Mind Games: Most People Still Experience Psychedelic Trip After Taking Placebo

MONTREAL, Canada — Before psychedelic drug research was put to a halt in the 1960’s, research findings were fairly positive regarding the use of psychedelics as a treatment for depression, post traumatic stress disorder and other psychological disorders. In recent years there has been quite a resurgence in this research. That said, researchers often encounter a big problem when conducting their studies: participants in control groups could often “guess” they did not take a psychedelic drug and this skews study results.

In a new study on psychedelic benefits from McGill University, researchers did something really interesting. They did not have any psychedelic experimental group — all participants took the same placebo pill. Surprisingly, more than 60% of participants reported feeling some psychedelic-like effects. It is possible for people to experience these effects from a placebo pill under the right conditions.

“The study reinforces the power of context in psychedelic settings. With the recent re-emergence of psychedelic therapy for disorders such as depression and anxiety, clinicians may be able to leverage these contextual factors to obtain similar therapeutic experiences from lower doses, which would further improve the safety of the drugs,” says lead author Jay Olson, a Ph.D. candidate in McGill’s Department of Psychiatry, in a university release.

Researchers recruited 33 students for their placebo study under the guise of a study on the effects of drugs on creativity. They created the optimal environment for a psychedelic experience to ensure participants would fall for their ruse.

All 33 participants were given a drug and told it was similar to psilocybin, the active compound in “magic mushrooms,” even though it was just a placebo pill. The participants spent the next four hours together in a room with music, paintings, colored lights and visual projections. A group of hired actors were mixed in with the group and they would gradually act out the effects of the true drug over the course of the experiment. There were also psychiatrists, research assistants and a security guard in the room. All of this was done to make participants believe they had truly taken a psychedelic drug.

Towards the end of the four hours, participants were asked if they had felt any changes in their conscious experience. Three in five (61%) participants reported some sort of effect from the drug, and their experiences were quite diverse. Some participants experienced visual effects where they saw paintings on the walls “move” or “reshape” themselves. Other participants felt more of a body high and described themselves as feeling “heavy… as if gravity had a stronger hold.”

One participant even reported that the effects would come in waves and that she experienced a “come down” before another “wave” hit her. Several participants reported being certain that they had taken a psychedelic drug.

“These results may help explain ‘contact highs’ in which people experience the effects of a drug simply by being around others who have consumed it,” says senior author Samuel Veissière, a cognitive anthropologist who teaches in McGill’s Department of Psychiatry, in a release.

“More generally, our study helps shed light on the ‘placebo boosting’ component inherent in all medical and therapeutic intervention, and the social influences that modulate these enhancing effects. Placebo effects may have been under-estimated in psychedelic studies. The current trend towards ‘micro-dosing’ (consuming tiny amounts of psychedelic drugs to improve creativity), for example, may have a strong placebo component due to widespread cultural expectations that frame the response.”

The study is published in Psychopharmacology.

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