DMT & Psychedelics as “Super Placebos”? Reviewing Strassman’s UMich Presentation (Part 1)

On September 12, 2019, the University of Michigan hosted the Psychedelic Neuroscience Symposium 19 which featured keynote speakers discussing their latest work and forays into the field of psychedelics. One of the featured speakers was Dr. Rick Strassman who recorded a video presentation regarding his past work with DMT, his thoughts on benefits of psychedelics, and the importance of the recent study produced by the University of Michigan regarding endogenous DMT. 

Strassman started off the presentation by thanking the organizers, the University of Michigan and Jon Dean from Dr. Jimo Borjigin’s lab citing it as “the world’s premier site for endogenous DMT Research.” He would then recap his research that took place in the early 1990’s regarding administering exogenous DMT to volunteers at the University of New Mexico until the 6 minute mark.

(5:59 timestamp) “While the effects of DMT were profound, other worldly extraordinarily intense, we found that ultimately people’s experiences represented simply more of who they already where. The nihilist became more nihilistic, the software designer saw the origin of information bytes, the religious studies major in college underwent an enlightenment experience. the new age acolyte was traumatized by his own shadow. In many ways, these findings were consistent with Stan Grof’s early notion of psychedelics being non-specific mental amplifiers.”

“This is a crucial point, one that is now more often than not overlooked in the rush to glorify these drug’s potential benefits and minimize their potential risks. That is the belief that they are inherently beneficial or inherently spiritual, Rather psychedelics work on one’s own pre-existing personality, more or less conscious. Which means that one must acknowledge the existence of and the effects of the unconscious. These variables include one’s wishes, expectations, hopes, fears, beliefs, education, values, and life experience. They won’t turn someone into something that they’re not and do not want to be which is why psychedelics were never found to be especially useful as brainwashing tools.”

“People entering a depression study wish to be less depressed. Those entering a substance abuse study want to stop abusing drugs. Those wishing for spiritual progress want to become more open, accepting, and compassionate. People answering survey questionnaires are also self-selected in that they take psychedelics for particular reasons, one’s we considered generally upstanding and hope for them to occur. No one has ever become a serial killer in any of the research projects that I’m aware of…. because becoming a serial killer is not a goal of those who answer these questionnaires or participate in these studies. This is a serious obstacle in terms of both lab and survey studies. That is we do not account for these pre-existing factors. On the other hand, the data coming in from current studies are remarkably uniformly positive… alcohol and tobacco dependence, depression, OCD, eating disorders, anxiety, spiritual progress, end of life despair, post traumatic stress disorder (which although studies have focused on MDMA) there’s no reason to believe that the classical drugs would be any less effective, nature appreciation, prisoner recidivism, domestic violence, and the list goes on.”

“The word that comes to mind here is panacea, and panacea is when they work, do so through the placebo effect… and the placebo effect is when beneficial, marshal the body and mind’s inherent healing properties. Ido Hartogsohn from Harvard and Israel has emphasized how the set and setting relate to placebo enhancement. In the clinical setting and any clinical interventions are optimized through the optimization of set and setting that maximize the placebo effect of the intervention or the circumstances in which that intervention takes place. In other words, set and setting work through placebo… the mental state of the individual more or less conscious powerfully influences the outcome, the results. Ido has subsequently termed this the “meaning enhancing properties of psychedelics”. The Imperial College group not long ago demonstrated that LSD increases suggestibility in normal volunteers. Suggestibility mediating hypnosis as well as placebo effect. This report extends earlier research from the 1960’s were hypnosis augmented the effects of LSD in normal volunteers.”

“The inherently neutral meaning enhancing effects of psychedelics, the reliance on non-drug factors can be illustrated by what might be called the Charles Manson model of psychedelic drug administration. Manson’s volunteers so to speak were disaffected, violent, marginally socialized people looking to avenge themselves on a society they believe had oppressed them. No one became a monk in that group rather the meaning enhancing effects of LSD combined with Manson’s model of helter-skelter… the race war, the belief that his group would rule over the post-apocalyptic society took hold in receptive minds. It made sense, was more real than anything had been previously and they were now dedicated to a cause.” (12:10 timestamp)

(12:25 to 14:09) Strassman makes statements regarding the rating scales of psychedelics as potentially clouded based on confirmation bias of researchers.

(14:11 timestamp) “I think it is heuristically useful to consider psychedelics as super placebos taking Grof’s notion of the non-specific mental amplifier one step further. That is the approximate cause reflected in acute pharmacology, brain circuitry, neuroplasticity, modifications of fundamental psychological processes that downstream manifest as remission of depression, sobriety as so on is the activation of the placebo response. In other words psychedelics may ultimately prove more important in helping us understand this fundamental property of the human mind-brain complex than simply being new tools in our psychopharmacological armamentarium. That is mechanistic probes that investigate the relationship between unconscious mind heightened brain activity subjective experience and self regulation. This is why maintaining an open mind regarding how psychedelics work is so important. For example, while a mystical mimetic experience may be associated with more positive outcomes, it may not be the experience that heals itself, rather it is the experience which is one of several possible manifestations of a fully activated placebo response.”

“There are bound to be many others for example, someone may stop drinking because during a drug experience a voice says “stop drinking now”. So the optimal dose of a psychedelic may relate more to a theoretical optimal window for enhancing the placebo effect rather than the attainment of any particular state. The super placebo effect could be turned to beneficial use in clinical care, especially in situations when marshaling the placebo effect has been established as key. Which when you think about it, encompasses all of clinical medicine… psychotherapy, pharmacotherapy, chemotherapy, surgery, and so on.” (16:49 timestamp)

(16:55 to 18:43) Strassman discusses the exogenous DMT studies taking place at Imperial College.

(18:44 timestamp) “How does the placebo effect by means of which I believe psychedelics exert their profound and wide ranging effects tie in with endogenous DMT? In what follows, it’s not only the placebo effect which deserves attention in the endogenous DMT story but more the construction of a larger sense of the role of that compound in everyday consciousness. Jon and Jimo’s work raises the possibility that there is a DMT neurotransmitter system, akin to the canonical neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine each of these can be defined in a most general way. Serotonin regulates mood, affect, and impulsivity. dopamine pleasure and reward. norepinephrine regulates the state of one’s general activation. Then what might the DMT neurotransmitter system mediate?”

“Well… the hallmark of the full DMT effect is the sense that what one is beholding is more realer than real. Wouldn’t it be interesting if the DMT neurotransmitter mediates our sense of reality. What’s true and incontrovertible. Might those with a more active DMT tone differ from those with a less active one in their interactions with both the inner and outer wolds? For example, being more or less able to attach and commit to people and ideas, more or less possessing a coherent sense of self… and so on. Or how suggestible are they and in particular are there differences in their responsiveness to placebo and medical interventions in general. I’m not qualified to determine how such questions could be addressed in animal models and the existence in nature of the putative DMT neurotransmitter system is at it’s infancy. But future studies will begin determining the regulation in phenotypic expressions of variations in this putative system now possible through the ground-breaking studies occurring in Ann Arbor. Thank you very much.” (End Video Presentation)

(``How to Understand the Psychedelic Drug Effect`` by Rick Strassman)

This was an interesting take by Dr. Strassman regarding proposing the notion that psychedelics operate as “super placebos”. The concept of endogenous DMT as playing a key role in the placebo effect was a topic I touched upon in 2016. The proposed relationship between upregulation of the “Endohuasca system” and the placebo effect was based on the dramatic effects of hypnosis regarding analgesia. Analgesia is the inability to feel pain. While there is evidence that the placebo effect can induce analgesic properties in pain studies, it’s a bit of a stretch to believe that a significant percentage of the population could ingest a placebo pill and subsequently have their teeth removed without any pain sensations. By contrast, there are numerous studies indicating that hypno-analgesia (hypnosis induced analgesia) can effectively suppress pain in the removal of teeth (including molars) and other painful dental procedures (The New Zealand Dental Journal (1951), American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis (1972), American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis (1976), American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis (1982), ASDC Journal of Dentistry for Children (1996), Journal of Cranio-Maxillofacial Surgery (2013), American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis (2017) & many other Italian, French, Russian, Bulgarian, and Japanese studies with no abstracts available).

While it’s been verified that placebo related analgesia is correlated to endogenous release of opioidscholecystokinins, and cannabinoids, numerous studies indicate that the endogenous tryptamine 5-MEO-DMT also exudes analgesic properties  (Neuroscience Letters (1980), Brain Research (1983), Brain Research (1985), Journal of Neural Transmission (1986), Physiology and Behavior (1987), Journal of Neural Transmission (1988), Brain Research (1992)). A 2019 case report published in the Journal of Psychedelic Studies documented long-term analgesic effects from smoked “changa”, a blend of DMT & MAOI (Peganum Harmala) for a 57 year old doctor suffering from chronic musculoskeletal pain. It’s difficult to parse out whether the DMT or the MAOI’s from the Peganum Harmala induced the analgesic effects being that Peganum Harmala has been observed to induce analgesic effects on it’s own.  Nevetheless, the mammalian body produces it’s own MAOI’s in the form of TribulinNeurocatinPinolineTryptoline, and HarmanEven melatonin, a hormone largely considered to be primarily a circadian based molecule released during the night has been observed to offer analgesic effects. I suspect that this could be due to inducing a biochemical cascade release of sorts.

This data potentially relates to the inferences made by Dr. Strassman regarding LSD increasing suggestibility (based on the Imperial College research) and suggestibility mediating hypnosis as well as the placebo effect. One being an exogenous catalyst to upregulate suggestibility and the latter being endogenous biochemical matrixes and neural circuitry that modulate suggestibility variability from individual to individual. 2019 review published in the journal Public Library of Sciences cites the following regarding a systematic study of microdosing psychedelics: “Anthropological reports indicate that many traditional cultures incorporated use of psychedelic plants such as peyote, morning glory seeds and psilocybin containing mushrooms into many aspects of daily life. These substances were used as a catalyst for ritual religious experience, but also used at lower doses as an aphrodisiac, to reduce hunger, inspire courage, nullify pain, and to treat ailments such as gout and syphilis. These uses highlight that although psychedelics are now commonly associated with marked alterations in consciousness, they also have also been used historically at low doses for therapeutic benefits and functional enhancement.”

Being that there is evidence to suggest that the placebo effect can induce a mild form of analgesia in chronic pain studies and that hypnosis can induce extreme analgesia in severe, acute pain as well as chronic pain, I postulate (in the most obvious of terms) that there is likely a complex symphony of physiological processes involved in these effect. In essence, I’m proposing that while the placebo effect can induce a 2X potential amplification effect of intent, hypnosis has the potentiality to amplify intent to 8X or more in some cases. This might not be too dissociated from what Strassman proposes in terms of psychedelics operating as mental amplifiers. Perhaps low dose psychedelic ingestion offers much therapeutic potential from a medical perspective pertaining to pain and other malfunctions of the system?

It appears as though the conversation regarding the mental amplificatory properties of psychedelics should not be relegated solely to their visionary aspects. Visionary states will largely be relegated to pure subjectivity while medical applications and analysis are easier to measure objectively. Once the medical models have been developed then it opens up the opportunity to better quantify the visionary aspects as mental amplifiers. While it’s interesting to note that substances such as LSD, psilocybin, Ayahuasca, DMT, & 5-MEO-DMT have all been observed to induce largely positive effects in the cases of addiction, PTSD, and depression, there are numerous studies indicating that hypnosis also produces similar rates of efficacy. One of the main underlying setbacks with hypnosis is it’s image and the way it’s portrayed in mainstream media as not being entirely “real”. This is silly in light of the fMRI studies indicating significantly altered neuronal activity from hypnosis, the EEG data pointing to marked altered oscillatory activity, PET scan research observing changes in regional glucose metabolism, changes in blood pressure and pupil size alterations as well as the various studies measuring altered biochemical release circulating in the blood from hypnosis. For hypnosis to not be “real”, there would need to be 2 key factors… the first one being that there are no significant measurable changes to one’s biology following hypnosis and the second being that there are no end-point effects such as the removal of molars with no pain sensations. This subject of hypnosis as being “real” is not an entirely complicated subject for even the most biased researcher. It’s akin to asking whether hyperventilating for 30 minutes continuously will produce any significant changes within the body.

Strassman also mentioned research from the 1960’s regarding hypnosis augmenting the effects of LSD in normal volunteers. One of the studies he is referring to is a 1962 case study published in the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Psychopathology which describes 2 experiments involving LSD and hypnosis of a 32 year old woman. This woman had been trained to go into a deep hypnotic trance via simple commands in the months leading up to this LSD-hypnosis experiment. In the first experiment, the subject was administered 100 µg of LSD and the effects of the drug were documented over the course of 5 hours. At the 100 minute mark from the onset, the clinician attempted to hypnotize the subject but failed due to a physical discomfort of feeling extreme coldness and being distracted by visions of flowers on the ceiling. At the 125 minute mark, the hypnotic induction was repeated and the subject was able to enter the trance state. Up until this moment, the woman had been experiencing a typical 100 µg LSD experience. At 160 minutes the clinician was hypnotized again and told that the LSD experience would be over and that she would return to normal. While there were some very subtle LSD effects that lingered, the subject’s perception, thought process, and mood had returned to normal. At 170 minutes, the subject was hypnotized and told to have the usual LSD experience and subsequently began describing the classic visual alterations as she had done earlier. At 180 minutes, she was hypnotized again and told to return to normal which occurred. At 190 minutes, the subject was re-hypnotized to come out of trance and experience the usual LSD phenomena which she did over the next 20 minutes. At 210 minutes, the woman was hypnotized and told to return to normal which she did. She stated that she felt normal enough to go home and walked about freely and normally. At 220 minutes she was re-hypnotized and told to come out of trance. She subsequently entered the LSD experience for the next hour. At roughly the 4.5 hour mark the subject had returned to normal.

Three weeks following the initial experiment, the same woman was brought back into the office for the second experiment. Following her initial experience of LSD, the woman reported that she had enjoyed the experience immensely and had been free from tension and anxiety following the session. The second experiment comprised of hypnotizing the subject and instructing her to have the same LSD experience once she was told to come out of the trance state. As soon as the subject awakened from the trance state she complained of feeling very cold (identical to the somatic effects of LSD). Shortly thereafter, her pupil size became enlarged and the perception of her extremities and of the clinicians were altered. According to the woman, the wood grain on the floor rippled and on command, she “left her body” and had an oceanic experience at the bottom of the ocean. She claimed that she felt very close to God. This experiment was stopped at the 42 minute mark and the subject was instructed to return to normal. A few weeks later the subject was brought back in for questions and stated that the 2 experiences had been similar. The main difference being that she claimed that the after effects of unusual relaxation and a feeling of well-being was solely after the LSD ingestion and not hypnosis. Perhaps the amount of time difference allocated to each experiment could have played a role in this noticeable difference in after effect being that the LSD experiment lasted 5 hours compared to 42 minutes for the hypno-LSD experiment?

What an intriguing rabbit hole…

This piece is not specifically focused on the field of hypnosis but rather the concept of mental amplifiers whether they be exogenous psychedelics or upregulation of the endogenous psychedelic system such as DMT/5-MEO via altered states induced by hypnosis or other methods (Wim Hof Method (breathwork), music/sound, visualization).

In Part 2 we will touch upon additional studies involving LSD & Hypnosis as well as discuss findings of a hypnotherapist who is inducing psychedelic experiences (including the recreation of Ayahuasca experiences) via hypnosis.

​DMT Quest is a non-profit 501(c)3 dedicated to raising awareness and funds for endogenous DMT Research. This specific field of psychedelic research has been underfunded for many decades now. It’s time to take our understanding of human physiology, abilities, and perception to the next level. E-mail me at with any comments or questions. You can also follow us on FacebookInstagram, or Twitter.

(Video of 4 Wisdom Teeth being extracted with no exogenous chemical anesthetic, only hypnosis was utilized)