Using cannabis can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. For example, while one person may use the drug socially, with a group of friends, another may prefer to smoke alone – perhaps while listening to some music – to unwind after a long day, and yet another person may use cannabis medicinally and prefer a private, quiet area while doing so.
All of these settings are unique to each person in question – as is their approach to the drug. These two factors – referred to as “set” and “setting” – are thought to play a significant role in our enjoyment (or otherwise) of cannabis and other psychoactive drugs. This phenomenon was first officially recognised back in the 1950s and 60s when psychedelics research was in full swing. Having recorded some wildly contrasting reactions to psychedelic drugs, researchers began to wonder how a single substance could elicit such a varied spectrum of responses.
Even now, we hear stories from people who believe psychedelics have changed their lives for the better, allowing them to create new connections and see things in a new way, while, on the other hand, there are those who tell of a terrifying “trip” that has put them off psychedelics for life. The researchers of the mid-19th century eventually put these different experiences largely down to two things: set and setting.
What exactly is set and setting?
The ‘set and setting’ theory was first proposed by a Harvard psychology professor by the name of Timothy Leary – yes, that Timothy Leary. Before his famous “turn on, tune in, drop out” slogan became a favourite among the counter-culture crowd of the 1960s (which led to Richard Nixon labelling him the “most dangerous man in America”), Leary was a Harvard professor who, alongside Richard Alpert, conducted the controversial Harvard Psilocybin Project, among other psychedelic studies.
The “set and setting” hypothesis claims that the character of a psychedelic experience is largely determined by the user’s character, expectations, and intentions – or “set” – as well as by the environment in which it is experienced (both physically and socially speaking) – that is, the “setting”.
It was theorised that approaching psychedelics from an anxious or fearful place and/or in an environment in which one is not comfortable could negatively impact the experience – in essence, leading to a bad trip. Over the decades since its conception, the effects of set and setting are now widely accepted in the study of psychedelics.
For this reason, people partaking in psychedelics recreationally – particularly for the first time – are often told by their peers to do so in a familiar environment with people they’re comfortable with. Likewise, as psychologists once again begin to open up to the potential of psychedelics for the treatment of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues, the importance of a safe and relaxing environment for their patients cannot be overstated.
But what does all this have to do with cannabis?
Set, setting, and cannabis
The set and setting hypothesis may first have been applied to psychedelic drugs but growing evidence suggests that these factors can also have a significant impact on the effects of other drugs – including alcohol, cocaine, and cannabis. In fact, our mindset and environment can potentially even affect the therapeutic success of conventional pharmaceutical treatments. After all, we have all heard of and likely experienced the “placebo effect”.
But let’s get back to the three cannabis users we mentioned at the start of this article. Each of these individuals was approaching cannabis in a different way and in a different setting. While one person saw cannabis use as a social event to share with friends, another saw it as a way to unwind on their own, and finally, the last person approached it as a medicine as opposed to a recreational drug. Overall, though, every one of these individuals approached cannabis with a positive mindset and in an environment in which they were comfortable.
The question is, would approaching cannabis in a different way, in a different place really impact the experience? Perhaps.
Cannabis’s potential to trigger feelings of anxiety and paranoia has been well-documented over the years. However, many experts believe that the risk of this happening can be greatly reduced by considering set and setting. For example, the consumer who is using cannabis to unwind and relax to their favourite music (let’s say they love classical music) may experience completely different effects if they found themselves in an unfamiliar crowd that was bopping around to techno music…
Using set and setting to enhance your cannabis experience
If set and setting can really have such a pronounced impact on user experience – and the evidence suggests that it can – then taking these factors into consideration could help to enhance your experience with cannabis, and potentially even its therapeutic effects.
The available evidence suggests that arranging cannabis sessions for a time and place in which you feel comfortable, with people that make you feel comfortable – or alone if that’s what you prefer – can go a long way towards safeguarding against a potentially negative experience
The available evidence suggests that arranging cannabis sessions for a time and place in which you feel comfortable, with people that make you feel comfortable – or alone if that’s what you prefer – can go a long way towards safeguarding against a potentially negative experience. This was demonstrated in a 2015 study in which 97 cannabis users were asked about their harm-reduction methods when consuming cannabis. Participants indicated that they “avoided anxiety and paranoia by smoking at home in private, and never in the company of strangers.”
So, that’s the setting sorted – but what about the set? Your mindset, that is.
According to the set and setting theory, you have a greater chance of having a positive experience with cannabis and psychedelics if you approach the drug with a positive mindset. The same sample of cannabis users also indicated that they “would avoid smoking while depressed, because they feared cannabis would exacerbate depression.”
Of course, there is a variety of other factors, such as administration method and the strength of the product, that could influence your cannabis experience; however, you should never underestimate the extent to which a comfortable environment and positive approach can enhance your smoke sesh.