Cyberdelics: The Trippy Machines
My article on Breaking Convention is out – the largest conference on psychedelic research in Europe, taking place at Greenwich University in London.
There was so much going on during the three days, and I could have written ten articles about it.
My focus in this one, which was published in this week’s edition of Weekendavisen (Danish national newspaper) is on the cyberdelics at the conference, in particular The Lucia no. 3 (the hypnagogic light machine) and the Isness installation (a virtual reality experience for four people made by computational physicists (+ team) at Bristol University.
The article is here (paywall): The digital trip machines.
A translated version (not prettily translated, yet, but effectively!):
The digital trip machines
It is afternoon in a semi-dark room at Greenwich University in London, and I’ve just tried the wildest machine I’ve ever experienced. Since I put on a virtual reality headset for the first time in 2013, I have grown used to sensory-enhancing experiences provided by machines. I know that a VR headset can transport me into an entirely new reality in an instant. I’ve grown accustomed to having my expectations exceeded – year after year, as the technology improves.
But this experience beats them all.
The machine itself doesn’t look high tech in any way. There are no wires, no gadgets on the body and no headsets to wear. I just have to sit in a chair in front of a lamp connected to a computer. I close my eyes and I know that soon, bright, flashing lights aimed at my face will penetrate through my closed eyelids. That is all.
But the next thing that happens is so wonderful and surprising that I have to perform somersaults with my language capabilities to describe it.
I’m sitting in front of the lamp because I’m attending the bi-annual Breaking Convention: Europe’s largest conference on psychedelic research. For three days there are academic lectures on the latest knowledge in the field on all floors of Greenwich University’s stately buildings; from anthropologists with expertise in the use of psychoactive plants by Mayan Indians to brain scientists focusing on MRI scans, microdosing and the potential of psychedelic drugs to treat mental disorders.
A large area on the ground floor of one building is, under the title The Cyberdelics Showcase, dedicated to installations where different kinds of technology mimic the psychedelic experience or transport us into altered states of consciousness in other ways.
In the morning hours on the first day of the conference I am standing in line, ready to be signed up for as many of the various VR installations as possible, including the meditation booster Healium, which measures my brain waves and sends visual feedback directly into the VR glasses on how relaxed and focused I actually am during my meditation, and the ambitious ‘Isness’ installation created at Bristol University, where four people are inside the virtual reality experience at the same time.
Wearing VR headsets and haptic gloves, me and three other conference attendees are transformed into silent, collaborative light beings who can juggle and manipulate the molecular structures between us. Computational physicists have created the experience to demonstrate how solid matter is nothing but concentrated energy. Novo Nordisk has expressed interest in the technology which they will be using for nano-design.
After hovering around like a light being with molecular manipulating superpowers for 40 minutes, I understandably think that I’ve reached the pinnacle of the conference, technologically speaking.
Still, I feel very excited as I sit alone the day after in front of the lamp in the dark room. Compared to the Isness installation, which filled a whole room with wires, HTC Vive headsets and motion sensors, the lamp in front of me really doesn’t look special; just like an advanced designer lamp (with a hint of a dentist vibe) connected to a computer. But it turns out to be a portal to the biggest experience of the year.
I close my eyes. The bright white light of the lamp starts to flash. And immediately, a wonderful fractal dance of miraculous colors unfolds in my head. I rush through tunnels of kaleidoscopic patterns. Sizzling networks in yellow and turquoise rise and disappear. Thousands of deep blue and black circles explode into a star-shaped pattern so beautiful that I can feel it in my stomach. One second later, I am sent through a new, neon-colored swath of interwoven shades. Peacock Green! Glowing orange! I’m in a cosmic roller coaster of light.
It is a very interesting sensation, seeing these complex and intertwined geometries with my eyes closed. There is no distance between the patterns and me. Mentally, I can try to place the passing colors on the inside of my eyelids. But that’s not where I see them. They are closer, inside my head, and wonderfully intense. The colors are so juicy that I feel I can drink them.
When the light stops flashing, I am immediately back “in the real world”, with a wonderful sensation in my body, as if I was a Tibetan monk who has meditated so deeply that I am ready to levitate. Calm, super focused and wonderfully comfortable.
The machine I’ve just tried is a ‘hypnagogic light machine’, also called ‘Lucia no. 03 ‘. It was created by two Austrian doctors, the psychiatrist Dr. Engelbert Winkler and the clinical neurologist Dr. Dirk Proeckl, who has brought the machine to Breaking Convention since 2011 and give a talk on their work the following afternoon in a crowded room in the neighboring building.
Originally, they built the machine to simulate a near-death experience. Winkler was very interested in the American psychology professor Kenneth Ring’s research into the positive effects that people who have been through a near-death experience experience. “It is extremely interesting that an intense experience, which lasts only a few minutes, can have lasting positive effects, similar to many years of intense psychotherapy,” says Winkler.
He began using hypnosis to send his patients (with anxiety disorders, for example) into a similar state. And he quickly discovered that when he used a bright light to help them stay in the trance state, the treatment was much more effective. Next, Proeckl suggested that they combine the bright light of the lamp with strobe effects to simulate a tunnel experience. This is how the first prototype of the lamp was made, partly consisting of remodeled components from the coffee machine in their office.
When they first sat down in front of the machine, they were quite amazed by the unexpected visual effects.
Lot of people who have sat down in front of the hypnagogic lamp compare the patterns emerging inside their heads to the visual delights of their experiences with DMT: the psychedelic ingredient which is found in ayahuasca (the highly potent psychedelic brew of the Amazonas) and, according to some theories, also produced in our brains and released when we dream and when we die.
When the effect of the light machine was examined by researchers at Sussex University using EEG measurements, they found similarities between the effect of the stroboscope stimulation and the effect of psilocybin: the active substance in psychedelic fungi that has been shown to be effective in the treatment of anxiety and depression.
Records of the brain’s electrical activity during light stimulation showed that the lights sent the brain into relaxed, harmonious states similar to those that can be achieved through prolonged, deep meditation. And the after effects reported are the same: improvements in mood, creativity, sleep quality and increased ability to focus.
“I consider Lucia no. 3 as one of the first true cyberdelic machines: a technology that can induce altered states of consciousness but without the ingestion of psychoactive substances, ” says Carl H. Smith – curator of the Cyberdelics Showcase section of the conference and one of the founders of The Cyberdelic Society.
“We are in the midst of a great, psychedelic renaissance, but even though psychedelic drugs are being researched at universities all over the world, it is still a niche. With The Cyberdelic Society, we want to open up the field to even more people; including those who will not take psychedelics themselves because of the fear of loss of control, bad trips and the fact that in most countries taking psychedelics is not legal. The great thing about technology is that you can just take it off again”, says Smith.
In his daily work as head of the Learning Technology Research Center at Ravensbourne University, he focuses on improving poorly designed technologies and fixing the problems caused by them.
A good example of such a technology is our cell phones, which are making us all near-sighted because we no longer train our eye muscles appropriately, but constantly stare at a screen just an arm’s length away from our face. In this case, the virtual reality technology offers a good counterweight because VR experiences activate our peripheral vision, which is really healthy for our eyes. There are plenty of technologies designed to distract and zombify us, impairing our well-being. But instead of writing off all the new technologes as unhealthy, we need to find ways to use the technologies in ways that increase our focus and enhance our ability to be in the world, says Smith.
The cyberdelic technologies are certainly popular at the conference. Both the Isness installation and the Lucia no. 3 have been fully booked from morning to evening during the entire Breaking Convention. And as I prepare to leave the university on the last day of the conference to catch my plane home, people are still queuing in front of the room with the light machine.