How Set and Setting Affect Cannabis and Psychedelic Experiences

Jillian Jastrzembski

Sometimes, what you do is less important than how and why you do it. This is definitely true of psychoactive drugs like cannabis and hallucinogens.

That’s the basic concept of what we now refer to as “set and setting.” This term is used to describe contextual factors, like mindset and physical environment, in which drugs are consumed.

Though set and setting might be relatively new buzzwords, the concept itself is as old as psychoactive drugs – which is to say, very, very old. Like many rituals that have survived the test of time, set and setting are also incredibly powerful. In many cases, more powerful than the drugs themselves.

If that seems like a bold statement, you might be interested to hear some of the history and clinical research on the subject. It may well surprise you.

What are Set and Setting?

Set and setting are terms coined by the controversial Harvard researcher Timothy Leary. He made the case that set and setting are the most important parameters in psychedelic experience.

Set – includes personality, expectation, mindset, intention, preparation, fears, hopes

Setting – encompasses the physical, cultural, and social environment 

You may have observed the power of set and setting if you’ve tried psychoactives before. For example, why do some people become paranoid on THC and others do not? Perhaps cannabis makes you anxious on some occasions, and chilled out on others. Perhaps you’ve had a spiritual awakening on shrooms, but when you tried to recreate it, you had a traumatizing trip. 

This isn’t just about dosage. These are examples of what are called non-drug effects – or in other words, set and setting. Your personality, your past experiences, your mood, your expectations, and your surroundings all play a critical role in your experience. Why should this come as a surprise? After all, this is true whether or not you’re on drugs.

There’s something else about this definition that deserves highlighting. Set and setting include not only the way you feel about the situation, but also the collective feelings of your society. This helps account for more subtle aspects of set and setting. For example, is the drug legal? How does your culture stereotype users of this drug?

History and Examples of Set and Setting

As you can imagine, set and setting are complex parameters that make scientific research all the more difficult. It’s no wonder they were removed during randomized controlled trials. 

In the mid-20th century, researchers conducting trials with psychoactive drugs were coming up with wildly variable results. Some study subjects had profoundly positive experiences that facilitated emotional and physical healing. Other study subjects had dreadful experiences that ultimately resulted in psychosis or other forms of psychological damage. 

Unsurprisingly, subjecting study participants to rigorous scientific testing tends to increase the chances of a negative experience. Removing them from a comfortable, familiar environment and not framing their expectations effectively can also contribute to a bad trip.

And yet, outside of scientific research, there was never any mystery. Careful control of set and setting has always gone hand-in-hand with psychoactive drugs like cannabis and psychedelics. 

Shamans were not drug-dealers, they were spiritual guides. They were masters of ritual, using music, sounds, smoke, and other performance elements to create a safe and secure healing environment. 

Factors like age, marital status, and education level have all been shown to play into psychoactive experience as well. Older, married, and more educated subjects were all shown to react more positively to LSD – perhaps because these variables could be linked to better emotional or socioeconomic stability.

The Role of Expectation

In the 1950s, an anthropologist named Anthony Wallace illustrated how cultural beliefs can alter psychedelic experience. In the west, hallucinations are considered a sign of insanity. For many indigenous people, hallucinations are regarded as spiritual insights. When white Americans were given mescaline, they experienced severe anxiety and mood swings of alternating depression and euphoria. But when indigenous Americans were given the same drug, they experienced stable moods with religious awe and enthusiasm. The white subjects were prone to psychiatric disorders without any therapeutic benefit. But the indigenous subjects had an experience of deep connectivity and meaning. 

Interestingly, what people think they are taking is often more important than what they actually take. This has been demonstrated repeatedly in alcohol experiments. When people think they are consuming alcohol, a placebo can make them more aggressive, more amorous, or less inhibited. All of these results are purely based on expectation and previous experience or preconceptions of alcohol.

The Greater Context

Until now, we’ve limited the discussion to recreational (although potentially therapeutic) psychoactive drugs. But the same effects are well-known for all kinds of drugs, and particularly for medical drugs. In clinical trials, pharmaceuticals are shown to account for only up to about 20% of total biological improvement, compared to a placebo. 

The placebo itself, if framed carefully, can be incredibly powerful. This goes beyond the way we typically think of placebo effects, as the mind playing tricks on you. Even open-label placebos can still be incredibly powerful. In other words, people who are given a placebo and openly told “this is a sugar pill,” still experience therapeutic benefits. 

In many ways, the power of the placebo illustrates not just the power of the mind, but the power of ritual. Just like psychoactive drug rituals, the ritual of taking the pill could account for the other 80% of healing. This also encompasses the quality of the interaction between the patient and the practitioner – no different from the interaction between a shaman and the one taking the psychoactive. 

Female medical practitioner reassuring a patient Female medical practitioner reassuring a patient patient and doctor stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

The amazing (and at the same time, profoundly obvious) thing about set and setting is that they are not specific to drugs. Really, they are about human experience in general. 

Take the experiment with alcohol. Perhaps you can relate. Have you ever had the experience of getting slightly tipsy, only to later realize that you were drinking non-alcoholic beverages all along?

Here’s a less obscure example. Have you ever ordered the same exact meal and had it taste completely different? Your mood and emotions can change your enjoyment of food.

In one fascinating experiment, two groups were given the same 380-calorie smoothie. One group believed they were consuming a decadent, calorie-rich shake. The other believed it was a “sensible,” low-calorie shake. 

Incredibly, the beliefs of the subjects actually had the power to change their biomarkers. The group who believed they had consumed an indulgent shake demonstrated a steeper decline in ghrelin (the “hunger” hormone) compared to the group who believed they had consumed a light shake.

Medical Science Hospital: Confident Black Female Neurologist, Neuroscientist, Neurosurgeon, Looks at TV Screen with MRI Scan with Brain Images, Thinks about Sick Patient Treatment Method. Saving Lives Medical Science Hospital: Confident Black Female Neurologist, Neuroscientist, Neurosurgeon, Looks at TV Screen with MRI Scan with Brain Images, Thinks about Sick Patient Treatment Method. Saving Lives clinical trial stock pictures, royalty-free photos & images

Political Implications

Drugs such as marijuana remain illegal in certain parts of the country and the world in part because they are dangerous when removed from the appropriate context. With an understanding of the critical nature of set and setting, you could argue that illegalization and scare tactics are, in fact, a step in the wrong direction: it makes these drugs more dangerous, not less so. 

How to Cultivate Set and Setting for a Positive Experience

Psychoactives like cannabis and psychedelics can be powerful therapeutic agents, in both recreational and medical settings.

When you consume weed or other psychoactives, it helps to be physically, emotionally, and mentally prepared. That way, you won’t be distracted by concerns about side-effects, or how long your high will last.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help frame your experience:

What do I hope to achieve from this?

What do I expect to happen?

What previous experiences or associations do I have with this drug?

How does my culture feel about this drug?

Do I feel safe in my current surroundings?

Do I trust the people around me?

We often think of drugs as a short-cut. You take a magic pill, and you get to skip all the ritual of therapy, journaling, or meditation. But in fact, the opposite is true. If you understand how these drugs work, you know that taking the magic pill is the ritual. The ritual is what creates its therapeutic powers.

At The Green Dragon, part of our mission is to provide you with products and information you can trust, so that you can optimize your experience. As always, if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact us for a free consultation.

How Set and Setting Affect Cannabis and Psychedelic Experiences
When you decide to partake in cannabis & shrooms, you know you're in for awesome cerebral effects. But did you know your setting can affect your experience?
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