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Psychologists at Lowlands Science: can virtual reality trigger a psychedelic experience?

Fantastic plants, dizzying patterns and pulsating sounds: researchers from Leiden are going to study the effects of a simulated psychedelic trip on the mind and body at Lowlands Festival. Why might this be interesting for therapies?

A Magic MushVroom trip is the name of this unique experiment that the team of psychologists is going to carry out at the Lowlands Festival in Biddinghuizen this summer. The lead researcher is Michiel van Elk, who usually researches the effects of mind-altering substances like magic mushrooms, truffles and MDMA and what they do to the brain. Together with a large team, he is now going to test the effects of a virtual psychedelic experience.

VR trip

Volunteers will wear a VR headset that takes them on a journey to a wonderful world of plants and patterns developed by the Plant Fictions artists collective. The images and sounds are based on descriptions of a trip. ‘We’ll use sensors to measure the participants’ heart rate and skin conductance during the session,’ says Van Elk. ‘And they’ll answer questions afterwards about any previous drug experiences, their personality and how the VR experience was for them.’

‘The big advantage is that nothing whatsoever enters the bloodstream and the viewer can easily stop by closing their eyes.’

Starting at Lowlands

Lowlands Science has become a regular feature at the fast-selling music festival. Every year researchers can submit a proposal for a scientific experiment with festivalgoers as participants. Only a handful of these proposals are chosen and Van Elk is pleased to be one of them. ‘Fantastic that our research will start at Lowlands, a place where so many different people come together. The experiment is the beginning of a big study that we’re going to conduct over the next few years.’

The effect of real psychedelics

The team’s curiosity about the experience of a virtual trip has everything to do with the impact of real psychedelics like LSD and MDMA. If used carefully, these can bring users into another state of consciousness, allowing them to put their own lives and problems into another perspective. Their consciousness is given a real shake-up, says Van Elk. The users temporarily break free from entrenched patterns of worrying and are open to new ways of thinking.

Are you also going to Lowlands and want to participate in the research? Come to the Lowlands Science area, near the Alpha stage. Researchers will be there from August 18-20 from noon to 8 p.m. Check out the entire Lowlands Science programme.

Treat severe depression and PTSD

This breaking free from patterns is the reason why various clinical trials are now underway worldwide in which small doses of, for instance, MDMA are administered under supervision to people with severe depression or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The results look promising, for example for military personnel with PTSD, but there are various drawbacks too and much research is still needed, Van Elk emphasises. This makes it interesting to study the extent to which people are receptive to a virtual trip. ‘With the big advantage that nothing whatsoever enters the bloodstream and the viewer can easily stop by closing their eyes or removing the headset if it becomes too intense.’

Lowlands science 2019

Research in a seething mass

Back to the experiment: how will the team conduct research in a seething mass, a significant proportion of which is presumably already away with the festival fairies? Lowlands Science is in a separate area and they only test between 12:00 and 20:00 hrs., says Van Elk. The participants are screened before being allowed to take part. They have to say if they have taken alcohol or drugs in the last hours and are tested for this too. ‘Participants don’t necessarily have to be sober but they must be in a fit state to participate. This means the team can also research the extent to which the substances consumed affect the experience. We already start at noon, so I think there’ll be enough sober people to take part in the study.’

Michiel van Elk is also giving a mini-lecture at Lowlands Science: Een nuchtere kijk op psychedelica (A Sober Look at Psychedelics). His book of the same name on the effects of mind-altering drugs was published in 2021. He also took part in Lowlands Science in 2016 with his Trippen met de Godhelm (Tripping with the God-helmet) study. Here participants wore a converted scooter helmet that stimulated their brains, triggering mystical experiences. 

Image: Plant Fictions
Text: Linda van Putten

Translation: Marianne Orchard

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