it was a drug similar to psilocybin, a chemical that occurs naturally in some species of mushroom (in this case, participants were led to believe that it was a synthetic hallucinogen).

      Specifically, the dose each participant received of the synthetic hallucinogen was four milligrams. And also they were made to believe that there was no placebo control group (In other words, they believed everyone was taking the drug and therefore everyone “should” show effects).

      After the experiment, however, they were told that what they actually took was a “sugar” pill, a placebo (not a real medicine).

      The “allies” of experience

      Another key part of the experience was having allies who acted by influencing the perceptual experience of the participants. But what exactly are these people doing? Its main objective was to influence the expectations of the real participants, to raise them.

      To do this, the allies acted subtly, and if for example a participant spontaneously declared that the drug had produced an “X” effect, that person further exaggerated that effect in their body.

      Results: Did Psychedelic Experiences Occur?

      To analyze whether any psychedelic placebo experiences had occurred in the participants, at the end of the experiment, these they completed a scale where possible altered states were measured across five dimensions of consciousness. This scale measured changes in conscious experience.

      But, did the psychedelic experiences really happen as a placebo effect? The results are quite varied from each other; that is, many individual differences arose in this regard. Among the total number of participants (the real ones, of course), many of them did not report these experiences.

      Others have shown this type of experience, which consisted of: perceptual distortions, mood swings, and even anxiety. These experiences, participants reported, appeared within fifteen minutes of the start of the experience.

      By analyzing the participants who showed the effects of the “non-drug” (placebo), we see how these effects occurred at typical magnitudes associated with moderate (high) to high doses of the drug (psilocybin).

      On another side, the majority of participants (up to 61%) verbally reported experiencing some effect from the drug. Examples of these effects were: seeing the paintings on the walls move, feeling heavy or not gravitational, feeling a wave hitting them, etc.

      Types of effects and intensity

      It should be noted that most of the effects described were of an abstract type (such as “visions” or feelings of happiness), never reaching a true hallucination (Any type of sensory modality).

      In addition, a group of participants who reported changes in perceptual experience, analyzing these changes, saw how these were stronger than those produced in people who used moderate or high doses of LSD and other psychedelic drugs. , which reinforces the potency of the placebo. effect.

      It should be mentioned that after the four hours of the experience, the participants who subsequently claimed to have experienced certain effects of the drug, also reported that these effects disappeared by the end of the experiment. Placebo effect too?

      Conclusions: influence of expectations and context

      Beyond the psychedelic experiences by the placebo effect, other aspects were also analyzed. For example, how much confidence did participants place in what they experienced; thus, 35% of the participants declared that they were “sure” to have taken a placebo at the end of the experiment. 12% said they were “sure” they had taken a real psychedelic drug.

      Thus, it can be said that the experiment only showed, in a small part of the sample, that psychedelic experiences could be created by the placebo effect in individuals.

      However, although the results were only seen in part of the sample, this experiment shows how expectations, next to the context (In this case, primarily the recreation of a “psychedelic party”), they influence belief by experiencing drug effects that are not, in fact, real.

      In other words, expectations can come to create this belief (as well as the experiences described). This is how emerge placebo-effected psychedelic experiences, which in turn demonstrates the role (and power) of suggestibility in such situations.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Lilienfeld, AM (1982). Fielding H. Garrison Lecture: Ceteris paribus: the evolution of the clinical trial. Bull Hist Med, 56: 1-18.
      • Olson, JA, Suissa-Rocheleau, L., Lifshitz, M. et al. (2020). Don’t Stumble On Anything: Placebo Psychedelics and Contextual Factors. Psychopharmacology.
      • Tempone, SG (2007). Placebo in practice and clinical research. A. Med. Interna (Madrid), 24 (5): 249-252.

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