by Reid Robison, MD MBA
It’s now well-established that set and setting are some of the most important factors in the psychedelic experience. ‘Set’ refers to one's mindset, and ‘setting’ refers to the physical or social environment in which the experience takes place.
The history of set and setting
The term ‘set and setting’ formally entered the psychedelic lexicon on September 9th, 1961 when Harvard researcher Timothy Leary presented a paper on the topic at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association. Leary posited that set and setting is the most important determinant of the contents of psychedelic experiences.
In his psychedelic research throughout the 1960’s, Leary often spoke and wrote about how the mental state and physical environment of study participants influenced the outcomes. In 1966, Timothy Leary conducted a series of experiments with dimethyltryptamine (DMT) in a controlled set and setting. The aim was to see whether DMT, which researchers assumed was a terror-inducing drug, could produce pleasant experiences under a supportive set and setting. It was found that it could.
The idea of set and setting, however, has been around for much longer than 1966. Centuries before psychedelic research began, the cultural importance of set and setting was established through ritualistic psychedelic use. Shamans from Indigenous tribes in the Amazon guided the set and setting of ayahuasca ceremonies by drumming, singing, and blowing tobacco smoke. These rituals established an attitude of sacredness, acknowledging that the ceremony itself is as important as the effects induced by the plant medicine.
In the eastern hemisphere, similar ceremonies existed with the Soma drinks of ancient Hindu rituals. Though we have limited knowledge about the contents of the drink, ancient texts explain that these rituals involved multiple sacred fireplaces and priests reciting long sequences of mantras and hymns from their texts.
After observing the Indigenous mushroom ceremonies in Mexico, Al Hubbard (the “Johnny Appleseed of LSD”) adopted the use of set and setting in his psychedelic research trials. When he returned home, Hubbard created a “treatment space decorated to feel more like a home than a hospital.” Hubbard helped other researchers to move away from emphasis on the drug alone.
When psychedelic medicine opens the door to the unconscious, vast spectrums of possibilities emerge. How one steers through the journey depends, in large part, on our set, or the contents of our personal unconscious.
If you have strong walls of conditioning, this may influence how freely you can move through the various vistas of the journey. Similarly, your values, attitudes, hopes and dreams will influence the direction of your attention and play into how you deal with all that subconscious material you encounter.
It’s also important to assess the state of your nervous system while going into the experience. Often, psychedelics function as amplifiers of our subconscious material and mental processes.
Setting includes physical components like the space you’re in or the music playing in the background. It also includes social factors, such as the people around, or cultural influences which aren’t necessarily visible.
A setting that is calming, natural and inspiring can help point your journey in a direction of positive transformation, just like a grounded, compassionate, and fully present guide can provide a stable energy field that helps you feel centered and safe.
Psychedelics, while not for everyone, can be powerful therapy accelerators and “way-showers.” In other words, they can help us see past those heavy walls of conditioning, the ego defenses, the past wounds, and the illusion of separation that keeps our surface mind from the core of our being and our real Self.
While psychedelics show the way forward, old habits and traits can rapidly snap back into place unless one is committed to doing the work. There is a grace period following profound psychedelic experiences—a window of neuroplasticity that opens and allows changes to happen more easily.
Integration is the process of digesting that change and manifesting its fullest expression. To quote Jack Kornfield, “after the ecstasy, the laundry.”
Anyone who has backpacked around the world or done extensive traveling knows that returning home can be a shock to the system. It can take months for you to adjust to being “back home.” You’ve had all these incredible experiences in that time and it changed you, but the life, the people, and the circumstances you’re returning to appear to be basically the same. They’ve been simply living out their regular lives. It takes time to adjust the “new you” to your life and your life to the “new you.”
It's similar with psychedelic experiences. You’ve gone on a consciousness world-tour or experienced eternity in a night, and now you’re expected to go back to the office on Monday and make small talk with co-workers? This can be very jarring to the psyche and sometimes results in quite a bit of emotional turbulence. Making your integration process a priority is key to integrating the wisdom, insights, and experience in a more conscious and intentional manner. It’s like bringing back seeds from a voyage to the jungle. Now we need to plant, nourish, and care for them.
If you make no effort afterwards to change undesirable patterns, habits of the past tend to reassert themselves and you might find yourself sliding back into your old self. In fact, it can even at times feel worse than before. After you’ve seen the way things can be better, you might feel disappointed to stumble around again in the same old muck.
All that said, when used responsibly and with good intention, skill, integrity and support, psychedelics have the potential to contribute in a major way to easing the pain and suffering in the world by giving us access to more wisdom, compassion, and spiritual development.
About the author
Reid Robison, MDA MBA is the Chief Medical Officer at Novamind. He is a board-certified psychiatrist who was named Best Psychiatrist in Utah by Salt Lake City Weekly’s Best of Utah Body & Mind 2020.
Dr. Robison is the co-founder of Cedar Psychiatry and serves as the Medical Director for the Center for Change, a leading Eating Disorder center. He was previously a coordinating investigator for the MAPS-sponsored MDMA-assisted psychotherapy study of eating disorders.