In an October 31 edition of the popular psychedelic industry newsletter, The Microdose, Amber Capone — a co-founder of the psychedelic veterans charity, VETS — proliferated irresponsible language about how psychedelic treatments work. Describing the psychedelic use of her husband, SEAL Team 6 veteran and fellow VETS co-founder Marcus Capone, she explained: “Marcus was once taking 10 prescriptions every day; now he goes for a psychedelic reset once a year.”

Language about psychedelics as a “reset” for the brain has been widely disseminated through headlines such as “Psychedelic therapy could ‘’reset’’ depressed brain” in the BBC and “‘I Want to Reset My Brain’: Female Veterans Turn to Psychedelic Therapy” in Tthe New York Times. Psychedelic researcher Dr. Robin Carhartt-Harris has contributed to this notion, stating in 2017 that many patients describe feeling emotionally reset after psychedelic treatment and that fMRI “imaging results do tentatively support a ‘reset’ analogy.” Now, psychedelic pharmaceutical companies are using this language in promotional material, such as Field Trip Health’s 2020 “Return, Reset, Relaunch” program for veterans. 

Many psychedelic researchers have pushed back on this notion, including Johns Hopkins scientist, Dr. Manoj Doss, who also studies psychedelic fMRI data. In 2020, Doss wrote that he “never understood what ‘reset’ meant in this [psychedelic] context.” That same year, Motherboard reported that Dr. Rosalind Watts — a former clinical lead for Imperial College who now runs a psychedelic integration business called ACER — traces the explosion of this language to interviews she conducted with psilocybin trial participants at Imperial. She believes this “reset” metaphor can be harmful to patients. 

“While it rang true for that person [who Watts interviewed], she said people can get too excited about the metaphor. In [psychedelic trial] screenings, many people reference that sentiment, telling Watts that they want a brain reboot. People with that expectation can resist going into difficult emotions during their trips because they thought it was just going to be a ‘reset’ — effortless,” reported Motherboard.

Shayla Love, who reported that story for Motherboard, wrote that she is increasingly worried about this kind of language being used in psychedelic research and marketing because it “sets people up with powerful expectations that may not reflect what they experience.” 

Psychedelic researcher and anthropologist Dr. Tehseen Noorani calls this potentially harmful over-expectation of the power of psychedelics “The Pollan Effect.” This name is derived from Michael Pollan, author of the popular book “How to Change Your Mind” (and co-founder of the Berkeley Center for the Science of Psychedelics, which produces The Microdose newsletter). Speaking to Noorani, Johns Hopkins researcher Dr. Albert Garcia-Romeau said that following the publication of Pollan’s book, “How to Change Your Mind,” patients began approaching researchers conducting clinical trials with very high expectations. 

“These are people who hear about these mystical experiences, and 80% percent success rates [in initial, short-term results], and then they have a session where they don’t feel anything, and obviously there’s a huge disappointment and people feel like sometimes they’re failures, in some sense,” Garcia-Romeau told Noorani. “So obviously that can be really frustrating, because you want people coming into this with some openness, and typically once you have all these preconceived ideas, they think they know what they want. That doesn’t always work out well.”
As the psychedelic pharmaceutical industry continues to balloon into the mainstream, promoters of psychedelic treatments must be more mindful of how they present the potentials of these drugs — especially to vulnerable populations, like veterans, who are having psychedelic treatments  excessively marketed towards them. Overstated expectations can ultimately lead to worse results for treatment-resistant populations who may be seeking out a “psychedelic reset” as a last-ditch effort to heal.

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