Recreating the psychedelic experience using virtual reality

Scientists and artists are trying to determine if VR can replicate a psychedelic trip.

The benefits of psychedelic drugs have become better understood in the last two decades. This is thanks to a more progressive outlook from both lawmakers and the scientific community. Recently, John Hopkins Medical Center created the first program for psychedelic research in the U.S. The project will look into using psychedelics to treat conditions like PTSD, addiction, and depressive disorders.

Just like any drug, researchers need to understand as best they can how psychedelics will affect someone. This includes the intended purpose and unintended side effects. But what if actually taking the drug wasn’t necessary? That’s what a group of artists and scientists who have brought the psychedelic experience to the world of virtual reality (VR) want to find out, New Atlas reports.

Pretty Pictures

One of those artists is French filmmaker Jan Kounen. He made his first foray into visually replicating the psychedelic experience in his 2004 western film “Renegade,” released in France as “Blueberry.” In the film, Kounen depicts an ayahuasca trip.

Ayahuasca is a heady brew used by indigenous shamans of the Amazon. The psychoactive ingredient is dimethyltryptamine or DMT. Kounen has since written a number of books on the subject and directed a documentary on shamanism. He has now created a VR experience called Ayahuasca (Kosmik Journey).

One of the criticisms of trippy VR experiences like Kounen’s is that they can only provide external sensory psychedelic images. VR can’t yet impart the far-out things that take place in the mind and body. These things include the loss of ego or a deep sense of unity.

Visionarium Visionary

However, another artist named Sander Bos has created a psychedelic VR experience called Visionarium. Bos is optimistic about the immersive nature of VR. He claims that it can trigger the mind to believe that it is in an altered state of consciousness.

“If we can make the mind believe it’s really in this other place it can physically affect you,” Bos told New Atlas. “I’ve had friends who I put into the Visionarium experience who said it’s very similar to an ayahuasca ceremony, you get the same belly tingling, sweaty palms, feeling of weightlessness and losing sense of the body.”

Bos, however, remains skeptical that a VR psychedelic experience can replicate a true trip with current technology. “I do not think, however, that the technology we have at the moment can go as deep as a real psychedelic experience, because the real thing includes you, your dreams, fears, hopes, imaginations and the opening up to your own infinite potential as a human being or looking into your very own mysterious soul. It is an integral part of the experience.”

Hallucination Machine

Bos is right. However, yet another VR trip takes a more scientific approach to mimic the psychedelic experience. The aptly named Hallucination Machine uses the neural network Deep Dream, created by Google engineer Alexander Mordvintsev. Deep Dream conjures intense, fractal laden psychedelic images that go beyond “pretty pictures.” In fact, they’re sometimes downright scary. But fear can be part of the psychedelic experience, as Bos noted.

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A team from the University of Sussex developed the Hallucination Machine. They took on the endeavor to study how VR stacks up to the real thing. They compared participants’ experience in the Hallucination Machine with experiences of people who actually took psilocybin, the psychoactive substance in magic mushrooms.

“We found there are several similarities between the two experiences,” author on the research Keisuke Suzuki told New Atlas “[This] suggests that the Hallucination Machine can indeed simulate a certain aspect of the psychedelic state.” Suzuki and his team published their findings in the journal Scientific Reports.

Tripping Into the Future

None of these VR trip techniques can reproduce the mental aspects of psychedelics. Even so, Suzuki imagines that one day, technology will allow researchers to recreate the more esoteric aspects of the psychedelic experience.

“To fully simulate altered states of consciousness, we might need to combine VR technologies with real-time neuronal/physiological feedback techniques (e.g. brain-machine interfaces). But it will still take some time and effort to reach the level of what pharmacological substances can do.”