The moment I slipped on the virtual reality headset, I found myself immersed in an open-air market. People were milling about, picking up groceries. Everything seemed normal enough—until it wasn’t. The fabric of the scene began to move in gentle waves. The corners of the market stalls wobbled. Buildings appeared to be sentient, breathing in and out.
Colors suddenly became sharper and more vivid. When I turned my head, they left motion trails. Suddenly, I saw hundreds of dog faces covering every surface, which then morphed into intricate geometric patterns. Reality was very literally melting away before my eyes.
I’d taken mushrooms before, and as far as what I’d come to expect from a heavy dose, the visuals were actually realistic—if a little extreme. "If I saw this after taking drugs," I said, "I'd be seriously concerned."
“That’s the highest intensity,” says Keisuke Suzuki, a researcher who works for the Sackler Center for Consciousness Science at the University of Sussex in the UK.
The apparatus I’m hooked up to, which Suzuki helped design, is called the “Hallucination Machine.” It combines Google’s DeepDream software, which turns images “psychedelic” using an artificial intelligence algorithm, with immersive VR technology to create “highly immersive, dynamic hallucination-like visual scenes.”
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Using a computer-based neural network, DeepDream finds and enhances patterns in images, which results in a visual distortion not unlike a psychedelic hallucination.
Researchers like Suzuki are increasingly interested in the potential therapeutic applications of psilocybin, a psychoactive compound found in magic mushrooms. Recent studies, for instance, have found that it could help “reset” the brains of depressed people, potentially relieve anxiety in cancer patients, treat opioid addiction, and even lower the risk of suicide.
That got Suzuki thinking: What if you could achieve the same therapeutic effects of psilocybin without actually having to take a dose, which could have unpredictable effects? Suzuki’s recent study aimed to compare the experience of being hooked up to the Hallucination Machine to the effects of an actual dose of psilocybin.
“We compared a pharmacologically-induced altered state of consciousness with our computer-generated simulation,” he says. After being immersed in the simulation, twelve participants completed a questionnaire about their experience. Participants in a different study (who were actually administered psilocybin) took the same survey and researchers compared their answers.
Advanced statistical analysis techniques were then used to test if any similarities were statistically significant. The machine proved to be somewhat effective: A statistically significant number of the VR participants reported the same visual experiences that were reported by the psilocybin participants, Suzuki says.
But that’s where the similarities stopped. People administered psilocybin in previous studies, for instance, have reported changes in how they perceived time—seconds felt like minutes. But that effect wasn’t apparent in Suzuki’s study. “We don’t think it’s the oddness or uniqueness of psychedelic visuals that distorts time perception,” he says. “Maybe it’s another aspect of taking a psychedelic.”
The Hallucination Machine, in other words, may be trippy fun, but visuals are just one part of taking psilocybin, and so far the technology can’t effectively replicate the whole experience.
Despite these obvious limitations, Suzuki remains interested in the potential of such simulations to help treat conditions such as schizophrenia one day. But he acknowledges that the technology has a very long way to go before that’s realistic. “You can change the external stimulus,” he says, “but you still can’t change anything internal—like your emotions or your sense of self.”
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