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The Unspeakable Project: A Study on Psychedelics and the Placebo Effect

 

On the evening of October 6, a man in a white lab coat handed me a little pink pill. He explained that it was a small dose of iprocin, an obscure psychedelic drug that could cause side effects such as tingling, vivid recall of memories, heightened cognition, and even hallucinations. After ingesting the pill, I sat down on a carpeted floor with about 25 other students. A local DJ played ambient music as the documentary Samsara was projected on the wall. Throughout the next few hours, I talked to the people around me and described the strange sensations I was experiencing…except I wasn’t actually experiencing any strange sensations. And the pill that had been given to me was not iprocin, or in fact a drug at all.

 

The odd scenario described above is the premise of a study known as “the Unspeakable Project.” It was carried out by Jay Olson and his team at the Raz Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory, which explores many areas of psychological research including attention, expectation, placebos, and the influence of altered planes of consciousness on brain function. I recently became a research assistant at the lab, helping with various projects and experiments. In this case, I was playing the role of a “confederate,” meaning I was in on the experiment and had to act out the supposed side effects of the drug to make the other participants more likely to also “feel” them. The project is “unspeakable” because participants don’t know the true nature of the study until the end, and are then told not to tell anyone about it so that the element of deceit is not ruined for future participants.

 

The placebo effect has been shown to be very effective when treating certain conditions, but few studies have looked into the possibility of placebo psychedelics. Many therapeutic psychedelic studies have used placebos as control groups, but they don’t really describe the control group’s experience, since the focus is on the psychedelics. Furthermore, these experiments have usually been conducted in clinical or uninspiring environments, a complete contrast from the typical setting in which these drugs would normally be taken. This study aimed to investigate whether environment and social setting would amplify the effect. Given that setting is known to have such a large influence on psychedelic experiences, it seemed important to create an environment that was similar to the usual “psychedelic party,” complete with lights, music, and art. Additionally, having a handful of confederates among the group of participants was hypothesized to produce a “contact high” due to social contagion.

 

 

Participants were recruited online and told that this study would be examining creativity. Meanwhile, 6 confederates were recruited and debriefed on how to act out the effects in a believable way.

 

When asked near the end of the study (approximately two hours after ingestion), over half of participants reported effects. People most commonly reported that things seemed funnier, sensations were enjoyable, worries felt unimportant, thoughts were slowed down, objects were more engaging, conflicts seemed to resolve, imagination was vivid, participants felt drunk, and perception was blurred. Many were surprised when they were informed at the end of the study that the pill was a placebo.

 

While the data from these experiments is still in the process of being analyzed, the results seem promising, and the idea of a psychedelic placebo effect no longer seems so far-fetched.

 

To learn more about the Raz Lab and the research we’re doing, visit https://razlab.org.

 

Image Credits: https://qz.com/879285/psilocybin-drug-trials-psychedelics-such-as-acid-l…

 

Claire is from Los Angeles but studies in Canada at McGill University with a major in psychology and a minor in social entrepreneurship. She works as a research assistant in a lab and considers herself passionate about mental health and exploring the human psyche. In her spare time, she enjoys running, cooking, drawing, and making memes.
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