Acid test: how psychedelic virtual reality can help end society's mass bad trip

Human beings have become nothing more than data in flesh suits. That’s the gist of Team Human, the 2018 TED Talk from media theorist Douglas Rushkoff. Certainly, there could be few people who use social media now who don’t feel a sense of captivity.

That makes cybernauts the freedom fighters. The VR artists, academics and scientists gathered in this Brunswick warehouse have contributed to Melbourne’s first “cyberdelic incubator”, hosted by the Australian Psychedelic Society.

In line with Rushkoff’s call for technology built on pre-digital era values of connection, creativity and respect, cyberdelia promotes a renaissance of a more conscious approach to technology – one of self-transformation and a connection to other people more genuine than you might find on Instagram.

There’s often a gentle spiritual component to such initiatives; take the simple example that the Australian Psychedelic Society’s Melissa Warner gives Guardian Australia, of a meditation app that creates a flower that grows ever-more beautiful and complex, based on biofeedback that relays how relaxed the user is.

So tonight there’s the opportunity to try out virtual reality and augmented reality experiences that go beyond recreational use – there’s no diving with sharks or rollercoaster rides here. But users should strap in tightly anyway: these experiences are designed to expedite a different kind of journey.

Among those technologies to try in the Brunswick warehouse are Crystal Vibes, which induces a kind of synaesthesia by using music to shape a visual journey; Subpac, a device strapped to the back to deliver bass vibrations into the vertebrae as the user plays favourite songs on their phone; and Mirrors, which makes your hand movements disintegrate into trails of light particles. Roadtesting these for five minutes in a queue system is underwhelming, but it’s immediately obvious that these are experiences designed for “set and setting”, as psychedelic drug enthusiasts put it – the user needs to settle in comfortably and self-reflect.

The event was created by Jose Montemayor and Carl H Smith, both of whom are here tonight, from Mexico and London respectively, and who have taken it to different countries. Smith says that cyberdelics tie in nicely with meditation and breathing exercises. With this in mind, the official proceedings open with Warner leading a guided meditation, before talks by Montemayor and Smith (via the technological comedown of Powerpoint). In a way, says Smith, our day-to-day lives are a distorted reality: from the real estate photos that stretch the dimensions of properties through wide-angle lenses, to the selfies we take that make us believe our noses are far bigger than they actually are, the apps that airbrush us to perfection – and are triggering a rise in cosmetic surgery – and the mirrors that reflect us in reverse.

Smith and Montemayor are most interested in how to undo the damage done by smartphones and their apps. Extended reality technology, they say, could provide a more genuine sense of human connection and a greater sense of empathy by allowing us to stand in the shoes of others (or borrow their eyes). We might experience what it’s like to be another gender, or to have schizophrenia, for instance.

There’s also the role that extended reality technologies can play in therapy, Warner tells Guardian Australia. “Combining multiple aspects of technology with psychedelic medicine and psychotherapy has very interesting implications for the future. At BrainPark at Monash University there are programs that allow someone with OCD to experience a scaling environment. If you’re severely reactive to untidiness, they’ll have level one, where maybe there’s a bit of water on the bench. They get the client to become comfortable in that environment before scaling it up. So, for example, the trash can is tipped over.”

VR exposure therapy is even starting to be used to treat trauma, such as in the case of those who have experienced car accidents and who will be intentionally triggered – in a controlled environment – by a scene such as driving down a similar-looking road. “They have to be very careful that the patient isn’t outside the window of tolerance so as not to retraumatise them,” Warner says, “so to do that they might collect biofeedback from the patient through heart-rate monitors so that the psychologist or doctor can tell if the patient is becoming hyperaroused.”

Video of Crystal Vibes, one of the

But the most talked about experience is one that only a few people will get to try tonight because of its requirement of 25 minutes in a peaceful setting. Montemayor’s Death is Only the Beginning simulates a near-death experience through virtual reality.

“The intention is to go deeper into the transformative benefits of the near-death experience,” Montemayor tells Guardian Australia. “For me it has been a fascinating journey because it’s about not focusing on what happens after, but what happens before.” Although initially designed for self-reflection, it’s now being adapted as Being with Dying, for use with palliative care patients.

“We’re collaborating with [London neuropsychiatrist] Peter Fenwick and I found a hospice, called Zen Hospice, in San Francisco, that are very chill and open, so we’re starting the conversation,” he says.

As for the rest of us, the late ethnobotanist and author Terence McKenna told a German audience in 1991 that virtual reality could offer a new kind of communication – that it would be more like telepathy, uniting us with the tribal community we’ve long left behind.

But are we strong enough to break the social media hooks specifically designed to embed in the human brain? (If you think I resisted posting a picture of the evening to Instagram, you’re wrong.)

Rushkoff takes Timothy Leary’s analogy that “the PC is the LSD of the 1990s” and applies it to the internet. It’s our lack of understanding of the psychedelic landscape – and how set and setting influences it – that is causing a mass bad trip, he says. For the cybernauts, it is imperative that we now find ways to use technology to flourish.


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