Where and when you take CBD, whom you take it with, your frame of mind in the moment, and other factors will invariably affect your experience. These factors are colloquially called “set and setting,” a dualistic concept that we’ll explore here in the context of CBD supplementation.
What does ‘set and setting’ mean?
If you’ve ever dabbled in the classic psychedelics (aka psilocybin-containing “magic mushrooms” or lysergic acid diethylamide aka “acid”) or immersed yourself in that subculture, you might already be familiar with the concept of “set and setting.”OG “psychonaut,” counterculture folk hero, and Harvard researcher Timothy Leary – pioneered and popularized the term “set and setting” while researching then-legal mushrooms and acid in the early 1960s. Beat poet Allen Ginsburg called Leary “a hero of American consciousness.”
The first half of the concept, set, in Leary’s formulation, includes the following elements:
- The individual’s personality
- Intention behind the substance use (i.e., emotional or physical healing, recreation, spiritual expansion, etc.)
- The level of preparation
- The expectation of the experience
The second half, setting, refers to the environment in which the substance is taken.
Both have important implications for the user’s experience that we’ll explore further below.
Why does set and setting matter?
When taking a substance like CBD that exerts potent physiological and psychological effects, set and setting can mean the difference between:
- A white-knuckle, anxiety-laden ride or a peaceful, healing journey
- Improved insight/cognition or mental fog
- Eagerness to repeat the experience or hesitancy to indulge again
The CBD experience is facilitated by the cannabinoid compounds naturally occurring in the ancient medicinal plant, but you also have the capacity to influence your experience by adjusting set and setting. Later, we’ll explore how to zen-ify your CBD supplementation to reap the greatest rewards.
Simply put, optimal set and setting results in, on average, a more enjoyable and rewarding experience
Placebo Effect vs Set and Setting
The well-documented placebo effect – meaning the belief, and resulting improvement in symptoms, that a fake treatment has produced real benefits – is related to set and setting but distinct.
Both the placebo effect and set and setting involve the power of the mind over matter to influence experience, but have historically been used to describe different phenomena.
Brainfacts.org provides a helpful explainer video on how the placebo effect works:
Here’s how Harvard Health Publishing-affiliated researcher Professor Ted Kaptchuk describes the placebo effect:
“The placebo effect is more than positive thinking — believing a treatment or procedure will work. It’s about creating a stronger connection between the brain and body and how they work together.”
So, what’s the difference between the placebo effect and set and setting? Researcher Ido Hartogsohn, via published research in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, explains the distinctions:
- “Set and setting concerns itself with response to psychoactive drugs only; placebo theory relates to all therapeutic interventions.”
- “Placebo theory is aimed at medical professionals; set and setting theory is aimed at professionals and drug users alike.”
- “Placebo theory is primarily descriptive, describing how placebo acts; set and setting theory is primarily prescriptive, educating therapists and users on how to control and optimize the effects of drugs.”
He notes, however, that studying both placebo theory and set and setting, potentially together, has the capacity for “broadening our understanding of how non-biological factors shape response to drugs and other treatment interventions.”
What does the research say about how set and setting affects the user’s experience?
Before the classic psychedelic class was outlawed as part of Richard Nixon’s failed War on Drugs, which continues to this day, researchers produced a wealth of research into set and setting.
Here’s a brief survey of their conclusions:
- In clinical settings, staff attitudes towards patients ingesting psychedelics exerted a large influence on their experience. When the staff changed its disposition from friendly/warm to distant/cold, the incidence and severity of negative effects increased.
- When patients were subjected to drug screenings, the incidence and severity of negative effects increased, potentially due to feelings of social stigma or fear of repercussions from authorities.
- When patients were allowed to select their own activities, they reported more positive experiences.
- Settings familiar to the patients induced more relaxing, enjoyable experiences while settings unfamiliar to the patients increased anxiety and uneasiness.
Researchers documented many other fascinating shifts in user experience based on altering set and setting, but the long and short of their overall conclusions was that these intangibles had a profound and previously unappreciated impact on the experience.
Due to renewed scientific interest in set and setting, we can expect to learn even more about this compelling clinical phenomenon.
Set and setting in the context of cannabis
Set and setting originated within the context of the classic psychedelics, but their principles also extend to cannabis use.
Researchers in one study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy found that older cannabis users employed distinct set and setting strategies to create a better experience for themselves:
“Interviewees made harm reduction choices based on preferred cannabis derivatives and routes of administration, as well as why, when, where, and with whom to use. Most interviewees minimized cannabis-related harms so they could maintain social functioning in their everyday lives.”
A key fact to remember is that set and setting isn’t entirely psychological. The interaction between the user and set and setting might begin with perception, but your psychological reaction to your surroundings creates a real-world, physiological biochemical chain reaction in your body. This chemical reaction includes, potentially, the release of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline (aka the “fight or flight” hormone).
Uncontrolled stress response, when paired with the physiological and psychological effects of CBD itself, could potentially lead a new user down a dark path.
The good news is that you have the power to upgrade your experience with best set and setting practices.
How to optimize set and setting
From a practical perspective, you can take several steps based on the research cited above to optimize your CBD experience by manipulating your set and setting:
- If you get paranoid about using cannabis around strangers due to fear of social judgment or potential law enforcement encounters, avoid using CBD in public. Even though CBD is fully legal in Georgia, the stigma remains in many areas, along with the fear and paranoia that often accompanies it.
- Listen to music you enjoy. Researchers in a recent study published in the Psychopharmacology Journal found that the music patients listened to heavily impacted the efficacy of their therapy.
- If weather permits, and you have the option, consider taking your CBD in a natural setting – even if it’s just your backyard under a tree.
- Consider a meditation practice to accompany your supplementation.
- Use a high-quality, all-natural CBD supplement free of harmful added chemicals or harsh solvents.
Here is the philosopher and psychedelic legend Terrence McKenna dispensing set and setting wisdom:
Contact Georgia Hemp Company to learn more about set and setting
We’re committed to assisting our customers and neighbors reap the greatest benefits from CBD.
Contact us for more authoritative, science-based advice to create the most enjoyable CBD experience possible.