Set and Setting: Everything You Want To Know

“Set and setting” are crucial factors in determining the outcome of psychedelic experiences — here’s everything you need to know!

Overview: Psychedelic experiences are heavily influenced by an individual's mindset and the environment in which the experience takes place, also known as "set and setting." Understanding and cultivating a positive set and setting can enhance the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics, while a negative set and setting can lead to adverse effects and increase the risk of a challenging or “bad trip.” The therapist or guide plays an important role in creating a safe and supportive environment for the psychedelic experience, and can help the participant to integrate the experience into their life afterwards. Psychedelic research has evolved from the unethical psychiatric experiments of the past to a more holistic and therapeutic approach today, with emphasis placed on participant safety, informed consent, and positive outcomes.

Beyond the Drug: How Set and Setting Affects Psychedelic Experiences

The idea of “set and setting” was coined by psychologists Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert (later known as Ram Dass), and Ralph Metzner in their 1964 book ‘The Psychedelic Experience: A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead.’ This book offers an important perspective on Buddhist wisdom and provides instructions for the careful and fruitful use of psychedelic substances.

In the second half of the book, the authors emphasize the crucial role of “set and setting” in shaping the outcome of that experience. The term “set” refers to an individual's mindset, personality, preparation, and expectations, while “setting” refers to the physical and social environment in which the experience takes place.

Unlike traditional psychiatric medications, where the drug’s effects on the brain are dominant, set and setting are fundamental determinants of a psychedelic experience.

In ancient shamanic rituals involving the use of psychedelic plant medicines, such as ayahuasca in the Amazon or peyote in the Sierra Madre Occidental, the careful arrangement of set and setting is considered essential to facilitate inner journeys of healing and transformation.

Studies have shown that a positive set and setting can enhance the therapeutic benefits of psychedelics, while a negative set and setting can lead to adverse effects and increase the risk of a challenging or “bad trip.” In psychedelic therapy, therapists often pay close attention to set and setting, aiming to create a safe, supportive, and comfortable environment that promotes healing and personal growth.

set and setting
Set and setting is key for an optimal experience.

Understanding the Role of “Set” in Psychedelic Experimentation

In the 1950s and 60s, there were two distinct groups conducting psychedelic research, as explained in Ido Hartogsohn's book, The American Trip: Set, Setting, and Psychedelics in 20th Century Psychology. The first group, consisting mostly of psychiatrists, viewed psychedelics as “psychotomimetics,” meaning they believed that these drugs could mimic the effects of various psychotic disorders.

Participants in studies conducted by this group were often psychiatric patients, prisoners, addicts, or ethnic minorities who had limited knowledge of what psychedelics were or the profound effects they could have on their consciousness. Unfortunately, these participants were often compelled to participate with little choice, and were only informed that the psychiatrists administering the drug believed it could induce symptoms of psychosis.

This approach had significant ethical concerns, as it put vulnerable individuals at risk. 

In contrast, the other group of researchers was interested in the therapeutic, cognitive, creative, and spiritual effects of psychedelics, and seemed as if they were investigating an entirely different class of drugs, under an entirely different set of circumstances. Participants in their studies were often artists or graduate students who volunteered and underwent preparatory sessions before taking the drug.

During these preparatory sessions, participants were encouraged to set an intention for their experience “beyond the immediate limits of their senses and understanding,” and develop a trusting relationship with the therapists or researchers. They were also led to expect a positive and potentially meaningful experience.

Unsurprisingly, the vulnerable participants in the first group experienced negative effects, including “psychological distortions and a variety of “disturbances,” while the second group generally enjoyed positive and transformative experiences

To fully understand the effects of psychedelics, it's essential to recognize the impact of the user's mindset.

Psychedelic researcher Dennis McKenna once said, “The set is everything you bring to it: who you are, what your expectation is, it’s everything. It’s you. It’s your mindset.” In other words, the content and character of a psychedelic experience, whether it's induced by psilocybin, LSD, DMT, mescaline, or other psychedelics and psychedelic-like compounds, is shaped by the user's state of mind, expectations, and intentions.

This is why modern researchers and experienced psychonauts emphasize the significance of “set” in psychedelic experimentation.

Cultivating a Good Mindset for a Psychedelic Experience

As people become more informed about the risks and benefits of certain drugs, it is clear that education is key. The “just say no” campaign has lost its meaning in recent years, and a seemingly more rational approach has emerged: “Just Say Know”.

Before embarking on a psychedelic journey through the uncharted territories of the mind, it is important to be informed about the safety profile, potential contraindications, and appropriate dosages of your chosen substance.

Compared to other recreational drugs, psychedelics are very physically safe. For example, research suggests that psilocybin and LSD are among the safest of all recreational substances, showing no signs of addiction potential or toxicity. Understanding the favorable safety profile of psychedelics and trusting that you are not in any physical danger can help to dispel anxiety or fear and lead to a better mindset heading into the experience.

It is important to acknowledge the potential for unpleasant memories and difficult emotions to arise, and to approach these challenges with curiosity. Being open to exploring and understanding the hidden parts of our minds can help to reduce anxiety, create a feeling of safety and calm, and potentially lead to psychological and spiritual growth.

It's also recommended that users have clarity on their reasons for experimenting with psychedelics and what they hope to gain from the experience. Mindful preparation with breathwork practices, meditation, and journaling can help people to relax, cultivate a state of peaceful calm, and set intentions for the experience with safety, comfort, and curiosity in mind. 

The Importance of Setting in Psychedelic Use: Creating Optimal Conditions for Positive Experiences

In the psychotomimetic model of psychedelic research of the 50s and 60s, patients were mostly treated in a sterile, clinical environment that lacked warmth and comfort. Additionally, the psychiatrists present were focused on monitoring the patients for negative symptoms rather than creating an environment that was supportive of positive experiences.

Patients were also expected to undergo extensive physical and psychological tests, often struggling with confusion, panic, or paranoia as the powerful consciousness-altering effects of the psychedelic drug took hold. It is no surprise that these circumstances often led to challenging, psychologically destabilizing experiences. 

Compare this to the carefully conducted research of the other group of psychedelic researchers, who focused on the therapeutic, creative, and spiritual effects of these drugs, as well as their potential to produce personally meaningful mystical-type experiences. This research was often performed in warm, comfortably-furnished, dimly-lit living room-like settings, with volunteers given the opportunity to become familiar with the environment during preparatory sessions. 

Optimal conditions were created for positive experiences. Volunteers were typically lying on a couch or bed, often with flowers, candles, and religious or spiritual iconography by their side. Participants were encouraged to look inward and approach their experience with curiosity, listening to carefully selected music playlists through headphones.

According to experienced psychedelic therapist Dr. Bill Richards, music playlists used in modern-day studies offer comforting support as the patient’s sense of self transcends into a state of “oceanic boundlessness,” a state of unitive awareness in which they have the experience of transcending time and space in a deep acknowledgment of unity and interconnectedness. This state is often experienced in the most intense peaks of psychedelic effects.

This kind of physical and social surrounding was foundational to positive outcomes in the 50s and 60s, and it remains equally important today. Safe, comfortable settings where the chances of being disturbed are zero are crucial for positive outcomes, whether in a clinical or non-clinical setting.

Furthermore, it is recommended that schedules be cleared for three days; the day before, the day of, and the day after the experience. This allows for the preparation and integration of any psychological and spiritual insights that may come to light during the experience.

Psychedelic Experimentation in Outdoor Settings

Some prominent psychedelic advocates argue that the ultimate setting for psychedelic experimentation is outside among the undisturbed elements of the natural world. According to LSD discoverer Albert Hofmann, the drug made people more aware of “the magnificence of nature and of the animal and plant kingdom.” Indeed, psychedelics have been shown to produce lasting increases in nature-relatedness.

However, one should carefully consider safety essentials if venturing outside the comfortable and contained confines of home. When venturing outside for a psychedelic experience, it is important to consider several safety essentials to ensure a positive and safe experience. Here are some safety essentials to consider:

  • Location: Choose a location that is safe and legal for psychedelic use. Research the area beforehand and avoid potentially dangerous areas.
  • Weather: Check the weather forecast and dress appropriately for the conditions. Bring appropriate clothing and gear such as rain gear, warm layers, and sun protection.
  • Company: Choose your companions carefully. Make sure they are trustworthy and experienced with psychedelics. It is recommended to have a sitter or guide who is sober and can provide support if needed.
  • Supplies: Bring plenty of water, food, and any necessary medications.
  • Transportation: Make sure you have a safe and reliable means of transportation to and from the location. Do not drive under the influence of psychedelics.

The Role of the Psychedelic Therapist or Guide in Providing Support during the Experience 

Preparing for a psychedelic experience involves developing a trusting and honest relationship with the therapist or guide. Preferably, this would take place over hours of relationship-building prior to the session, as is the case in contemporary psychedelic treatment.

In clinical settings, therapists are trained to provide appropriate guidance and emotional support during the session, knowing when to offer reassurance and when to encourage curiosity and openness.

Experienced therapists help participants foster a sense of safety, acceptance and openness towards their psychedelic experiences, guiding them towards therapeutic insights and away from potentially destabilizing emotions or thoughts. Sometimes, a simple word from the therapist can redirect the participant's focus towards safer and more therapeutic experiences.

Unlike other psychiatric medications, personal experience of the psychedelic state is considered by many to be an essential element for effective psychedelic-assisted therapy. Without such experience, there may be a gap in understanding and communication that can hinder the therapeutic process.

The therapist's role extends beyond the session as they assist participants in integrating their experiences into their everyday lives. This may involve cooperative processing of challenging emotions, identifying meaningful narratives to help make sense of the experience, and adapting healthy behaviors.

In summary, the therapist's calm and experienced presence provides a sense of safety and security necessary for the discovery of insight and healing. Effective communication, guidance, and support are critical for a positive and meaningful psychedelic experience, both during and after the session.

Learning from Past Mistakes: The Role of Collective Set and Setting

The social and cultural context surrounding psychedelic experiences, known as collective set and setting, plays a crucial role in shaping the outcomes of these experiences. According to Hartogsohn, collective set and setting is composed of "society's character, its knowledge, and attitude towards the psychedelic experience." It is essential to recognize how the larger societal attitudes towards psychedelics can impact the way individuals approach these experiences.

In the late 1960s, the uncontrolled experimentation and sensationalist journalism around psychedelics led to a negative shift in collective set and setting. This resulted in mass hysteria, irreconcilable conflicts, and ultimately halted the progress of scientific research. It is crucial to learn from these past mistakes and approach psychedelic use with safety, respect, and reverence.

Pioneering researcher of psychedelics Dr. Roland Griffiths has suggested that the survival of our species may depend on our collective awakening to the mystery of life. Psychedelics have the potential to contribute to this realization, but only if they are used in a safe and respectful manner. It is our responsibility to cultivate a positive collective set and setting, one that fosters openness, curiosity, and respect for the profound and mysterious nature of the psychedelic experience

It is important to note that the practices and ethics of psychedelic research have evolved significantly since the 50s and 60s. Today, there is a growing recognition of the importance of set and setting in shaping the outcome of a psychedelic experience.

Researchers and therapists now place great emphasis on creating safe, supportive, and comfortable environments for participants, with informed consent and careful preparation being key components of this process. Through these measures, the field of psychedelic research is striving to maximize the benefits of these powerful substances while minimizing the risks for all individuals involved.

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