Taking Psychedelic Research Outside the Lab and into the Real World

May 18, 2023
IONS Science Team

Entheogens, or psychedelics, are psychoactive substances used for thousands of years to alter consciousness specifically for spiritual, religious, or shamanic purposes. In these contexts, these substances have been used for healing purposes across many cultures. You may have noticed the resurgence of a psychedelic renaissance. There is a revival of interest in clinically studying their potential therapeutic effects for a wide range of health problems – such as mental health, addiction, and chronic pain – in clinical settings.

Performing studies in controlled clinical contexts is necessary and important for identifying variables that influence how effective a drug or treatment is for a patient. However, one tradeoff made in clinical research is the loss of naturalistic, real-world environments. Imagine, for example, the experience of taking a psychedelic in a cold, unfamiliar clinical environment versus the comfort of your own home. This is especially true for entheogens since the set and setting – or mental context and physical environment – in which the substance is taken significantly contribute to the user’s experience. But, it is unknown whether participants would be willing to engage in this type of real-world research, given that there are also safety and ethical concerns unique to non-clinical environments.

Are people willing to do psychedelics in naturalistic settings?

A new study published in the Journal of Psychedelic Studies addressed this question by exploring people’s willingness to participate in entheogen research conducted in naturalistic settings, such as retreat centers or private residences.

The study surveyed a diverse group of 1,224 individuals in the United States. Participants shared their willingness to participate in entheogen research conducted in naturalistic settings. They also shared what individual factors might influence their willingness to participate in this kind of research, like their age, gender identification, education, whether they had previously used entheogens, and their attitudes towards entheogens and research.

Promising new research avenues

The study found that the majority of participants (67%) were willing to participate in entheogen research conducted in naturalistic settings. Participants who were more likely to be willing to participate tended to be younger, had previous entheogen experience, and had more positive attitudes toward entheogens and research.

These results suggest a significant interest among the general population, opening new potential avenues for this type of research in naturalistic settings. Naturalistic settings may provide a more authentic, comfortable, and meaningful experience for participants, which may have advantages over traditional clinical settings and can ultimately expedite our broader understanding of the healing properties of these substances.

Findings support a growing trend

These findings support a growing trend of significant interest in and positive attitudes toward entheogens among the general population. A recent survey conducted by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) found that 62% of Americans support legalizing entheogens for therapeutic purposes (MAPS, 2021).

Because of the growing interest in psychedelics, there has been an explosion of new research in this area. There are currently many ongoing clinical trials exploring how they can be used therapeutically. For example, MAPS is currently conducting Phase 3 clinical trials investigating the use of MDMA-assisted therapy for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) (MAPS, 2021).

Optimism and caution

Although psychedelics have been used for thousands of years in traditional medicine practices, we need to bridge the gap between the old and new knowledge to bring them safely into a Western medical context. This study gets us closer to this goal by validating that people are willing to engage in entheogenic research in real-world, naturalistic environments in addition to clinical environments, promising to provide us with essential insights into the factors that affect how successfully therapeutic these substances can be. For example, do we see more or less improvement in specific symptoms, such as depressive symptoms, when an entheogen is administered in the person’s home versus a clinical lab? If so, what are the factors that contribute to this effect?

As this research expands, it will be vital to balance the potential benefits of psychedelics with the need to prioritize safety and ethical concerns.  As just one example, having a trained person to guide the session is a well-established guideline for entheogenic use, and it will be critical to ensure such factors are addressed in naturalistic settings. Hopefully, future research will focus on further developing standardized guidelines and protocols so this groundbreaking research can be safely and ethically conducted. 

With cautious advancement, we can look with optimism to the future of leveraging altered states of consciousness from psychedelics to bridge ancient wisdom and modern medicine, potentially ushering in a new era of well-being.

Read the publication this blog is based on

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