A Psychedelic Virtual Reality

In his book «Dawn of the New Everything» Jaron Lanier, often called the father of VR, wrote that the question he was most asked in the 1980s was to which degree VR was similar to LSD. Not a psychonaut himself, however, Lanier was not necessarily one to compare the two — he writes how he never even smoked cannabis, which was even more common in the tech circles at the time. Nevertheless, the parallel between the two, VR and Psychedelics, is still an interesting one, as both have the power to present us to other worlds, and change our self-consciousness. So much so, that Timothy Leary, the Harvard psychologist who quit his job to become one of the most prominent leading figures of the hippie movement, would call VR «digital LSD».

Jaron Lanier, portrait by Maciej Mackiewicz. Lanier started VPL Research, the first commercial company to produce and sell immersive VR systems. His story can be read in his biography “Dawn of the New Everything”.

VR as a digital psychedelic

In his book, Lanier describes how he tried to talk Leary out of constantly presenting VR as a digital psychedelic to the press when it had its first popular wave in the 80s.  We are probably better off for it; neither Leary nor psychedelics have had the best associations over the years. The hippie counterculture didn’t really change the world much for the better and the rather irresponsible movement, in turn, became ridiculed. Now that VR is a known thing in its own right, however, there is perhaps room to compare them once more, without the risk of staining the technology as just another way to “drop out”. Psychedelics are also starting to get a somewhat better image, with more research highlighting good effects in the treatment of various disorders — just as is currently happing with VR tech.

With psychedelics, we refer to drugs such as LSD, Psilocybin, and DMT. These are powerful drugs that give visual and auditory hallucinations — that alters the subjective perception of time and identity, and further the relationship of one’s self to the world. Psychedelics are very weird stuff — we do not know much about them. The war on drugs and the hippie movement made proper research on the substances quite unfashionable — there was almost a forty year gap in which no research, whatsoever, was done. This ban on psychedelic research is starting to lift, however, and we now see more research investigating its effects on disorders such as depression, anxiety, alcoholism, etc (for those interested in proper research on these drugs, a group to follow is the Psychedelic Research Unit at John Hopkins University).

In this entry, however, we will focus on the parallel between Immersive Virtual Reality and VR, rather than discussing the newest research on psychedelics. To start off, we will turn to an author who has had few things to say on the subject when VR was still more of a concept than a full-blown reality. We will discuss the utterings of Terence McKenna.

Terence McKenna

Terence McKenna: Author on psychedelic drugs, and theoretical (far-out and quite crazy) speculator.

Having read several books of Terence McKenna, including Food of the Gods, True Hallucinations, The Invisible Landscape, and for this entry The Archaic Revival — it is very obvious that McKenna was quite mad in his own way. Having taken that much, well, drugs, it may not come as a surprise, but at least he is leaving us with plenty of material to discuss the subject matter. No one can blame him for not having taken enough psychedelics, and he actually also immersed himself in the topic of VR — being one of the few lucky who got to try the technology at that time, though it yet was in its infancy.

VR as the Crucible of Self and Other

Terence McKenna’s book The Archaic Revival comprises several interviews and essays. One of the essays presented there was first published in Magical Blend in the winter of 1990, and was according to McKenna himself one of the very first pieces to examine potential future implications of VR technology. In the piece, McKenna imagines how VR can dissolve the boundaries of Self and Other. In referencing Lanier’s interesting embodiment experiences, where he turned himself into a lobster, McKenna imagines how humans can choose to be like octopi — in how octopi communicate ‘telepathically’ by wearing their inner life on their outer manifestation, so dissolving the boundaries between people. He writes:

“in the world of the octopus, to behold is to understand, [the octopus] does not transmit its linguistic intent, it becomes its linguistic intent.”

In other words, McKenna envisions how VR can allow us to quite literally wear our hearts on our sleeves, and approach a unity between appearance and being. McKenna calls this “visible languages”, and imagines how these may make it possible to “overcome the subject/object dualism as well as the self/other dualism”. This vision, hope or potential for the technology was in McKenna’s case inspired from psychedelic visions taking psilocybin-containing mushrooms and a brew traditionally concocted in the Amazon basin, called Ayahuasca, which contains an orally active version of the highly psychedelic drug DMT.

Artwork by Alex Grey, representing the visuals one may encounter on DMT.

Common for psychedelic experiences, at least in high doses, is some of the effects that McKenna here envisions that VR can provide for us. Under the influence of these drugs, people can experience a unification of themselves and the world. If the effects of this unity is somewhat mild, it may help to combat a general anxiety and alienation. If the effect is very strong, however, it may obliterate all sense of “self” or “subject” in the experience, an experience that is commonly referred to as “ego death”. This aspect of experience has strong parallels within the mystics of the world religions, where the ultimate aim of the asceticism and meditation is union with God.

The question then arises, how on earth could such a vision be fulfilled through information technology such as VR? Can VR allow new languages and aid in the experiential break away from Cartesian dualism?

A Controlled Accident

“In the world of the octopus, to behold is to understand”. This sentence hints at a one-ness between symbol and meaning — in that we do not see the communication of the octopus first, and then interpret it later. There is, in other words, no “inner” of the octopus that needs to be abstracted or reduced before it can manifest as “outer”. There is no octopus first, and then communication later. This can perhaps be understood, but how can VR aid in something as radically weird as this?

We have previously at Matrise, discussed something very relevant to this. By using VR in sensory deprivation tanks — essentially all you see and feel is virtual, and this can be a first step in making your inner life reflected in your outer reality. If what you sense in the virtual world is a visualisation based on heart rhythm, brain sensors, etc., you may, over time, get a different relationship to the outer world. This neurofeedback can provide interesting loops, where a corresponding change in your psyche has an immediate representation in the outer world, and this in turn changes your psyche and so ad infinitum, hypothetically inducing a sense of harmony between inner and outer.

Screenshot from “Deep Reality” by Amores et al. The application features an underwater environment in which fluorescent beings are procedurally generated based on your physiological state.

Lately, there has been more and more interesting work in this direction. At this years SIGGRAPH, Judith Amores presented a VR experience that aims to use unconscious biofeedback to induce relaxation via subtle visual & audio changes that are in sync with your heart and brain. At this year’s CHI, also, we saw “Inter-Dream“, a neurofeedback VR visualisation to promote calm/rest/sleep. At the same conference, I partook in a philosophy workshop, where I briefly presented a position paper describing such designs, as “existentialist” — in how they have an aim in opening us to experience, enhancing meaningful perceptions. In the abstract, it is described like this:

The aim of the existentialist designer is to not dominate the user experience, but rather to design for a controlled accident in which the medium itself is explored, and one’s self through the medium, where the overarching purpose is the exploration itself. This line of thinking is inspired by existential philosophers such as Kierkegaard and Heidegger, and its aim can be illustrated in how Kierkegaard discusses life not as a ‘problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.’ The hope is that such an approach towards technology escapes the somewhat limited view of technology as simply a tool to get from A to B, and that technology may be seen as a lens through which reality can be presented free from an otherwise culturally enframing narrative. The aim is, therefore, to design technology as a catalysator for a more original revealing of truth.

This is what I believe has to be the trick for VR. It has to have the ability to surprise us, to let us explore — not just virtual environments, but through them gain access to parts of ourselves we did not know existed. We need to be experimental, play with the boundaries of our identities, avatars and worlds. VR is a question of what we want to become. It has the possibility to, in the words of McKenna, “release humanity into the imagination”.

Screenshot from Kevin Mack’s newest VR experience, “Andala“.

Conclusion

To conclude this entry, I want to bring the focus towards artist Kevin Mack. I heard of him through the Voices of VR podcast (episode #798). Mack creates VR experiences that attempts to give just what we have discussed in this entry: a surprise. In “Blortasia”, which is the only one of his I’ve tried, you fly around in this surreal, psychedelic landscape of “blorts”. Some of these blorts, however, behave based on you — and has an artificial intelligent element to them. Many report interesting experiences in relating to these blorts. I can’t help thinking of McKenna’s “self-transforming machine elves”, that he allegedly encountered on his various DMT trips.

These applications are a progress and I believe we should continue to aim for magical virtual realities, when we have under our creative control a medium of very few constraints. Like Slater and Sanchez-Vives wrote in their state-of-the-art paper “Enhancing Our Lives With Immersive Virtual Reality“: “[…] the real power of VR is not necessarily to produce a faithful reproduction of ‘reality’ but rather that it offers the possibility to step outside of the normal bounds of reality and realize goals in a totally new and unexpected way.”

If anyone knows of similar work or ideas, please don’t hesitate to comment below or write to Matrise.


This entry is at the core of Matrise’s interests. If you found it interesting, you may also enjoy some of our other entries:

In The Virtual Freud, we discussed how VR can induce what we can call out of body experiences; by allowing us a view of ourselves from outside, we may allow us to be more compassionate towards our selves.

In Virtual Embodiment we discuss how powerful illusions can be facilitated so that users can identify completely with virtual avatars. It can help us overcome prejudices, reduce racism and violence.

In Hinduism and Virtual Reality we paralleled  the broad metaphysics of the East with the potentiality of VR tech.

In From Thought To Reality  we discussed VR as the materialiser of form, or the instantiator of the abstract. We discuss this with imagery from Tolkien and Heidegger’s philosophy.

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6 Replies to “A Psychedelic Virtual Reality”

  1. This is great. Very thought-provoking stuff.
    I think maybe you could add some details about precisely how VR brings about an overcoming of subject/object dualism. From what I have experienced, while it is possible to get into states of “flow” and lose oneself in the activity, much like TV, podcasts or a book, the overcoming of dualisms seems to be limited to while the activity persists.

    Do you think that, like psychedelics, VR can one day bring about permanent overcomings outside of a theraphy-setting? I can imagine exposure theraphies and other avenues of theraphy aided VR treatments can help one overcome the burden of selfhood in relation to the world, but do you think VR – by itself – can bring about lasting overcomings of dualisms outside of the VR sessions? And if so, do you have any thought as to how this might be brought about?

    Loved the McKenna reference to the machine elves by the way! The ontological status of the VR induced visuals are very interesting to consider.

    1. Hi Fedico,

      Existentialist design is a term I used in a position paper for a philosophy workshop. It was more a sort of experiment if it was possible to take Heidegger’s technology criticism as input towards a design approach. Personally, however, I agree with Don Ihde in that Heidegger’s technology criticism as outlined in his Question Concerning Technology is too general and counterproductive to provide any real value for designers and consumers in our age, however beautiful and “true” it is, it is more metaphysical than practical.

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