Can digital media trigger shifts in consciousness as pronounced as psychedelic substances? The recent release of two interactive mindfulness experiences suggest that it’s not only possible, but a glimpse of the future commingling of consciousness practices and technology.
SoundSelf presents a virtual reality journey guided by the user’s breath and vocalizations. For example, slow and deep Ohm’s generate one experience, while quick Heh’s produce another. Developed by Robin Arnott and the creative team at Andromeda Entertainment, SoundSelf is billed as an “ecstatic meditation experience for PC,” and it’s easy to see why.
The player starts at the base of a tree and every movement within the game is controlled by sound. “You are invited and guided to bring your attention into your body and use your voice, which is not something people are used to doing in a video game,” explains Arnott. “We’re used to using our fingers and thumbs to play video games, but there’s something really intimate about the voice.”
SoundSelf starts with a prompt to begin toning. Players then find themselves rising up a tree. “By the time you get to the top of the tree, the whole world erupts into a psychedelic landscape that is responding to your voice and harmonizing with you,” says Arnott, who adds that some users enter into a meditative state within the first few minutes.
“What we see happen again and again is players just lose themselves in it. After about three minutes of chanting, you are no longer aware of yourself as a person chanting, it’s more like you’re following your own voice into something.” After five to ten minutes, as the toning becomes more unconscious, Arnott says that the player can actually lose awareness of their body. “You’re just in it. By then people are in a state of such stillness, it just doesn’t compress into words. They’re still toning the whole time, they just tend to lose a sense of themselves as doing it. ”
Because many users arrive in a nonverbal state by the end of the game, according to Arnott, SoundSelf concludes with a two minute Savasana yoga-based silent integration.
To describe this mind manifesting approach to game design, Arnott uses the term “technodelic.” It refers to interactive digital platforms that wed technology with a psychedelic intention, while incorporating “hypnosis, ceremony, meditation, and neuroscience into the fabric of a videogame’s feedback loop,” as he wrote in an essay, The Technodelic Manifesto.
SoundSelf is inspired by what Arnott describes as a peak “oneness” experience while on LSD at Burning Man in 2012. A month later, as he began expanding what had been a 20 minute daily meditation practice, Arnott had a vision for a gaming platform that could guide the player into an experience parallel to the one he had on the playa. As he puts it, “A video game trance could be used to induce a meditative trance.”
In recent years Arnott has noted a sea change in the cultural acceptance of previously taboo practices. “In every interview I do, I mention psychedelics. You couldn’t do that eight years ago when I was getting started,” he recalls. “These things were not mainstream then. Burning Man was kind of countercultural then and it’s not anymore. Let’s be honest about these things. Psychedelics are not counterculture. Meditation is not counterculture. Burning Man is not counterculture. These things are now woven into the culture. But at the time, I didn’t feel like I could talk about the oneness experience I had and be taken seriously, let alone mention psychedelics. That’s changed.”
Andromeda Entertainment commissioned a study by Jeff Tarrant, Ph.D., BCN “to determine if participating in specific interactive virtual reality techniques can result in significant altered states of consciousness.” The study, which is posted on their website, found that playing SoundSelf “indicated significant decreases in feelings of tension, depression, and confusion, and significant increases in happiness and calmness” on the Brunel Mood Scale, and “shows many consistencies with the experience of Psilocybin” on the Altered States of Consciousness Scale.
Though it is only one study, Arnott sites the findings as encouraging. “The scientific data is showing that after 15 minutes of play we have people accessing states of unity with the same regularity as psilocybin in the Johns Hopkins studies.”
Another interactive experience that follows the technodelic approach is Breathscape. Nominally a meditation app, its makers say that it offers “an immersive experience that effortlessly guides you into deep states of relaxation and meditation.” The app uses biofeedback to lead the user through a breathing practice, with the path cheated by soothing sounds.
The user places their smartphone below the navel, where the app can register belly breaths. The motion from inhalations and exhalations generates customized music that guides the user toward a selected state: deep relaxation, self compassion, or sleep induction. A graphic displayed at the session’s end presents a waveform of the user’s breath as it changed over time.
Robert Alexander, Breathscape’s co-creator, explains that “the generative algorithm is constantly serving up a new mix of audio, and constantly responding in real time to help facilitate awareness of breath, which is one of the central tenets of countless meditation exercises.”
Alexander embraces technodelics as “a technology that is in service of transformation. Many of our users have had technodelic out-of-body experiences.”
One of Breathscape’s audio options is “Music from the Sun,” which is informed by sonification research Alexander conducted while working at NASA in the early Teens. Sonification is the process of translating data into sound. Using auditory data analysis techniques, scientists gained new insights into the sun and solar wind. While his work at NASA helped to sonificate data from outer space, Alexander has crafted Breathscape to help people access inner space.
“The idea of self care with technology is almost anachronistic,” says Alexander, “and the idea that our phones and devices can help to catalyze the transformation of our consciousness and dissolve long held traumas in our minds and bodies is not commonplace.” But Alexander is intrigued by the potential of infusing sensory delivery systems, like phones, with meditative and psychedelic principles.
The technodelic practitioners believe that they can offer a holistic response to the complex emotions brought on by the pandemic. “An understandable tendency in a moment like right now is to look for escapes, and it is understandable to look for distraction,” says Alexander. “What’s beautiful about transformational technologies is that they engage us in such a way that they’re simultaneously providing entertainment, delight, and wonder, while holding us through a process of release and relief.”
Technodelic technologies, Alexander continued, “meet someone where they are. Our minds are so over-stimulated, and our nervous systems are so tightly wound, that an experience that fully engages our faculties of attention and holds us there just long enough to deliver our intention back to ourselves… it’s almost a Trojan horse of awakening, of surrender, of transcendence of the suffering that is identification with a limited self.”
SoundSelf is available online for $29.99. Arnott points out that a VR headset or expensive multimedia setup aren’t necessary for the experience. “You can be playing it in virtual reality, but honestly it works amazingly on a screen as long as you turn off the lights. Drink some tea, light some candles, and you are good to go.”
Breathscape is available to download for free, and offers a daily customized breathing exercise.
Image from Soundself