Help Wanted: Psychedelic Experience Designer?

Photo by Joe Ciciarelli on Unsplash

In the sixties there were Happenings. In the seventies we had conceptual art installations. The eighties saw club culture start to include more than a stage and a bar. Then there were those nineties raves…creating environments to instill altered states is an ancient human practice.

Temples and coliseums were designed to awe. Rainforest ceremonies took participants out of the familiar and deep into the mysterious. Native Americans had ritual practices including peyote ceremonies and solo trips into the wilderness during adolescence. But modern western humans seemed to have hidden this propensity for experiences based on the unknown, perhaps based on the embrace of rational science where anything unprovable was dismissed as fantasy.

This is going to change in wild and radical ways, right now.

Inducing a preparatory state of mind

Early psychedelic research, and there was a lot of it, can be defined as prior to these substances being declared illegal Class A drugs during the early seventies. This research uncovered some valuable discoveries that have helped the current emerging research into psychedelics as treatments for a variety of human conditions. One was the toxicity of substances like LSD and psilocybin. We know, based on those numerous early human trials, that these substances are not toxic.

This knowledge gave modern research a huge boost, enabling researchers and the FDA to approve experimentation in humans. But a second discovery came out of that earlier research, the notion of the importance of set (mindset) and setting (environment).

The background of experience design

I first encountered the concept of experience design while working for a multi-media production company in the late nineties. We had a contract with Universal Studios in Orlando to design an idea book of theme park attractions targeting adults rather than children. It was not required to be practical but rather to explore how to design an experience different from those they had built previously. It was a fun project, one of those rare occasions where you were given carte blanche to create.

As part of my research (I was lead writer on the project), I began to run into the idea of experience design as a field. The businesses leading this were initially focused on events, retail, and urban planning, all immersive experiences. Many of those early concepts have been adopted by innovative businesses to enhance the experience of their consumers on multiple levels.

Today we are seeing the beginning of an entirely new level of experience design made possible by the potential of psychedelics and set and setting to change the way we think, and as treatment for serious medical and psychological issues. It is a new frontier and, as is common with frontiers, the early work is being done via underground experimentation.

A drastically different tool set

The big difference in psychedelic experience design, which I see as an emerging field, and conventional experience design, is the ability to get into the heads of the participants, literally. We know that these substances appear to refire connections in the brain, connections that had ‘solidified’ into a limited experience of the world. They are, after all, chemicals.

But we are also learning that the way we approach psychedelic experiences becomes a part of those experiences, often affecting their outcomes. When the first research into fear of death among the terminally ill was studied using psilocybin, researchers made an understandable mistake. Those early experiences were conducted in clinical medical settings, perhaps the least supportive environments for psychedelic experiences.

Meanwhile, in the underground psychedelic movement, people were taking on the role of guides and building calming environments to help their psychic travelers have a good experience. They worked with visual and audio elements, and combined them with a calming presence. This three dimensional approach, which is very similar to that of a theme park design, started off the path to an altered state, even before any drug was taken. Eventually the clinical researchers began to adopt these environments and test their effects on the entire outcome.

This melding of environs and mindset, based on informal but often ancient rituals, is the earliest form of psychedelic experience design. Imagine this now combined with virtual and augmented reality via digital tools and we start to see the components of a new toolkit for psychic exploration and treatments.

Consider the actual meaning of ‘mind altering’

When we say an experience was mind altering, we are saying that it realigned a point of view that seemed set in stone. You can do this with drugs but you can also do this over time with disciplines like meditation or even extreme sports like rock climbing or long distance solo sailing. What these mind altering practices have in common is the necessity to live wholly in the moment, here and now.

In our society we very rarely live fully engaged in the here and now. There are simply too many distractions. We’ve lost the knack. But there is a growing need for these doses of high intensity reality and it may very well be that their lack is the cause of many of the mental illnesses in our society. We need altered states as a reset mechanism.

Is this an augmentation process?

There has been much discussion of human augmentation, the idea of attaching technology to our bodies to enhance our capabilities. While I have no doubt this will happen, in fact it already is with devices like digital hearing aids that use the brains in your phone to selectively process sounds, it seems clunky compared to the potential of designing experiences that can change brain chemistry.

While there has been much talk about designer drugs, I think designed psychedelic experiences could take this concept to another level. Imagine if compounds within a natural substance like psilocybin could be isolated by the type of changes they make and then combined with a set and setting designed to work with those changes specifically. The potential for improving our ability to handle different things on a psychological level is crazy.

A few thoughts on the ethics of psychedelic design

All of this is bound to start an ethical discussion that is critical. Who gets to have these experiences? Who should not? How do you set up research experiments when there are so many potential factors? What happens when they go wrong? And how could they be used for things like mind control or military applications?

Early in the psychedelic age the military and intelligence research communities got involved, often testing on unwitting people. Famously, LSD got out into the wild when Ken Kesey and others encountered it while voluntarily joining a study to make a few bucks as college students. That study was allegedly run by the intelligence community working with Stanford at a time when these drugs were legal. The rest is history.

I don’t really know where this will go but I have no doubt it will be taken to great lengths. The gradual acceptance and enormous interest in psychedelics, both as therapeutics and to enhance life are huge societal changes in the West. And when there is demand, someone will fill that demand. It just might include psychedelic experience designers.

Former software marketer. Former musician. Writer, nine non-fiction books, two novels, Buddhist, train lover. Amateur cook, lover of life most of the time!

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