Virtual tripping

Altered states through psychedelics could be the tool humanity needs to prepare for a virtual reality future.

Virtual reality welcomes a realm of possibilities where mental states will be routinely projected into virtual spaces – a part of our inevitable future driven by technology. To prepare for such a state, psychedelics can be seen as a catalyst to train us for this comparative state of mind. Are we staring at a tool that can help humanity progress into this dematerialized culture, that previously we have been blinded to?

 Virtual reality may hold a special place in science fiction novels and films, but its once unimaginable possibility is now an actuality—and it’s becoming more prominent in our everyday lives. So how did it all start? The first fully-functional VR device was ‘The Sword of Damocles’, which serves as a precursor to the VR headsets we use today, like HTC VIVE and Oculus. Besides VR headgear, haptic technology such as haptx has enhanced experiences further by inducing tactile senses to give feedback from the virtual world further improving the sensory experience. But virtual reality isn’t limited to video games and entertainment purposes.

 The current state of brain-machine interfaces gives us a fascinating glimpse into new possibilities—from controlling the technology around us with a thought to backing up our consciousness to the cloud. How will we relate to ourselves and our bodies when this eventually becomes a reality? Neuralink is focused on curing paraplegia and neurodegenerative diseases. They are working on a system that directly implants nano-thin wires directly into the brain. Although this sounds damaging, the wires are so thin that they do not damage blood vessels when being implanted since it’s vastly smaller than a strand of human hair. Aiming to displace tissue, it gives the device unprecedented access to the neurons allowing for high accuracy in reading what the activity in the brain is producing.

 If we can send signals directly to the nervous system, then the state we perceive could be substituted with our digital creations. This is where psychedelics seem to mimic this state of selflessness and project us into a space of pure awareness.

 The similarities between virtual reality and psychedelics are uncanny, with both altering perceptions of consciousness, currently through visual processing, and finding the distinction between mind and body. Jaron Lanier, the godfather of VR, is a computer scientist, author and composer and pioneer in the field. He is also the founder of VPL Research, the first company to sell VR products. In his book “Dawn of the New Everything”, a memoir that retraces the author’s journey into VR and its future, he compares the phenomena of VR to LSD, though he’s never done drugs himself. As the famed writer, philosopher and ethnobotanist Terence McKenna once said, “the only difference between computers and drugs is that one is too large to swallow”.

Psychedelics are known to dissolve boundaries—between person-to-person, yourself and the world—an experience closely resembling that of virtual reality technology. Until recent years, psychedelics were banned globally and stamped with negative connotations, leading to their current stigma. But decades later, research has started to kick off again, with the FDA and DEA starting to approve psychedelic studies. Scientists are only now rediscovering the therapeutic potential for these psychedelic drugs in recent years, captivating a new generation of researchers. The benefits of psychedelic drugs are becoming better understood through research and innovation at respectable institutions worldwide. Universities like John Hopkins Medicine and the University of California are finding that psychedelics—more specifically, psilocybin (found in psychedelic mushrooms)—are having a market benefit for people with mental disorders, addictions and depression.

 Although the perception of psychedelics is changing thanks to new research, there is still a lot of hesitation from governments and the public. Yet, as we move towards a VR-driven prospective, the possibilities can be endless. It’s not unimaginable to think that perhaps one day, we can use VR that allows us to achieve a state of photographic memory on command or to fully and lucidly control our dreams, recalling them with perfect fidelity. Psychedelics are the mind-manifesting catalyst to discover potentials of the human mind. This indicates that they could be a useful tool to help the transition towards a virtual state.

Recreating the experience

The psychedelic experience can thus mimic the future multimedia experience — one that humankind hasn’t even developed yet. There are differences, for sure — psychedelics are much more personal and can trigger memories from the subconscious that only you know of. Yet with the ongoing research into the full dive experience which could tap into your brain, there’s a chance that psychedelics will indeed compare closely to virtual reality. Can psychedelics prepare us for the emergence of this unknown technology (full dive VR) that will bring man closer to machine?

The relationship between virtual reality and psychedelic drugs is closer than we think. Psychedelics take us on a time-free, three-dimensional experience unfamiliar to our usual state. This non-corporeal consciousness is inevitably coming as technology and VR progresses further to a fully immersive world—a concept which can also, to some, may seem like an ego death. 

Then there are the mutual associations between virtual reality and psychedelic drugs, respectively, with pleasure-seeking behaviors. Although there are links between psychedelics and their mental health benefits, some users use them solely for entertainment or experimental purposes. The same applies to VR. These fantasy creations are under our creative control.

Timothy Leary, a cult figure of the 1960s hippie movement (and previously a Harvard psychologist), became an advocate for cyberdelic counterculture—a term referring to the immersion in cyberspace as a psychedelic experience. This direct relationship between psychedelics and technology has led to modern interpretations in VR to help treat trauma and interpret near-death experiences. But with psychedelics earning a better reputation thanks to new research, they are making a comeback, and often overlap one another. Famed psychonaut Terence Mckenna also often bridged psychedelics with virtual reality, while predicting technology as a supercharged version of consciousness. This idea feeds into the link between psychedelics and VR.

Brain-machine interfaces will soon allow us to fully disconnect from our sensibility and allow us to experience our own creations of reality. Similarly, psychedelics temporarily disconnect us from our mental state and allow us to experience a very rich mental landscape—one that we currently do not understand fully yet. These two seemingly separate phenomena indicate very helpful tools in showing applications for training the human mind and preparing us for mental states in our digital future.

Psychedelics can give us the chance to transcend the mundane and test the outer limits of what our minds can do. There are strikingly similar characteristics between LSD and VR – although one is guided by the subconscious and the other by the individuals’ desires. Living in one’s own fantasy can be pleasurable but it may not promote growth. Psychedelics may give you a journey where you are the passenger seeing things that perhaps you didn’t ask for but you needed – according to your subconscious. VR on the other hand can only present your needs and conscious desires, but this may change soon. Ayahuasca and other psychedelics can give you a short sharp opportunity to confront your personal demons. This thought sounds terrifying to most, yet if you face your subconscious front-on in all their unvarnished truths, this can lead to realizations that bring you closer to understanding yourself – a must for the virtual world. Allowing our consciousness to go into these spaces that psychedelics provide seems to be the perfect training ground for the digital state that we are inevitably heading towards.

Further Reading
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The post-virtual world: Invisible interfaces and our experience of reality

As the distinction between real and virtual is fading faster than we expected, we have to reconsider our notion of reality, and how we relate to it.

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