Can We Have Psychedelic Experiences Due To The Placebo Effect?

Psychedelic experiences due to 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 our psychophysiological reactions?

An investigation 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 psychedelic experiences due to the placebo effect.

The placebo effect in research

The researcher Lilienfeld (1982) maintains, in one of his articles, that The first placebo-controlled trial (or at least known of) was conducted in 1931, with a drug called “sanocrysin.”.

Specifically, its effects were compared with those of distilled water (placebo) to treat tuberculosis. From that moment on, 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 psychedelic experiences due to the placebo effect that can arise as a consequence of it, through recent research carried out by Jay A. Olson and his team at McGill University (Canada).

Psychedelic experiences through the placebo effect, without drugs

The aforementioned experiment, titled “Tripping on nothing: placebo psychedelics and contextual factors”, was developed by researcher Jay A. Olson from McGill University (Montreal, Canada), together with his team.

The study was published in March 2020 in the journal “Psychopharmacology.” But what did the study intend? To find out if psychedelic experiences could be provoked through placebo, without the actual use of any drugs.

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To date, and in general, the studies carried out in relation to this topic 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 other variables..

Recreation of a “psychedelic party”

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

To do this, the experimenters designed a naturalistic environment similar to that of a “typical” psychedelic partywith 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 carried out 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 carried out?

To develop it, they managed to gather 33 student volunteers, in order to analyze psychedelic experiences through the placebo effect. It was proposed as an experiment to examine how a psychedelic drug could affect or influence creativity.

First, these participants passed a rigorous medical examination. They were subsequently admitted to a hospital room designed, as we have anticipated, 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 made to believe that it was of a synthetic hallucinogen).

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

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After the experiment, however, they were told that what they had really taken was a “sugar” pill, a placebo (not a real drug).

The “allies” in the experiment

Another key element of the experiment was having allied people who acted by influencing the perceptual experience of the participants. But what exactly did these people do? Its main objective was to influence the expectations of the real participants, increasing them.

To do this, the allies acted with subtlety, and if, for example, a participant spontaneously stated that the drug had produced “X” effect, this person exaggerated said effect on their body even more.

Results: did psychedelic experiences appear?

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

But did psychedelic experiences really occur due to the placebo effect? The results are quite varied; That is to say, quite a few individual differences were manifested in this sense. Of the total number of participants (the real ones, logically), many of them did not report these experiences.

Others did show this type of experiences, which consisted of: perceptual distortions, mood swings and even anxiety. These experiences, as reported by the participants, appeared fifteen minutes after the experiment began.

Analyzing the participants who showed the effects of the “non-drug” (placebo), we see how these effects occurred in the typical magnitudes associated with doses of the drug (psilocybin) between moderate and high.

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On the other hand, the majority of participants (up to 61%) verbally reported experiencing some effect of the drug. Examples of these effects were: seeing the paintings on the walls move, feeling heavy or weightless, feeling how a wave hit them, etc.

Types of effects and intensity

Note that the majority of effects described were abstract (such as “visions” or feelings of happiness), a true hallucination never occurring (of any type of sensory modality).

Furthermore, a group of participants who reported changes in perceptual experience, analyzing these changes, found how these 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 that the experiment lasted, the participants who later claimed to have experienced certain effects from the drug, They also reported that these effects disappeared at the end of the experiment.. Placebo effect, too?

Conclusions: influence of expectations and context

Beyond psychedelic experiences due to the placebo effect, other aspects were also analyzed. For example, what degree of confidence did the participants give to what they had experienced; Thus, 35% of the participants reported that they were “sure” that they had taken placebo, at the end of the experiment. 12% reported being “sure” 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 through the placebo effect in individuals.

However, although the results have only been seen in a part of the sample, this experiment demonstrates how expectations, together with the context (in this case, mainly the recreation of a “psychedelic party”), influence the belief of experiencing drug effects that, in reality, are not real.

In other words, expectations can 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 these types of situations.

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