Zeus Tipado tripped inside virtual reality in front of 70,000 people at the E3 Expo, exploring the potential for combining virtual reality and psychedelics. Join Zeus as we learn more about the trippy possibilities for growth, adventure, and healing that are possible with VR.
Over 70,000 people saw the first time I tripped inside virtual reality (VR). Years later, I’m still trying to fully comprehend that experience. My adventure happened at the 2016 E3 expo in Los Angeles, a giant video game convention filled with cosplayers and tech bros. Navigating the E3 landscape feels like moving through a labyrinth of elaborate stage sets themed after upcoming video games. To me, it also felt like being trapped inside a pop-up ad—and you can’t find the X to close it. Basically, it’s the worst possible setting to have a significant psychedelic trip in any reality.
At the peak of my LSD trip, I went into the Indiecade area, a section of E3 showcasing the most indie of the independent developers, and found Inner Activity VR. When they placed an Oculus on my head, I couldn’t believe the psychedelic environment I dropped into. Suddenly I was in a cavernous place—one large enough to feature a massive, perpetually rotating mandala in the sky. I was walking among luminescent plants and human-sized mushrooms that all made faint buzzes as you approached them. It was overwhelming; at one point I held my head down and closed my eyes in complete awe.
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I’ve talked about how it’s currently impossible to have a psychedelic trip within VR, and I’ve shared my experience of what could happen when you trip inside VR. Aside from the sheer Inception-level compounding of altered realities that Terence McKenna would have loved, tripping while in VR, or the metaverse, may hold some incredibly therapeutic benefits and enhance existing ones.
We know that psychedelics have an innate neurological property that enables them to provide effective therapy for cognitive conditions like treatment-resistant depression, anxiety, PTSD, stress-related behavior and addiction. The exact mechanisms of how this neurological phenomena occurs are still being discovered, however we’ve managed to quantify some of them through psychedelics’ serotonin-centric interaction with mostly 5-HT2A receptors in the brain. These receptors are attached to much larger neural networks that respond in interesting ways to psychedelics. Our familiarity of how psychedelics affect the brain is growing with each weekly, sometimes daily discovery—but what does virtual reality do to the brain? Has our ability to virtualize reality ‘tricked’ the brain into believing another reality to be as true as our own? Well, surprisingly it has.
We haven’t broken through the uncanny valley with VR just yet, but it looks like we don’t even need to. Since the advent of modern VR (due to the creation of the Oculus Rift VR headset in 2012) our knowledge of virtual reality modulating the same parts of the brain as its ‘real’ counterpart has been shown in a number of neuroscience studies. That’s right, humanity has reached the point where our technology can virtualize reality as well as reality itself. No bulky headjack or red/blue pill needed. It quietly happened in a lab and no Terminators were involved.
For example, phantom limb pain from a severed arm can be treated through augmented reality, and it’s possible to ‘rebuild’ the perception of the missing limb through virtualizing it. In the above-mentioned experiment conducted by Mikkel Thøgersen, there was a 52% reduction in pain with patients that saw their arm represented in augmented reality. There are even studies that show the virtualized environments elicit the same neurological actions of real-life environments, like this study where researchers submerged drug addicts in a VR environment surrounded by other virtual drug addicts. The mesocorticolimbic reward circuit, where dopaminergic drug cravings are processed, was activated as if a person was in a drug-use environment—although what these researchers used as their VR environment was pretty extravagant.
In some scenarios, a virtualized environment works better than a real one. A 2021 study by Marta Modrego-Alarcón investigated the impact virtual reality would have on stress levels in college students in Spain. Researchers deployed a VR mindfulness-based system to get students to relax and lower anxiety levels. What they found was the VR program did a better job at relaxing students than the actual real-life practice of relaxation without VR. In another study, researchers wanted to see what effects VR treatment would have on online gaming addicts compared to regular cognitive therapy. They found both reduced gambling behavior, but VR increased functional connectivity of the cortico-limbic circuit, a complex network that is involved in learning and decision-making. This is important, because in 2005, researchers discovered the limbic area is directly associated with drug cravings. A 2011 study showed this same system activates in cravings for online gameplay.
There are certainly more experiments I could cover here, but it appears these VR devices humans have created over the years have become as effective to the brain as reality, and in some cases, more effective than reality. The evidence that psychedelics and VR have clear neurological effects is overwhelming at this point. So what happens when we combine VR and psychedelics?
We don’t yet know the neuroscience of VR combined with psychedelics because— surprisingly—there’s never been a clinical study on this combo. We can only go off imagination, combined hypotheses, and theoreticals—which is why most of you are reading anyway. So let’s get to it.
VR can offer a setting for a psychedelic trip that’s impossible to obtain with reality
‘Set’ refers to the internal influences (like mood or religious beliefs) while ‘setting’ refers to external factors (like environment and temperature) that affect the trip. We’re learning the subjective experience of a trip has tremendous correlation with the extent of psychological flexibility (or neuroplasticity) that is gained from the psychedelic. The work of Johns Hopkins’s researchers Matthew W. Johnson and Alan K. Davis, shows that psychedelics seem to be more effective when taken in a naturalistic setting. In experimental science and medicine there’s a phenomenon known as ‘White Coat Hypertension’ which means patients and subjects entering a clinical setting will have higher blood pressure and anxiety due to the uncomfortable nature of a lab or doctor’s office. This temporary physiological response often skews laboratory readings, and in the case of psychedelics, would affect the experience for the experimentee and the cognitive data for the experimenter.
If we’re strictly applying VR to a laboratory setting, changing the environment to a more natural setting could maintain or improve the external validity of an experiment, (how well the results can be applied to the real world). Dropping LSD locked inside the white walls of a lab will undoubtedly hit differently compared to sitting down in a park next to a lake—an environment that VR can generate.
We’re not just talking hypotheticals either; in 2020 a study from Helsinki looked at whether a virtual forest would have a restorative effect (psychological improvement from mental fatigue). They found that VR forests not only were as effective at cognitive restoration, but in many instances it worked better than an actual forest.
Setting directly altering a trip is still a new concept in neuroscience. Even so, it’s gaining attention and sparking even more research into any potential correlation between a trip’s quality and the quality of its therapeutic benefits. With VR, the setting of a trip can extend to simulacrums of real places on Earth—like the ability to trip in Egypt near the great pyramids. VR can even change the setting to places that don’t exist (imagine taking 2-CB while submerged in Spongebob’s city of Bikini Bottom) along with temporal destinations that are no longer available (like tripping in front of a church in the 10th century Byzantine Empire). We’re only limited to our imaginations in regards to a virtualized setting for a psychedelic trip, and these settings could push the subjective experience of psychedelics to another level previously unobtainable with normal reality.
Biofeedback and Neurofeedback to the subjective experiences of psychedelics
Modern neuroimaging allows us to pinpoint the moment areas of the brain are activated from psychedelics with great temporal and spatial accuracy. Aside from electroencephalogram (EEG) and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), most neuroimaging requires a person to hold their head perfectly still as insanely-delicate calculations of their brain are being detected while the trip occurs. This opens up the possibility of neurofeedback, or real-world signals/alerts that are dependent on certain cortical regions or networks of the brain being activated. For example, we know that a brain-wide increase of functional connectivity in the brain (especially in the thalamus) is an indicator that a person is undergoing ego-dissolution with psychedelics, which is your sense of ‘self’ dissolving into the external world. With neurofeedback, when this event occurs in the brain, a VR app can shift to another environment or augment the current one to correspond with a user’s ego-dissolution. In theory, this would enhance the subjective experience of the trip which may also lead to new forms of therapy, or at the very least, a really dope trip.
Then there’s biofeedback, which is a real-world signal/alert that’s dependent on certain body indicators, not just the brain. When an indicator triggers in biofeedback therapies, the person can see it in real-time and attempt to ‘turn off’ the alert. For example, imagine having a shirt that alerts you with that annoying iphone alarm sound every time you have bad posture. The only way to turn it off would be to stand up straight—or yank the shirt off and rip it to shreds. That’s an extreme example, but when applied to psychedelics it could be pretty interesting.
Overheating (hyperthermia) can occur with MDMA, especially while dancing in a warm environment. Now imagine a VR headset with biosensors that can detect if you’re overheating and instantly shift or augment the environment to a ‘cooler’ place, like the top of the French Alps. Thanks to research by Hunter G. Hoffman, we know that immersing a person in a cold VR environment can reduce core temperature and even pain thresholds. However, while it might seem ridiculous to think a VR headset could just collect biometric data and feed them to the wearer, these possibilities already exist in our hoverboard-less future with Hewlett-Packard’s Omnicept VR headset. This device detects heart rate, facial muscle movement, and pupil dilation. The headset relays this data back to the VR app and allows for real-time modification of a virtualized experience. Clearly, the technology is already here—and so are the psychedelics.
VR assistance in psychedelic-induced mysticism and spirituality
This is a topic that often gets overlooked in psychedelics, mostly because the medical field is hyperfocused on the therapeutic potential of psychedelics in treating anxiety, PTSD, addiction, and other behavioral conditions that seem to evade traditional therapy and pharmaceuticals. Those benefits are the driving force in advancing psychedelic research to what it is today, and their importance can never be understated. However, we would be remiss if we didn’t consider the seemingly mystical experiences that can arise from an acute dose of psychedelics—the ‘numen’ for all you spiritual buffs out there.
For those that have ventured to the ‘heroic dose’ level of psychedelics, suggesting a certain otherworldly aspect associated with a trip is nothing new. Whether it’s an etheric presence during a DMT experience or a cosmic ‘oneness’ felt during psilocybin (and everything in between), this psychedelic-induced mysticism is something that has been highly overlooked in the neuroscience field. Where do you even begin to quantify a person’s spirituality? Well, you begin in the brain—and Harvard’s Michael Ferguson is already on it.
He’s developed a field of neuroscience called ‘neurospirituality’ in which he uses neuroimaging (mostly functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI) to detect regions and entire networks in the brain that are responsible for spirituality. He’s achieved this by looking at brain lesions of people that are recovering from surgery and correlating it with their subjective views on religion, spirituality, and mysticism. What he discovered was people that were the least religious have frequent neuronal activity in their fronto-parietal network (FPN), which is an area in the brain that’s responsible for direct cognitive tasks, problem solving, goal-oriented behavior. It’s also known as the central executive network (CEN) which should give you some idea on its importance in mentally-demanding tasks. The people with the most religious inclination had lesions in the Default Mode Network, an area of the brain that’s centric to meditation, contemplating, and day-dreaming, among many other passively-cognitive states.
This doesn’t serve as evidence that spiritual people aren’t goal-oriented or atheists don’t cognitively ‘wander off’—or that brain lesions are a requisite for being religious. Ferguson’s neurospirituality findings are much more nuanced than that. However it does indicate some correlation with the effects of psychedelics and that of traditional mystical and spiritual experiences—specifically the jumbling of functional connectivity within the DMN and to some extent activity in the periaqueductal grey, an area of the brain that’s still mostly unknown, but involved in things like pain inhibition, threat detection and motivational behavior.
Still, what can VR do to enhance a mystical experience? The truth is, we don’t know. There’s an extraordinary lack of clinical neuroscience into the concept of virtuality-induced mysticism, let alone mysticism induced by psychedelics. There does seem to be a unifying phenomena that ties in VR, psychedelics, and spirituality: the concept of presence.
In VR, presence or immersion is the seemingly-physical perception of self, along with others, in an interactive environment. It’s a powerful attribute that has led to research in stroke-recovery. This same concept of presence has also been subjectively expressed for generations in indigenous religious practices that gravitate around ayahuasca, ibogaine, and mushroom ceremonies. Traditionally this has been expressed as connections with ancestral spirits, omnipresent beings that predate time and space; even McKenna’s self-transforming machine elves fall into this category. All that traditional (and incredibly relevant) cultural data can never be discounted. The potential for VR to create a mystical experience that hits the same areas of the brain described by Ferguson’s neurospirituality is theoretically possible, but has yet to be seen.
The idea of VR modulating a psychedelic trip is something that neuroscience needs to explore for the sheer amount of neurological data that will undoubtedly be revealed. In fact, this article was originally twice the size. Initially I wanted to explore the 5-Dimensional Altered States of Consciousness (5D-ASC) and how it could be applied not only to psychedelics but virtual reality along with Milgram’s reality-virtuality continuum scale. I decided to remove it all to respect the article length requirements of Psychedelic Support. Don’t ask for a ‘Tipado Cut’ of this article either. It’ll be filled with dumb jokes, like ‘maybe hydrogen is just really stoned drogen.’ Yeah, some things were cut for a reason.