Virtual Reality and Hallucination


ABSTRACT

Virtual Reality (VR), especially in a technologically focused discourse, is defined by a class of hardware and software, among them head-mounted displays (HMDs), navigation and pointing devices; and stereoscopic imaging. This presentation examines the experiential aspect of VR. Putting “virtual” in front of “reality” modifies the ontological status of a class of experience—that of “reality.” Reality has also been modified [by artists, new media theorists, technologists and philosophers] as augmented, mixed, simulated, artificial, layered, and enhanced. Modifications of reality are closely tied to modifications of perception. Media theorist Roy Ascott creates a model of three “VR’s”: Verifiable Reality, Virtual Reality, and Vegetal (entheogenically induced) Reality. The ways in which we shift our perceptual assumptions, create and verify illusions, and enter “the willing suspension of disbelief” that allows us entry into imaginal worlds is central to the experience of VR worlds, whether those worlds are explicitly representational (robotic manipulations by VR) or explicitly imaginal (VR artistic creations). The early rhetoric surrounding VR was interwoven with psychedelics, a perception amplified by Timothy Leary’s presence on the historic SIGGRAPH panel, and the Wall Street Journal’s tag of VR as “electronic LSD.” This paper discusses the connections—philosophical, social-historical, and psychological-perceptual between these two domains.

 

1. INTRODUCTION

Cultural theorist Chris Chesser states, “VR originated within marginal subcultures: from science fiction, cyberpunk, and computer hacker culture, and from institutions including NASA, computer companies, and the military. Perceiving much wider applications than flight simulation and remote control, researchers coined the term 'virtual reality,' and promoted it as a paradigm shift for computers, and even for the whole society. The shift, though, was not into empty terrain: it was into such existing fields as entertainment, art, architecture, design and medicine.... Moving from marginal cultural tributaries into the cultural mainstream, though, VR itself had to change; it needed to remove its uncomfortable associations with social criticism, drugs and insanity.” [1] New Media artist, theorist and educator Roy Ascott has been concerned with the connections between technology and consciousness since his early papers on cybernetics and computers. He speaks of “a technoetic aesthetic, so named because I believe we need to recognize that technology plus mind not only enables us to explore consciousness more thoroughly but may lead to distinctly new forms of art, new qualities of mind, new forms of cognition and perception.” [2] It is at this interface of mind and technology that the variety of VR experiences—changing and expanding as new technologies—hardware, software, bandwidth—are applied, and the varieties of psychedelic experience connected to the ancient technology of psychopharmacology can be compared. This inquiry is clearly transdisciplinary. My approach has more to do with discourse analysis than science or engineering, identifying and elaborating a few themes that have parallels in both VR and psychedelic studies. On the machinery side of the equation, I am using VR in a broad sense, as the whole class of technologies (not limited to HMDs) by which we can interact with “a computer-simulated environment, be it real or imagined.” [3] From the perspective of mind or mind-states, a degree of immersion in an alternate reality (or world) is also seen as a defining characteristic of both the VR and the psychedelic experience.

This intertwined social history of the technological move to virtualize reality, and the varied uses of psychedelics by technologists is difficult to write for reasons RU Sirius sums up nicely in a 2006 article reviewing two books on the topic: John Markoff’s What the Dormouse Said: How the 60’s Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer, and Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. “The connection between the creators of the driving engine of the contemporary global economy, and the countercultural attitudes that were popular among young people during the 1960s and 70s was sort of a given within the cultural milieu we (“High Frontiers/Mondo 2000”) found ourselves immersed in as the 1980s spilled into the 90s. Everybody was 'experienced.'…. But these upcoming designers of the future were not prone towards lots of public hand waving about their 'sex, drugs and question authority' roots. After all, most of them were seeking venture capital and they were selling their toys and tools to ordinary Reagan-Bush era consumers. There was little or no percentage in trying to tell the public, 'Oh, by the way. All this stuff? This is how the counterculture now plans to change the world.'” [4]

2. TECHNOLOGICAL HIGHS

“High” is a major trope by which we refer to psychedelic states of a wide range of intensity from slight perceptual variations to full-blown replacement universes, far from ordinary reality. “High” is also a ubiquitous trope of the electronic world, with its literal meanings attached to the parameters of signals (high frequency) shading into the intimations of increased pleasures of enhanced perception (high fidelity).

Human beings have been getting high from prehistory, according to one interpretation of cave paintings from 35,000 to 40,000 years ago as shamanic trance states in which human-animal transformations are depicted. [5] The anthropology of worldwide shamanism connects these pre-religious practices with psychedelic use from ayahuasca brews in South and Central America; mushroom use in the ancient Mayan and Toltec civilization; and the amanita muscaria teas of Siberian shamanism. [6]. Samorini’s research with animals and psychedelics finds that “Drugging oneself is an activity that reaches across the entire process of human evolution, from insects to mammals to women and men.” [7] Psychedelics are implicated in the origin of religions, from the soma of the Vedas, to the kykeon of the Eleusinian Mysteries. [8] Psychopharmacologist Ronald K. Siegel argues that the drive to intoxicate ourselves is a natural part of our biology, the “fourth drive” after food, sleep, and sex. [9, 10]

Cannabis is famous for sensory re-organization and enhancement. Tart’s exhaustive study identifies increased sharpness of edges; increased perceptual organization or “meaningfulness;” new and more subtle shades of color; increased perception of dimension of depth; increased perception of detail; and a sensual quality to vision, as if one were touching the things in sight. Music gains great clarity, resonance, and meaning. These effects can be noted across the sensory palette, and could be described as greater fidelity, higher resolution.

Mescaline, magic mushrooms, and 2-CB have been noted for their exquisite color experiences: an extended range of colors, more subtlety, vividness, depth and texture. [12] For a computer graphics practitioner, videographer, software designer and hardware junkie, this translates easily to the language of higher resolution, more pixels, and 16 million color palettes. Tart points out, “It is common to assume that we passively “see” what is out there, that the qualities of the visual world are inherent in the physical properties of objects and space. Modern psychological investigations have made it clear that seeing is a very active and complex process in which we construct the visual world from the flux of visual sensations reaching us. That is, patterns, forms, objects, recognizable people, etc. exist in our minds as a construction from visual data. We are so used to doing this automatically that it seems as if the visual world were given. This active nature of visual perception is true of all sensory modalities.” [11] In short, cannabis resets the resolution of our perceptions to a higher state, and the resultant aesthetic pleasures are part of the “high.”

2.1 Street-level anecdotes

In my lifetime, I’ve been a consumer in the steady march from monophonic to stereophonic sound, and recall the ubiquitous term “high fidelity” attached to every media system. My first VR gadget was a fully immersive Aiwa portable cassette player in the mid-seventies. The headphones welded to my ears delivered a heady stream of stereophonic Mozart operas. My senses, my emotions, and especially, the majority of my attention were immersed in the Queen of the Night’s aria and Don Giovanni’s demise while the rest of my senses dimly registered a humid dull Florida summer. Fast forward to high definition TV, digital cameras with higher megapixels every few months, HD camcorders, huge screens, home theaters, iMax, fulldome theatres, and surround sound. GPS systems pinpoint us to a higher and higher degree of resolution. Why do we want these things? The better to bomb you with? My roommate, studying to be a physician’s assistant, howls in delight at the increase in graphics quality of his latest Xbox first-person shooter, played on a standard sized TV screen, while laughing with his girlfriend on the hands-free telephone device looped around one ear. There’s some seriously immersive pleasure being generated here. Technology is driven at least in part by desire for highs—not only the desire for the orgasmic sublimities of Mozart (or Pink Floyd), but including the adrenalin highs associated with danger, self-defense, and the violent fragmentation of other humans and destruction of property we find in computer games. On another spectrum, we experience the highs of connecting with friends and lovers on the cell phone—one after another—or Twittering [13] to one’s social network, a sensed surround of live attention-generating and capturing points of sentience like a quantum superpositional state out of which any one could manifest with the announcement of an individualized ringtone. Let’s not forget sex, about which cases have been made as our most powerful desire-to-get-high. John Perry Barlow again, 1990: “Then there is the sexual thing. I have been through eight or ten Q. & A. sessions on Virtual Reality and I don't remember one where sex didn't come up. As though the best thing about all this will be the infinite abundance of shaded polygonal party dolls. As though we are devising here some fabulously expensive form of Accu-jac.” [14] It’s 2007: welcome to the Sinulator (advertising slogan—Do More Than Just Watch!) recently ported to Second Life where everyone’s a party doll and fat flabby wrinkled avatars are in short supply. [15] Sex sells—because it’s a high.

Technology discovers and delivers more and higher highs. And there is arguably a direct relationship between degree of immersion and degree of high delivered. And highs are nuanced—how can we describe “the cool factor” that sent the addictive iPhone (aka Crackberry) flying out of Apple’s warehouses last summer? What is more pleasurable and desirable about more pixels, finer colors, higher resolution, (and a touch interface that has to be, well, caressed, to find a phone number) on bigger and smaller screens? I don’t think it’s a matter of mere verisimilitude to “reality.” I don’t think it’s rational at all, though there are no doubt correlates we can objectively describe in the neurochemistry of pleasure which has been left a black box in this discussion.

This snapshot circa December, 2007, of current technological delivery-devices for highs will be staledated before it is printed—and that is part of my point. The strength of the desire for these highs is one of the factors driving change at an accelerated pace. We are following our bliss into technologically mediated hyper-realities.

2.2 Hyper-connectivity, hyper-conductivity, processor speed

Three features of these technologies are associated with highs: hyper-connectivity, hyper-conductivity, and processor speed. Hyper-connectivity can be seen in the myceliation of the nodes and links of high-density interconnected networks such as the WWW. Within the world of the web, the phenomenal spread of social networking takes the original migration of individuals, institutions, governments, and corporations to create a “web presence” to a new format of both presence and interconnection. Now it’s not only a matter of “are you there?” but “who (and how many) are you connected to?” And the multimediation of presence—YouTube videos, Flickr photos, Mediafire music—are standard enhancements. Hyper-conductivity supports this drive to connect: higher bandwidth and mps/sec enable the faster up and download of higher resolution (larger file size) media. More bits and bit-torrents, music, entire movies, are moving faster and faster amongst us. Processor speed supports hyper-connectivity and hyper-conductivity. The replacement of silicon chips (still improving under Moore’s Law) by quantum computers (or the next new architecture capable of speed orders of magnitude greater) will change the potential for connectivity and conductivity to a degree we can hardly imagine.

Psychedelic technologies produce the experience of hyper-connectivity with regularity. Rhetorician Rich Doyle’s forthcoming book Ecodelic, examines the fundamental experience of interconnectedness—with ourselves, our fellow human, and other species, feeling integrated with the biosphere, as a hallmark of psychedelic experience and a founding awareness of the ecological movement. Interconnectedness of thoughts and visions between persons is commonly reported in the literature of ayahuasca experience. As science fiction author Phillip K. Dick observed, “We have to get over the idea that hallucination is a private matter.”

3. IMMERSION

Richard Lanham suggests that if we “define rhetoric using a strictly contemporary terminology, we might call it the ‘science of human attention-structures.’ From this perspective, rhetoric has a 'scientific' subject matter which includes large parts of, for example, sociology, social anthropology, and behavioral biology.” [16] Neuroscientist Karl Pribram places attention at the center of consciousness, reminding us, following Ryle, that “There is no mind without minding.” [17] I would argue that immersion—a key descriptor of VR—is primarily a quality of consciousness that has to do, like every rhetorical device, with the capture and control of attention, a necessary condition for any interpersonal persuasion, education, or entertainment to occur. Absorption, defined as “a state in which the whole attention is occupied” which Roy Ascott tells us is succeeding immersion, is a deeper degree of the same phenomenon, shading into trance and hypnotic states. “Mind control” may be a more ubiquitous phenomenon than secret government projects (some of which involved LSD) as any parent standing between a TV and a child to re-capture attention can attest. In literature and narratology, a phenomenon known as the “deictic shift” signals the immersion of the reader in the story world at the point where he/she assumes a viewpoint (the deictic center) within the story, from which their generation of the world as world is generated, and from which the unfolding of the story, guided by the storyteller takes place. Author and critic Doris Grumbach speaks of the “narrative dream”—the goal of the author being to immerse the reader in such, not waking her/him by jarring inconsistencies in the world that “break” the narrative dream. The actual dream worlds of REM sleep which we visit nightly provide our most intimate experience of full immersion in worlds apart from waking reality. To know one is dreaming while it is going on (lucid dreaming) is a psychological skill that takes some training, so completely does the dream world capture us and carry us along in its narratives, replete with, in some cases, full sensory and emotional experience of imaginary activities, such as the classic dreams of flying, falling, or transformation into different animal, human, or spirit forms. The film trilogy The Matrix is a prolonged exploration of the theme of VR—a fully realized world-simulation—and dreaming. These themes are explored by several philosophers including philosopher of mind, David Chalmers, who presents the Matrix as a rendition of the philosophical thought experiment of the "brain in a vat." He defines a matrix as “an artificially-designed computer simulation of a world.” [18] Can we define dreaming as an organically-designed simulation of a world that persuades us as thoroughly as the waking world, as to its reality? Inquiry into the ontological status of an experience is a feature of both the VR and the psychedelic discourses, and the reality of dreams is invoked in both cases.

4. REALITY, PERCEPTION, AND HALLUCINATION

John Perry Barlow again: “I think the effort to create convincing artificial realities will teach us the same humbling lesson about reality which artificial intelligence has taught us about intelligence – namely, that we don't know a damned thing about it. I've never been of the cut-and-dried school on your Reality Question. I have a feeling VR will further expose the conceit that 'reality' is a fact. It will provide another reminder of the seamless continuity between the world outside and the world within delivering another major hit to the old fraud of objectivity. ‘Real,’ as Kevin Kelly put it, ‘is going to be one of the most relative words we'll have.’” [14]

4.1 Reality

Both VR and psychedelics raise ontological and epistemological issues; their practitioners can be framed as ontological engineers (not the database kind), hacking reality and constructing worlds. What is real, what is reality, jumps to the foreground as a practical issue, as well as a matter of nomenclature, with the question how do we know that what we experience as real, really is real hovering over the discourse. Psychedelics, with their ability to immerse the voyager in a distinctly different state, routinely raise these questions. Every decision by a game designer about the physics of a game world—including the decision to mimic “RL” physics at all points—reveals virtual reality as a production of editable code, a set of rules about how a world works which the programmer controls, not an unchanging, eternal, universal, and singular condition. Solidity, opacity, gravity are all decisions. Second Life is already a hybrid reality, allowing teleportation, bodily flight.

I’m with Barlow in that I have no ambition to determine what reality is. To question the ontological status of a VR or psychedelic session is a common aspect of both experiences. What begins as an effort to determine “what is real?” becomes an exercise in keeping the question open and an exploration of the notion of multiple mindstates with concomitant multiple realities.

4.2 Hallucination

The Free Dictionary defines hallucination as “1a. Perception of visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, or gustatory experiences without an external stimulus and with a compelling sense of their reality, usually resulting from a mental disorder or as a response to a drug. 1b. The objects or events so perceived. 2. A false or mistaken idea; a delusion.” [19] The Medical Encyclopedia offers, “Hallucinations are false or distorted sensory experiences that appear to be real perceptions. These sensory impressions are generated by the mind rather than by any external stimuli, and may be seen, heard, felt, and even smelled or tasted.” [20] To call an experience a hallucination is an ontological assertion disguised as a psychological term. Every perceptual event with the label “hallucination” presents a statement about the nature of reality, and a value-position about the perceiver’s status vis a vis consensus, socially-approved standards of reality or its kissing cousin, truth.

John Lilly gave the following definition of hallucination in an interview with David Jay Brown and Rebecca McClen:

“DJB: How would you define what a hallucination is?

"JOHN: That’s a word I never use because it’s very disconcerting, part of the explanatory principle and hence not useful. Richard Feynman, the physicist, went into the tank here twelve times. He did three hours each time and when he finished he sent me one of his physics books in which he had inscribed, 'Thanks for the hallucinations.' So I called him up and I said, 'Look, Dick, you're not being a scientist. What you experience you must describe and not throw into the wastebasket called "hallucination." That's a psychiatric misnomer; none of that is unreal that you experienced.' For instance he talks about his nose when he was in the tank. His nose migrated down to his buttonhole, and finally he decided that he didn't need a buttonhole or a nose so he took off into outer space.

"DJB: And he called that a hallucination because he couldn't develop a model to explain it?

"JOHN: But you don't have to explain it, you see. You just describe it. Explanations are worthless in this area.” [26]

I prefer to substitute the more value-neutral term ‘extended perception’ for ‘hallucination’ to name the shifts in perception and reality brought about by psychoactive substances. Alan Watts, makes the case, “There is no difference in principle between sharpening perception with an external instrument, such as a microscope, and sharpening it with an internal instrument, such as one of these drugs. If they are an affront to the dignity of the mind, the microscope is an affront to the dignity of the eye and the telephone to the dignity of the ear. Strictly speaking, these drugs do not impart wisdom at all, any more than the microscope alone gives knowledge. They provide the raw materials of wisdom, and are useful to the extent that the individual can integrate what they reveal into the whole pattern of his behavior and the whole system of his knowledge.” [27]

The association of “hallucination” with pathological, or otherwise negatively valued states was framed in the medical model of mindstates and limits its usefulness as a term in the discussion of either VR or psychedelic states.

4.3 Perception

Roland Fischer, professor of experimental psychiatry and pharmacology in the 1970’s, early psychedelic researcher, and editor of the Journal of Altered States of Consciousness, proposed a cartography of states of consciousness that “depicts increasing levels of ergotropic, central or hyperarousal on the perception-hallucination continuum, while the right side depicts an increase in levels of trophotropic or hypoarousal on a perception-meditation continuum (including zazen and various forms of yoga).” [21] Fischer defines hallucination as follows: “The hallucinatory or waking-dream states along the perception-hallucination continuum can best be described as experiences of intense sensations that cannot be verified through voluntary motor activity. Note that such a definition does not differentiate between dreams and hallucinations…” [21] The standard for reality (which is implied as opposite to hallucination) is defined in terms of baseline perception that can be verified by the senses, particularly the sense of touch. However, “sensation” is used as a term for experiences all along the continuum. Placing the variety of experiences along a single continuum (later diagrams revising the model bring the hemisphere into a full circle) with both quantitative measures (EEG) and subjectively reported experience (ecstasy, Samadhi) condenses a wide variety of experience into a linear scale.

Normal, baseline perception presents its own complex relations to illusion, as the psychology of perception reveals. Alan Watts states, “Most of us are brought up to feel that what we see out in front of us is something that lies beyond our eyes—out here. That the colors and the shapes that you see in this room are out there. In fact, that is not so. In fact, all that you see is a state of affairs inside your head. All these colors, all these lights, are conditions of the optical nervous system. There are, outside the eyes, quanta, electronic phenomena, vibrations, but these are not light, they are not colors until they are translated into states of the human nervous system. So if you want to know how the inside of your head feels, open your eyes and look. That is how the inside of your head feels. So we are normally unaware of that—projected out.” [23]

The fact that we believe that we are seeing something “out there” that we experiencing “looking” as an act projecting out from the eyes into the environment, rather than a passive reception of vibratory signals is a belief in an illusion—our own projection of an internal state onto the environment—upon which we craft our ongoing experience of reality. VR engineered experiences and psychoactive materials each can change the conditions of these perceptual systems, and hence open new experiences of reality. If one changes the settings of a camera—aperture, shutter speed, film type, and especially sensor type, from infrared to ultraviolet—one sees variations on a perceptual landscape. The human perceptual systems are far more complex. Psychopharmacology studies the ways in which these settings can be manipulated by shifting the actions and inactions of various nervous system components by changing the circuitry of the nervous system via action by neurotransmitters on receptor sites. These receptors can be activated, deactivated, opened, or blocked, thereby opening and closing potential pathways for signals to pass, making and breaking connections, amplifying or dampening signals. Psychiatry utilizes these changes to modulate feeling-states, and modify behavior.

Watts relies on neuroscientist Karl Pribram’s research into the mystery of what consciousness studies calls “the binding problem,” identifying the epistemological conundrum relating knowing with perception: “I sat in on an intimate seminar with Pribram in which he explained in most careful detail how the brain is no mere reflector of the external world, but how its structure almost creates the forms and patterns that we see, selecting them from an immeasurable spectrum of vibrations as the hands of a harpist pluck chords and melodies from a spectrum of strings. . . For Karl Pribram is working on the most delicate epistemological puzzle: how the brain evokes a world which is simultaneously the world which it is in, and to wonder, therefore, whether the brain evokes the brain. Put it in metaphysical terms, psychological terms, physical terms, or neurological terms: it is always the same. How can we know what we know without knowing knowing?” [24]

4.4 The multistate paradigm

Tom Roberts’ multistate paradigm introduces a far more complex model of the variety of conscious or (his preferred term) mindbody states. Roberts builds a set of parameters or subsystems of conscious (mindbody) states, using 10 from Tart’s 1976 classic Altered States of Consciousness—exteroception, interoception, input-processing, memory, cognition, emotions, motor output, identity, time sense, interaction—and adding two of his own, intuition and moral sense. He refers to other taxonomies of conscious states, especially Shanon’s parameters from his study of ayahuasca mindbody states. [22] Roberts points out the vast combinatorial possibilities in these ‘compositions.’ He also identifies two further components in addition to mindbody states of the multistate paradigm. Mindbody psychotechnologies designate methods for producing varying mindbody states: yoga, biofeedback, meditation, psychoactive drugs, spiritual practices including prayer, martial arts, and others. Residency is “the idea that all human behavior and experience occur in mindbody states. That is, a mindbody state provides a psychophysiological context (program) from which all behavior and experience grow.” Roberts deals with reality with the assumption that there is a ‘real life’ at baseline whose physical presence and experience we share, or assume we share, in daily life, and a ‘land of make-believe’ which encompasses narrative or fictional reality, dreams, and psychedelic states, when we leave ‘real life’ and enter a ‘mythopoetic reality’ which he associates with psychological or spiritual realities of varying depth and impact. He avoids the term ‘hallucination,’ describing these varied experiences in terms of multiple and shifting realities.

4.5 Complexity

Tom Ray, a biologist known for his research in complexity and artificial life, is following a new research path: understanding the chemistry of consciousness. He is mapping the “receptor space” of hundreds, and potentially thousands of psychoactive substances using the National Institute of Mental Health’s “supercomputer” program, the Psychoactive Drug Screening Program “to screen drugs against the entire human “receptome” (all receptors in the human body; over 300 in the brain). [25] He sees the receptome as a vast and complex combinatorial space marked by certain attractors, representing “major emotional states and moods, and whatever other mental phenomena the chemical systems are mediating.” From the viewpoint of neurochemistry, a similar picture of a vast and complex dynamical system of chemical states producing and being produced by mental phenomena emerges.

5. CYBORGS AND PLASTICITY

Many of our common images of VR technologies call to mind the cyborg, from the variety of HMD’s to the virtualization and transformations of the body in online game and social environments such as Second Life.

The psychedelic technologies call forth strangely cyborgian images as well. The Mayan civilization, used the psilocybin mushroom sacramentally, as a substance that released the vision serpent. Some of the depictions of figures in trance are distinctly technological in look and feel.

Andy Clark, in Natural Born Cyborgs, reviews our intimate relations with tools and technology as primary means of extending mental capacities, (perceptual, memory storage, calculation ability) and intelligence. This capacity, underwritten by our unique neural plasticity, is a defining characteristic of humanness. “It is our special character, as human beings, to be forever driven to create, co-opt, annex, and exploit nonbiological props and scaffoldings. We have been designed, by Mother Nature, to exploit deep neural plasticity in order to become one with our best and most reliable tools. Minds like ours were made for mergers.” [28]

Clark examines our cyborg nature not just as a recent phenomena involving bioelectronic interpenetration of the meat body as the gold standard, but in the far more pervasive relationship we have with non-biological technologies, such as language, so intimately, though not physically, in a hardware sense, coupled with the body-mind. Our encompassing symbiosis with language is at once taken completely for granted in its functions and uses, and stands mysterious as to its actual nature, since even the manner in which our words and sentences are formed from thought is something that takes place behind the scenes of ordinary consciousness. Applying the label “unconscious” has no real explanatory power except to point to a realm of mental functioning that only becomes known when it is no longer itself (unconscious) because some aspect or chunk of content (a dream, an insight, a long-forgotten memory) comes into consciousness.

Both VR and a host of psycho-spiritual technologies, including psychoactive drugs, have been used technoetically to launch raids on these inarticulate realms, normally hidden from the focused beam of conscious attention. Margaret Dolinsky’s CAVE environments take us into these imaginal worlds with a shamanic sense of double consciousness; we are both fully immersed in the sights and sounds of other worlds, while fully aware of our bodily presence. Stan Grof’s extensive research in LSD psychotherapy with hundreds of patients used the powerful psychoactive to penetrate deeply buried unconscious content, a method dramatically more effective than Freud’s dream analysis, which he called ‘the royal road to the unconscious.’ Lilly’s early tank work involved his own observations of his mind at work under conditions of sensory deprivation and psychoactive excitation, during which he pushed the Freudian psychoanalytic model to self-understanding to limits Freud may not have envisioned, even with the aid of cocaine. For Lilly, the tank plus LSD (and later, ketamine) provided enough momentum to overcome what Freud termed the resistance of the individual ego to encounters with unconscious materials. With both VR and psychedelics, our perception, in Lilly’s case into mental or imaginal realms normally hidden from view, is extended by technology.

Clark’s normalizing view of our intimate relations with technology, of which VR is one aspect, is countered by Ascott’s more radical view of VR. "...our current fascination with the theatre of the virtual has obscured the true destiny of virtual reality (VR). Its importance lies in its role not as a stage for the re-enactment of renaissance perspectives, but as a cultural phase space, the test-bed for all those ideas, structures, and behaviors that are emerging from our new relationship to the processes of evolution and growth, the challenge of artificial life." [2]

6. TECHNOLOGY MERGERS

Integrating the technologies of Virtual Reality and Vegetal Reality brings the association that was hyped in the late 80’s when VR became a mainstream media fascination into practical applications. I consider John Lilly—psychonaut, dolphin researcher, and founding member of S.E.T.I.—an early VR researcher as the inventor, in 1953, of the isolation (flotation, immersion, sensory deprivation) tank. The tank is a literally immersive environment, a one-person VR installation (limiting, as does any theater or VR setup, visual and sonic input as well as minimizing motor activity and sensation through floating the body) where the sensory projections are provided entirely by one’s internal brain/mind processes. Lilly went on to add the additional technology of psychoactive substances to the mindbody-technology system. The combined technologies became the protocol for much of his research in non-ordinary mindbody states. Terence McKenna followed a similar protocol, sans tank, of minimizing sensory input when he recommended “5 grams dried psilocybin mushrooms consumed in silent darkness.” VR technologies routinely screen out and/or replace everyday sensory input with technologically mediated sound, sight, and other sensory input as the means of engineering different realities.

Reality, it seems, is multiple, and tightly coupled to perception. The conditions of perception can be varied within a broad range by a variety of technologies. Char Davies’ full body and headmount installation "Osmose" provides an experience of physically floating through visual spaces that merge technological images with images from nature.

Lilly’s flotation tank can send one into outer and inner spaces where the outer-inner differentiation is highly malleable. An immersive fulldome hemispheric projection of the universe with software such as Uniview (Rose Planetarium) can provide an interactive experience of scalar magnitudes and outer space exploration with no on- or in-body hardware. Any of these, and many other technologies, can be combined with psychospiritual technologies of altering mindbody states, including psychedelics, to create, again, a vast combinatorial space of possible experiences across Ascott’s three VR’s: Verifiable Reality, Virtual Reality, and Vegetal Reality.

The hardware and software of Virtual Reality technologies combined with the instrumentation of neuroscience and the neurochemistry of consciousness alteration provide a toolset for the understanding of consciousness. My Ph.D. research into linguistic phenomena in the psychedelic sphere follows this path. Based on my own phenomenological explorations of psychedelic spaces, and informed by the descriptive reports of long-term psychedelic explorers, I have developed a linguistic model of a dynamic, multidimensional symbolic system, Glide, and developed a 3D software, LiveGlide, as real-time, interactive writing system which is most effectively performed in immersive domed environments.

While the output of the system can be “performed” in an arts context, I primarily use it for the exploration of the interactions of language, perception, and reality when reading and writing (itself a complex feedback loop) Glide in variously altered mindbody states. One of the intentions of my research is specifically aimed at perturbing and re-wiring the language functions of the brain, to find, explore, and describe new forms of cognition dissociated from natural language.

 

 

CONCLUSIONS

Reality is a personal matter. It is intimately dependent on perception. Perception is a complex internal process of multiple interacting systems (visual, auditory, linguistic) that takes wave information from the sensory systems and, through reference to sensory, emotional and linguistic memory in a dynamically mutable and complex chemical and neurotransmission space, constructs "reality" on the fly in the experiencing individual. Not only what reality is being described but whose reality and under what perceptual conditions, cognitive preferences, and epistemological biases needs to be considered. Intersubjective sharing through a variety of linguistic means (including body language, sounds, as well as more abstract symbolic systems such as natural language, music, gesture, dance, and mathematics) creates the scaffolding for a shared or consensus reality. Both VR technology and psychedelic technologies extend perception and reorganize sensory ratios to create new experiences of reality, new epistemological platforms, and the conditions for new knowledge acquisition in the fields to which they are applied.

How much and in what direction we are able to re-wire our plastic neural circuitry? How drastically can we edit our genome, not only to prevent hereditary disease and defects but with a view to improvements, about which there is far greater moral hesitation? To what extent can we revise body-mind functions with implanted or replacement prosthetics, add-ons, or plug-ins are matters spawning the newer disciplines of bioethics and neuroethics and raising issues of cognitive liberty. In what manner our technoetic experiments in VR and psychedelic technology contribute to the process of reflection on the nature and functioning of the human mind, and more directly to actual changes wrought (in the development of biofeedback applications in immersive environments, for instance) is subject for speculation. Technology is evolving at ever accelerating rates, and with it, massive cultural evolution. I relate to the drive toward “higher” states to the drive that pushes us at breakneck speed into creating and using technologies with the potential of radically revising the state of human beingness. This drive is producing, among other things, the technologies of altering, extending, and reorganizing perception and the new realities thereby opened to view.

 

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