I’ve never dropped acid. But I did have a memorable drug-induced hallucination once, when I was 7.
I was having a surgical procedure, and as they put the gas mask over my nose and mouth to put me under anesthesia, the physical world quickly dropped away and I was staring at—how the **** do I even describe this?—an array of concentric circles, with harsh brown and yellow stripes, spinning in opposite directions, looking like snakes eating their tails. I remember vividly, too, the moment when they split apart into sections and exploded, slowly, out of my field of view.
Thirty years later, it’s clear as day to me. And I thought of it again, playing Robin Arnott’s Soundself, a virtual reality “technodelic” meant to get players into the same state of mind Arnott felt years ago when he did take acid—and subsequently came to the realization, as you do, that he was one with the entire universe.
Arnott set up a peaceful meditation tent at the PAX East expo in Boston last month, complete with a comfortable rug and a pillow, where I could lay down (praying I didn’t contract head lice), put an Oculus Rift on my head, and lose myself in the experience. Talking, or making any sounds at all, changed the series of patterns, lights, sounds, shapes that I saw, merging me and the world around me into a synesthetic collaboration.
“They call it ‘ego death,’” Arnott says. “Just as when you’re dying, as your body is in grave danger, your memory bank facilities dramatically increase, and you remember it in slow motion. The replay of that is like a step-by-step replay of the dissolution of a human being.”
“That acid trip gave me my first recognition that every step of that could be facilitated without a drug,” he continues. “People who meditate know that you don’t need a drug. This game is sort of that step-by-step. An implementation of what it took for me to dissolve and witness myself as what I am.”
My Soundself demo began with the program asking me to “fill it with my voice.” Talking, humming, or whistling caused the patterns to get larger, more powerful. Eventually the vision began to unfold on its own, without the need for me to make noise. And frankly, I was kind of embarrassed lying down inside a tent with my wife and two strangers, and stopped actually making any sounds. Instead, I simply watched the recursive patterns swallow themselves over and over again, zoned out, and lost track of time. At one point, they actually poked me on the shoulder because they thought I’d fallen asleep—which may bear out Soundself’s worth as a meditation tool. I wasn’t moving, but I was wide awake.
“This is a novelty,” Arnott says. “A silly, weird experience.” He’s not trying to target people who are already into the idea of “moving past their ego,” whether with meditation practices or otherwise. As opposed to the videogames that surrounded us on the PAX show floor, Arnott says, this is technology used not to hook onto your mind, but to let you get out of your head.
I look at it this way: I’ve already seen the power of VR to transport me, in a way that my brain totally believes is real, to another place. Perhaps VR could also be powerful enough to transport us to a place that is no place at all.
Go Back to Top. Skip To: Start of Article.