Miscellaneous Musings of Luke Shors

“Where the telescope ends the microscope begins, and who can say which has the wider vision?” - Victor Hugo


Placebos on Steriods

Updated: Oct 23, 2019

I recently finished Michael Pollan's new book "How to change your mind". The book is about the re-emergence of psychedelics and especially the resurgence of research around their use in medicine. Psychedelics are being explored as alternative treatments for particular conditions (i.e. PTSD or end-stage cancer) but also are being tested in studies not obviously focused on disease but instead general human growth and development. This point can be illustrated by a 2006 study at Johns Hopkins titled “Psilocybin Can Occasion Mystical-Type Experiences Having Substantial and Sustained Personal Meaning and Spiritual Significance.”

One of the many subjects of the book is how psychedelics are very different than most pharmaceuticals in that their effect is highly reliant on "set and setting". As explained by Pollan:

Set is the mind-set or expectation one brings to the experience, and setting is the environment in which it takes place. Compared with other drugs, psychedelics seldom affect people the same way twice, because they tend to magnify whatever’s already

going on both inside and outside one’s head.

Taking an ipurpofen meanwhile for your headache should have more or less the same effect regardless of your mood and your setting. According to Pollan this is one of the unique aspects of psychedelic research - that it partially acts as a catalyst or amplifier and hence is hard to study psychedelics in and of themselves in terms of particular clinical outcomes.

To make a bad joke then, psychedelics can be thought of as placebos on steroids. Ha.

I think it is worth pointing out that while this may be an usual situation in pharmaceutical research it is not without precedent in research generally. There is often more than one 'active ingredient' in other forms of research.

Take an evaluation of a Montessori school. No seasoned evaluator would believe that adoption of the Montessori method and philosophy would be the only factor to consider in assessing the effectiveness of Montessori schools. Numerous other factors matter: the educational leadership, the characteristics of the teaching staff, student composition, etc.

Research on psychedelics then may be messier than with other pharmaceuticals but hardly presents research challenges exceeding those typically encountered by researchers in social science.

What research on psychedelics does challenge is the very nature of FDA approval and medical research - guidelines that approve the use of pharmaceutical substances to treat a particular disease. What is the 'disease' that a drug that "occassions mystical-type experiences" addresses? Is it a disease or more of a dis-ease?

Griffiths, R.R., Richards, W.A., McCann, U. et al. Psychopharmacology (2006) 187: 268. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-006-0457-5


About Me

"Not all those who wander are lost" - JRR Tolkinn

I think of myself (as well as aspire to be) a curious person. Curious in a book store, but also curious exploring a new city or meeting a new person. Curious in planned and unplanned moments. In an era where knowledge about the world is both vast and deep, curiosity occasionally strikes me as anathema to expertise. Or, more accurately, if you are curious, best to be curious about some very specific topic. But so far at least, that does not seem to be my path. My professional work is orientated towards start ups as well as international development.

In 2019 I decided to make a more concerted effort to write - hence this site. My blog focuses on science and technology, health research and education. My fiction is of the speculative variety - Science fiction that uses scientific ideas to explore human experiences. Thanks for reading!

People Walking


University of Iowa, BA Philosophy (2000)

Johns Hopkins, MPH (2005)

Johns Hopkins, MBA (2005)

Harvard Graduate School of Education, Ed.D. (2017)


©2018 by Dr. Luke Shors