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Setting is More Than Just a Place

psychedelic setting
in this article
  • Introduction
  • Science is Not Enough
  • Expanding Set and Setting
  • How Culture Connects to Set and Setting
  • Case Study: Western vs. Indigenous Peyote Usage
  • Modern Psychedelic Culture
  • Terence McKenna on Culture
  • Integrating Psychedelics With Culture

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Chemical Collective or any associated parties.


Understanding how psychedelics work isn’t just about reading neuroscience. Nerding out on serotonin receptors and brain networks is interesting and provides us context, sure, but hard science is less helpful for interpreting our personal experiences. 

To truly grasp how and why psychedelics effect us the way they do, many of us will need to incorporate things bigger than ourselves—our relationships, community, education, spiritual beliefs, emotional landscape and personal or family history.

Reflection on our lives and the lessons we have learned can spark massive change. To successfully integrate psychedelic experiences we may need to understand where these lessons come from. Our own psyche is not enough. We must consider the wider culture we exist within.

Science is Not Enough

We are told a lot of stories about psychedelics. These days, it’s mostly about science, mental health, and policy. Although some other colourful stereotypes are thriving. 

The stories we have are helpful, but few can capture the bigger picture. Philosopher and Scientist Alfred Korzybski famously remarked:

The map is not the territory.

Meaning that a model of reality is not reality itself.

Put another way, we have some good guesses about how the brain creates a psychedelic trip, backed by an increasing amount of data. But, as researchers Alex Gearin and Nese Devenot caution in their paper Psychedelic Medicalization, Public Discourse, and the Morality of Ego Dissolution:

Like poetry, art, and other activities colored by subjectivity, mental health and its therapies are culturally contingent processes that become impoverished when reduced to natural law.

Hard science is great. But it runs the risk of reductionism. Not to mention neuropsychology is hard to understand for many of us. I’d be willing to bet heavily the majority of psychonauts look beyond science to when searching for insight into their psychedelic experiences.

Expanding Set and Setting

Everyone who uses psychedelics must understand set and setting. Popularized by Tim Leary in 1961, set and setting grew from ideas of the Johnny Appleseed of LSD, Al Hubbard. 

Tim Leary breaks the concept down in his book The Psychedelic Experience:

The nature of the experience depends almost entirely on set and setting. Set denotes the preparation of the individual, including his personality structure and his mood at the time. Setting is physical — the weather, the room’s atmosphere; social — feelings of persons present towards one another; and cultural — prevailing views as to what is real.

That our set or mindsets influence a trip is pretty intuitive to grasp. But the setting is a deceptively massive concept. It is not just an East Forest playlist and eyeshades. Or a therapy office. We have to think bigger.

Ido Hartogsohn is a leading set and setting researcher and author at Bar-Ilan University in Isreal. In his paper Constructing Drug Effects A History of Set and Setting he comments, that the diverse effects of psychedelics can:

Reflect not only the mind states of their users, but the mind states of entire societies and cultures by acting in a variety of different ways depending on the time and the place.

We are fully immersed in our culture. While we could point to football or cheeseburgers, the rules or “norms” of the culture we inhabit, we aren’t necessarily concious of the wider state of mind of the culture itself. We are not anthropologists simply observing something external, we observe from within our culture and through our culture, whether we are conscious of it or not. 

A peculiar characteristic of psychedelics is their bringing awareness to seemingly normal habits and patterns we normally miss. Like travelling to another country and suddenly seeing countless tiny differences in manners, food, family, religion, and so on.

How Culture Connects to Set and Setting

Ethnobotanist and philosopher Terence McKenna promoted the idea of culture as an operating system. A set of rules to make a larger system work. Some rules are the backbones of society while others are trivial and flexible. Considering what are the rules of a culture is a complex topic.

The Encyclopedia Britannica defines culture as:

Behaviour peculiar to Homo sapiens, together with material objects used as an integral part of this behaviour. Thus, culture includes language, ideas, beliefs, customs, codes, institutions, tools, techniques, works of art, rituals, and ceremonies, among other elements.

That’s a lot of stuff. 

Hardgotson acknowledges that “set and setting is a complex notion defined by many imprecise variables.” This is in part because we are part of what Hardgotson defines as “collective set and setting” which is “a theoretical tool to describe the social forces which shape individual set and setting situations.” 

A collective set and setting could be a powerful force.

Consider the legendary effectiveness of indigenous ceremonies in creating a healing atmosphere. 

For researchers collective set and setting are challenging. Well aware of how difficult it is to filter out “extra-pharmacological factors” psychedelic researchers want to know pure drug effects and seek to create neutral spaces. 

Such spaces might be devoid of objects or music that create a specific meaning for people, a Buddha statue or religious symbols. It’s tricky because even in a carefully curated physical space all the symbols, meanings and memes of a culture are still there, internalised. The scientific instinct is to control the environment. However, Hardgotson notes: 

There is not one ‘correct’ type of setting, and other ‘incorrect’ types of setting, but rather, that factors of set and setting need to be transparent and taken into consideration when investigating psychedelic drug effects.

Case Study: Western vs. Indigenous Peyote Usage

A.F. Wallace conducted a study called Cultural Determinants of Response to Hallucinatory Experience in 1959, designed to investigate culture’s effects on psychedelic experiences. Wallace compared Western and indigenous experiences of peyote, a mescaline-containing cactus.

He observed that “white users” had huge mood swings. He noted swings between depression, anxiety, paranoia, and euphoria. Meanwhile, Native Americans experienced more “enthusiasm and religious awe.” Some Westerners even showed sexual or aggressive behaviour at times, while indigenous were more “proper.”

In Wallace’s study, he saw no therapeutic improvement for white subjects. Native Americans however shared feelings of connection and a more meaningful existence. Wallace also reported these feelings were more easily integrated into the community.

While we may criticize some of these findings. I am a “white user” for example, a Canadian, and have personally found peyote quite helpful. The point here is Wallace’s study illustrates the point that the two different cultures taking the same substance reacted according to how their cultures viewed these experiences.

Native Americans have a long relationship with peyote. It is integrated into their culture and viewed as medicine. For the average American in the 50s taking mescaline was probably pretty weird and even scary.

As such, the Westerners had no cultural operating system for the peyote ceremony.

However, the Native Americans could more easily share and interpret their experience with a community that wholly accepted psychedelic use.

Modern Psychedelic Culture

Western culture, or, WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) has little framework for psychedelics.

One paper examines the WEIRD perspective on psychedelics and points out that

Scholarly understanding of acute subjective effects is overwhel­mingly guided by research in industrialized Western societies.

The research illustrated how researcherss attempts to measure psychedelics were biased, despite their intentions. For example, they found people having experiences which were not included in the questionaries they were provided with to analyse their experiences. Things like ESP or connections to ancestors therefore were not included in the research, while in other cultures these ideas are far more accepted, so may well have been given more credence, had the research been carried out elsewhere.

WEIRD cultures are very new on the psychedelic scene, with many still deprogramming the impact of the “war on drugs”. We are learning how to use psychedelics safely and effectively.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is exploring what they mean to us as individuals and how they fit into our culture. 

Many advocates suggest that psychedelics could “change the world.” While it is true psychedelics can and will impact parts of our culture, they cannot be removed from it. (And it seems unlikely psychedelics will destroy culture entirely.)

Take for example the ’60s counterculture movement. Artistic expression, sexual liberation, new spiritual possibilities, political views, and experimentation with drugs stretched existing culture so far that it snapped back like an elastic band, bringing lasting prohibition and stigma. 

Culture, by its nature, is stuck in its ways. But that doesn’t mean it doesnt, and can’t change.

Terence McKenna on Culture

terence mckenna

Terence McKenna was critical of culture saying “Culture is for the convenience of culture. Not you.” He argued:

We are caged by culture. I think culture is a mass hallucination and when you step outside the mass hallucination you see it for what it is worth.

He was also highly critical of modern culture’s impact on humanity and the planet to the point of saying:

Culture and ideology are not your friend.

McKenna also advocated for psychedelics’ ability to provide us a clean slate – to wipe our hard drives clean and perhaps install another operating system, less beholden to the culture of our upbringing. He championed psychedelics as:

Catalysts for the imagination. Catalysts to say what has never been said. To see what has never been seen. To draw, paint, sing, sculpt, dance and act what has never before been done. To push the envelope of creativity and language…we have to stop consuming our culture. We have to create culture.

Mckenna’s words continue to influence many people’s curiosity and exploration of psychedelics, myself included. And while the idea of “wiping the hard drive” is attractive, making one think of ego death, neuroplasticity or critical periods, the truth is a bit more complicated.

Integrating Psychedelics With Culture

Despite the dreams of many, psychedelics didn’t rapidly rework culture in the way we hoped—because culture changes psychedelics too. Just like psychedelics aren’t the magic bullet for mental health, the same goes for culture. In an interview with Vox, researcher Claudia Schwarz-Plaschg sums up the current situation:

Medical interventions are geared towards making the individual fit better into society through therapeutic and substance-based interventions, but other approaches are more open towards a broader vision of how mental health issues and societal structures are producing each other.

While inspiration can come from psychedelics, solutions often only appear after (sometimes very intensely) witnessing a problem. And then we might be faced with a culture not very accepting of some “crazy idea” we came up with on drugs. Instead of a miracle fix for ourselves or our culture, psychedelics at best initiate a clumsy and usually slow-moving feedback loop. 

It’s a process. We try to integrate a lesson, bump up against obstacles, get feedback, and try again.

Maybe something changes and maybe it doesn’t because as McKenna loved to point out – culture consists of many rules and boundaries. So when integration is a bit tougher than we would like we can give ourselves a bit more compassion because we are simply working with the operating system we have at the moment in a game much bigger than each one of us.

Patrick McConnell | Community Blogger at Chemical Collective |

Patrick is one of our community bloggers here at Chemical Collective. If you’re interested in joining our blogging team and getting paid to write about subjects you’re passionate about, please reach out to David via email at blog@chemical-collective.com

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7 months ago

I always wondered why people advise the setting should be a clean place, I get its the same way to keep a clean mind entering the psychedelic realm.

9 months ago


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