Can we have psychedelic experiences due to the placebo effect?
The placebo effect is capable of generating psychedelic experiences similar to those of a drug.
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 our psychophysiological reactions?
A research carried out this year (2020) is concerned with studying this question, through the recreation of a psychedelic party where thirty-three people are made to believe that they have consumed a real drug. Through it, in this article, we will analyze the psychedelic experiences by placebo effect..
The placebo effect in research
The researcher Lilienfeld (1982) argues, in one of his articles, that. the first placebo-controlled trial (or at least, the first known one) was conducted in 1931, with a drug called "sanocrysin" (sanocrysin), which was used to treat tuberculosis..
Specifically, its effects were compared with those of distilled water (placebo) to treat tuberculosis. Since then, the placebo effect has been used to treat certain ailments, such as pain, anxiety or asthma, among many others.
In this article we will analyze the placebo effect psychedelic experiences that can arise as a consequence of the placebo effect, through a recent investigation conducted by recent research carried out by Jay A. Olson and his team at McGill University (Canada)..
Non-drug placebo psychedelic experiences
The aforementioned experiment, entitled "Tripping on nothing: placebo psychedelics and contextual factors", was developed by researcher Jay A. Olson of McGill University (Montreal, Canada), together with his team.
The study was published in March 2020 in the journal Psychopharmacology. But what was the aim of the study? To find out whether psychedelic experiences could be elicited through placebo, without the actual use of any drugs.
To date, and in general, the studies carried out on this subject have found few psychedelic effects produced by the placebo effect. However, it is not known if this has been due to the placebo effect, it is not known whether this was due to the design of the experiment or to other variables..
Recreation of a "psychedelic party".
The aim of the research we describe was to analyze individual variations of the placebo effect, in relation to possible effects produced by the "non-drug".
For this purpose, the experimenters designed a naturalistic environment similar to that of a "typical" psychedelic party, with elements such as: music, lights, music, lights, lights, lights, lights, lights, lights, lights.with elements such as: music, colored lights, cushions, 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 (covert) people, which will be discussed below. (covert) participants, which we will discuss later.
How was the experiment carried out?
To develop it, they managed to gather 33 volunteer students, in order to analyze the psychedelic experiences by placebo effect. It was set up as an experiment to examine how a psychedelic drug could affect or influence creativity..
First these participants underwent a rigorous medical examination. They were then placed in a hospital room designed, as mentioned above, to resemble a "psychedelic party".
The duration of the experiment was four hours. The participants consumed a placebo pill, but were tricked into believing that it was a drug similar to psilocybin, a chemical compound found naturally in some species of mushroom (in this case the participants were led to believe that it was a synthetic hallucinogen).
Specifically, the dose each participant received of the synthetic hallucinogen was four milligrams. In addition, they were also led to believe they were led to believe that there was no placebo control group (i.e., they believed that everyone took the drug and therefore that everyone "should" show effects).
After the experiment, however, they were told that what they had actually taken was a "sugar" pill, placebo (not a real drug).
The "allies" in the experiment
Another key element of the experiment was to have allies who acted to influence the perceptual experience of the participants.. But what exactly did these people do? Their main objective was to influence the expectations of the actual participants, raising them.
To this end, the allies acted subtly, and if, for example, a participant spontaneously stated that the drug had produced "X" effect, this person further exaggerated the effect on his or her organism.
Results: did psychedelic experiences appear?
To analyze whether psychedelic experiences had been produced in the participants due to the placebo effect, at the end of the experiment they completed a scale where they completed a scale measuring possible altered states across five dimensions of consciousness. This scale measured changes in conscious experience.
But were psychedelic experiences really produced by the placebo effect? The results are quite varied, i.e., there were quite a few individual differences in this regard. Of the total number of participants (the real ones, logically), many of them did not report such experiences.
Others did show such experiences, which consisted of: perceptual distortions, mood swings and even anxiety.. These experiences, as reported by the participants, appeared within fifteen minutes of starting the experiment.
Analyzing the participants who showed the effects of the "non-drug" (placebo), we see how these effects occurred in the magnitudes typically associated with moderate to high doses of the drug (psilocybin).
On the other hand, the majority of the participants (up to 61%) reported verbally having experienced some effect of the drug.. Examples of these effects were: seeing paintings on walls moving, feeling heavy or without gravity, 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 a feeling of happiness), never producing a real hallucination (of any type of sensory modality). (of any kind of sensory modality).
In addition, a group of participants who reported changes in perceptual experience, analyzing these changes, it was seen how they were stronger than those produced in people who had consumed moderate or high doses of LSD and other psychedelic drugs, which reinforces the power of the placebo effect.
Mention that after the four hours of the experiment, the participants who subsequently claimed to have experienced certain effects from the drug, also reported that these effects disappeared at the end of the experiment.Placebo effect, too?
Conclusions: the influence of expectations and context
Beyond the psychedelic experiences due to the placebo effect, other aspects were also analyzed. For example, what degree of confidence the participants gave to what they had experienced; thus, 35% of the participants reported that they were "sure" of having taken placebo, at the end of the experiment. 12% explained that they were "sure" that they had taken a real psychedelic drug..
Thus, we can say that the experiment only demonstrated, in a small part of the sample, that psychedelic experiences could be created by placebo effect in individuals.
However, even if the results were only seen in a part of the sample, this experiment demonstrates how expectations, together with the context (in this case, primarily the recreation of a "psychedelic party"), influence the belief in experiencing drug effects that are, in reality, not real.
In other words, expectations can come to create this belief (as well as the experiences described). This is how psychedelic experiences arise due to the placebo effect, which demonstrates, in turn, the role (and power) of suggestibility in this type of situation.
- Lilienfeld, A.M. (1982). The Fielding H. Garrison Lecture: Ceteris paribus: the evolution of the clinical trial. Bull Hist Med, 56: 1-18.
- Olson, J.A., Suissa-Rocheleau, L., Lifshitz, M. et al. (2020). Tripping on nothing: placebo psychedelics and contextual factors. Psychopharmacology.
- Tempone, S.G. (2007). Placebo in clinical practice and research. An. Med. Interna (Madrid), 24(5): 249-252.
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)