As psychedelic retreats amp up, and clinical studies dig deeper into the intricacies of the psychedelics experience, there has been a collective review of the social side of using psychedelics and how and why doing psychedelics with a group could be a better therapeutic experience.
But there remain some obstacles to doing more of that sort of socially-collective consciousness research.
Psychedelics have been used in specific social settings since the dawn of man. The socially constructive function of psychedelics use has been central in many ancient cultures that developed customary or ritualized forms of consumption, according to one study.
An inherently social function for psychedelics is also found in contemporary Western cultures, ranging from dance events such as raves to religious ceremonies conducted by ayahuasca churches to psilocybin retreats, to the medically supervised administration of ibogaine.
Psychedelic clinical studies usually stress the importance of set and setting for psychedelics psychotherapy. So there is an understanding of the importance of the social influence on a psychedelic experience. But it doesn’t go far enough.
Modern small-scale clinical and laboratory studies have missed the mark when it comes to examining the fuller social dimension of psychedelics research. Laboratory-based approaches typically suffer from low sample sizes due to financial costs and logistical demands. In addition, they can be affected by sampling bias, in that people may sign up for a study with the explicit desire to have a psychedelic experience, or fail to capture the effects of spontaneous substance use.
The underlying problem with expanding psychedelics to a larger social setting is that the psychedelics culture in place today is a much more closed type culture, according to a thesis by Cambridge University undergrad Luke Williams. The responsibility lies with the experimenter to provide good data, and the demand is for higher evidential significance and higher evidential threshold. This move towards a closed culture is linked with the perceived public view of the psychedelic sciences: there is a strong desire to make the presented experimental work appear as scientific and rigorous as possible.
Why that sort of sanitized, by-the-numbers structure? The period of the ‘60s is associated with a very negative image of psychedelics, and, according to the thesis, modern researchers wish to distance themselves from it as much as possible. In particular, a more closed culture puts the responsibility in the hands of the individual scientists, which encourages more rigorous controls and experimental attitudes than that seen in an open culture.
Psychedelics researchers do already have some historical evidence about how set and setting, and social influences during treatment, can work for a positive, enduring experience.
One of the earliest experiments using psychedelics in a specific social setting occurred in 1962, when a minister and physician, Walter Pahnke, before services commenced on Good Friday in Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, administered small psilocybin capsules to twenty Protestant divinity students (Timothy Leary was Pahnke’s principal academic advisor at the time).
Pahnke hypothesized that psilocybin could facilitate a “mystical” experience in religiously inclined volunteers who took the drug in a religious setting.
He further hypothesized that such experiences would result in persisting positive changes in attitudes and behavior. Pahnke believed the most conducive environment for his experiment would be a community of believers participating in a familiar religious ceremony designed to elicit religious feelings, in effect creating an atmosphere similar to that of the tribes which used psilocybin-containing mushrooms for religious purposes.
Both the six-month and long-term follow-up questionnaire results supported Pahnke’s hypothesis that psilocybin, when taken in a religious setting by people who are religiously inclined, can facilitate experiences of varying degrees of depth that either is identical with or indistinguishable from, those reported in some of the cross-cultural mystical literature.
In addition, both the six-month and the long-term follow-up questionnaire results supported Pahnke’s hypothesis that the subjects who received psilocybin experienced substantial positive persisting effects in attitude and behavior.
But today, laboratory settings rarely resemble settings in which people typically use psychedelic substances—an especially important limitation given that the effects of these substances are notoriously affected by situational variables. “While existing laboratory research undoubtedly provides important insights into the psychological consequences of psychedelic substance use, this work leaves open the crucial question of how such consequences manifest in naturalistic settings,” according to a study.
Another study, the first quantitative examination of psychosocial factors in guided psychedelic settings, represented a significant step toward evidence-based benefit-maximization guidelines for collective psychedelic use, highlighting the importance of intersubjective experience, rapport, and emotional support for long-term outcomes of psychedelic use.
A rapidly growing phenomenon that lends itself particularly well to the study of psychosocial effects of psychedelics can be found in psychedelic retreat settings. In countries where specific psychedelic substances have remained legal, the unmet global demand for structured and safe use of psychedelics has helped create an industry of psychedelic experience-provision, often designed as multi-day retreat programs, typically consisting of one or more guided psychedelic group sessions or ceremonies.
Psychedelic ceremony participants report increased wellbeing, creative divergent thinking, cognitive flexibility, and mindfulness-related capacities, plus reduced abuse of alcohol and other addictive drugs. “We suggest that the retreat setting in the present study reassured, through the presence of others and social bonding, a safe and supportive environment that may have contributed to the positive outcomes of psilocybin-induced self-dissolution.”
More work is being done on the social connections of people doing psychedelics together using larger study groups. In a series of field studies in January 2020, involving over 1,200 participants across six multiday mass gatherings in the United States and the United Kingdom, the effects of psychedelic substance use on transformative experience, social connectedness, and positive mood was studied.
Controlling for a host of demographic variables and the use of other psychoactive substances, researchers in that study found that psychedelic substance use was significantly associated with positive mood—an effect sequentially mediated by self-reported transformative experience and increased social connectedness.
These effects were particularly pronounced for those who had taken psychedelic substances within the last 24 hours, compared to taking them a week ago. “Overall, this research provides robust evidence for positive affective and social consequences of psychedelic substance use in naturalistic settings,” the study concluded.
All this recent work is an extension of the set-and-setting issues for psychedelics psychotherapy. In fact, it’s taken years for the concept of set and setting to be properly integrated into the study of psychopharmacology. And integrating variables of set and setting into clinical drug research is still somewhat complicated for a pharmaceutical industry bent on randomized controlled trials (RCTs), with limited patience for injecting fuzzy social and cultural elements into its considerations, one study found. “This is lamentable because a better understanding of set and setting can often serve to reduce drug harm and increase potential drug benefit more efficiently than seeking new molecules or banning drugs altogether,” the study concluded. “In a pharmaceutical culture set on developing magic bullets and eliminating extra-drug parameters from drug research, set and setting serves as a reminder that extra-drug parameters cannot be eliminated from actual drug use, and point the way toward a more comprehensive conceptualization of drug effects.”
Researchers also caution that it is important to avoid excessive reliance on a biomedical model which disregards extra-drug factors.
Contemporary psychedelic research does show some awareness of the importance of incorporating non-drug factors into modern study designs, by attempting to create a supportive set and setting while adhering to the double-blind structure of RCTs. Yet the existence of a wide variety of sets and setting conditions in contemporary research can still create confusing results. It has recently been suggested that the expansion of clinical psychedelic investigations into the phase III stage might pose considerable challenges, due to variations in set and setting.