An Analogy for the Psychedelic Experience and the Potential of Virtual Reality
Inspired by a 3rd-person view of subjective experience
How I understand the “trip” part of psychedelics is similar to the astronaut floating around a spaceship. In this scenario, normal sober reality is when the astronaut is in the spaceship doing astronaut things. When you take a hit of LSD, psilocybin, peyote, ketamine, or even more mildly, MDMA, you put on your space suit and venture out of the ship into the vast unknown of consciousness.
This is where the experience of oneness comes from. When you come to see yourself not as a person on Earth (the astronaut in the ship), but as a cell actively participating in the organism that is this universe. To get to this perspective, you must leave behind the reality of the normal and sober. This is where the danger of going crazy by taking too many psychedelics comes from, and can be understood as venturing so far away from the spaceship that you cut the tether. When you cut the tether, you cannot make your way back to normal sober reality. The experiencer is overwhelmed and unable to reconcile the concurrent truth of these two realities. Yes, you are but a cell in this organism – a speck of dust in the expanse of night. But you are ALSO a person here and now, reading this.
So how does this apply to virtual reality? Virtual reality is another method of straying away from the spaceship of normal sober reality. For example, Japan’s population is in decline, and while I can’t remember the exact numbers, an obscenely high number of people over the age of 18 are single and virgins. It’s been speculated that this is because of the introduction of VR to mass culture. Why spend time going out into the world and risk facing rejection when you can put on a pair of goggles and experience the human-like intimacy of dating from the comfort of home? The individuals making up this statistic have been had by VR in the same way as someone who has taken too much LSD. They have cut the tether and are lost somewhere in between this reality and that one.
However, the rewards may be worth the risk. Take for example a war veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). With the help of virtual reality, the patient can alter their concept of reality, essentially overwriting their post-traumatic truth with a better one. The human brain can be rewired – mindfulness and meditation have shown us that. But VR will take this phenomenon to a completely new level.
The 1960's birthed Steve Jobs, Aldous Huxley, Jimi Hendrix, and others who have - to this day - marked our collective identity. These are profound and lasting cultural shifts. Psychedelics were the virtual reality of the 60’s and headsets are the virtual reality of the 2010's. I think we can expect the same cultural shift to take place once virtual reality reaches the masses.
I wouldn't be me if I didn't generalize to some intrinsic truth about life. LSD showed us that our concept of reality is malleable, which was most famously done by Renee Descartes in The Meditations: doubts can be raised as to the accuracy and validity of what we deem to be normal sober reality. Virtual reality allows us to choose what we want our reality to be. I think we should - but cautiously.
And if we can get lost in an alternate reality, how do we know that we’re not in fact lost in this one?