Tech-induced tripping: Can an app get you high?

The future of psychedelics could be legal, widely accessible and cheaper than growing your own shrooms. We investigate whether it actually works.

by Abby Moss
27 April 2021, 9:30am

Image via Flickr

It's fair to say that, over the past year, the idea of using psychedelics has become more accepted. Perhaps there’s a little way to go before legalisation, but, with Netflix shows like Have a Good Trip — featuring ASAP Rocky, Ben Stiller and the late Carrie Fisher — and Gwyneth Paltrow's The Goop Lab — the first episode of which contained a psychedelic retreat — tripping out can hardly be considered fringe any more.

Its proponents argue that, with the anxiety of the pandemic and changes to our lifestyles, it's the perfect time to look inwards and think more carefully about ourselves, our subconscious, and the way we live. From a scientific perspective, interest has amped up, too, with Imperial College London opening the world's first Psychedelic Research Centre in 2019 and John Hopkins University opening its Centre for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research in early 2020. Researchers in both institutions hope to make breakthroughs in treatments for depression and PTSD and learn new things about the inner workings of the human mind and consciousness. 

Given this, perhaps it was only a matter of time until app designers jumped on the trend. Meditation apps are all the rage at the moment. But can tech-assisted tripping offer a genuine way into our minds and subconscious?

Tom Galea is co-founder of Lumenate, a new app that claims to recreate an experience somewhere between deep meditation and a psychedelic experience, using nothing but the light on your phone. "We wanted to create something that's as accessible as possible," Tom says. "Before, there was no accessible way for the average person to gain impactful insight into their mind. We wanted to create something to inspire personal growth."

“Some reported intense visuals and strange dissociated thoughts. Others report more mellow or abstract visual effects such as ‘beautiful red’ and ‘red, yellow and black shapes’.”

Lumenate works by inviting its users to choose a ‘mood’, darken the room, put headphones on and face their phone's camera light towards closed eyes. The light then flashes, with the intensity controlled by holding your phone closer or further from your face. According to Lumenate's website, the flashing light "causes neurons in the brain to react and fire in response. When the flashing is repeated at a given frequency, the neurons adjust their natural rhythm to synchronise with the input." Through these rhythms, it is possible to "guide the brain into a desired state" safely.

As someone who has tried psilocybin, both in micro-doses and full doses, and who regularly practices meditation in a sensory deprivation floating tank, I was ready to give a tech-assisted psychedelic experience a go. If nothing else, at £4.99 a month, the app is a bargain compared to the £40 a month I pay for sensory deprivation or the cost of a magic mushroom growing set up.

Before getting started, I checked out some other people's experiences of Lumenate on its Facebook group of just over 2000 members (on its website, the first testimonial comes from its creative director, the actress Rosamund Pike). Some reported intense visuals and strange dissociated thoughts. "Vision switches from kaleidoscopic mode to a flash and seeing what looked like family photos of people who I have no idea who they are or were," one wrote. Others report more mellow or abstract visual effects such as "beautiful red" and "red, yellow and black shapes". 

Some users commented that the benefits had already emerged, beyond the trip, helping them to induce better sleep and reduce anxiety. "Since I started using Lumenate, my nightly, negative, challenging narrative in my head has completely changed for the positive," wrote another user. "I am now falling asleep a lot faster, have more interesting and vivid dreams, less anxiety, and wake up feeling rested and happy."

However, for me, none of these alleged experiences came true. Almost straight away, I found the process to be mildly unpleasant. I struggled to get comfortable and go with the flow — an essential part of any altered state experience. I found my eyes became sensitive to the flashing light, and, rather than becoming less aware of my physical body, and more aware of my mind, the opposite was happening. I began obsessing about whether the light could be damaging my eyes despite a voice intended to be reassuring on the app that says the light level is no brighter than standing outside with your eyes closed on a cloudy day. By the end of the trial, I had pretty much decided the app didn't do it for me.  

“I found my eyes became sensitive to the flashing light, and, rather than becoming less aware of my physical body, and more aware of my mind, the opposite was happening.”

Lumenate isn't the only company bringing tech and tripping together. WavePaths, developed with extensive scientific consultation from the likes of Dr Robin Carhart-Harris, Head of Imperial College's Psychedelic Research Centre, offers "adaptive, supportive musical environments" for those undergoing psychedelic therapy. However, the major difference between this and an app like Lumenate is that WavePaths is for use alongside psychedelic substances (rather than as an alternative to them), within controlled scientific environments.

Lumenate’s initial research used EEG scanners -- which observe electrical patterns in the brain -- with results that showed the effects of the app have "neural signifiers from both a deep meditation and something like an LSD trip". Their findings are not peer-reviewed, but they have worked with advice and input from neuroscientists and psychedelic researchers (including Dr Carhart-Harris).

Michelle Janikian is the editor of Psychedelics Today and the author of Your Psilocybin Mushroom Companion, a practical guidebook for exploring your subconscious with magic mushrooms. After trialling the app, I asked her if tech-assisted tripping does offer a genuine way to explore your mind. "Like a drug-induced trip, this technology could definitely help people to get outside of their everyday thought processes," Michelle says. "I think it depends on what you want to get out of it. Ultimately, getting out of your comfort zone can be helpful, but for some people, that means taking psychedelics; for others, that could mean something as simple as taking a walk in a different park." Michelle notes that this kind of app could be seen as practice, "as a way of getting more comfortable with an altered state before deciding whether to explore other experiences". 

Despite my disappointing first attempts, there is one benefit of app-assisted psychedelic experiences over drug-induced ones that has kept me curious. A trip on LSD or magic mushrooms can last for several hours and cannot be 'switched off' even if the experience starts to go bad. App-assisted trips can be taken before breakfast, or in bed, or even between meetings and, if you aren't enjoying it at that particular moment, you can stop at any time as easily as tapping your phone screen. 

Yes, it probably won't be as mind-blowing as taking LSD for the first time or as deep as long-practised meditation. But if viewed as an additional tool rather than a synthetic alternative, they might help us explore new routines or even just remind us to take a few moments for ourselves, as all the distractions of the 'normal' world start to rush back in. As people start to go back to work and resume their social lives, this convenience might have a certain appeal.

Follow i-D on Instagram and TikTok for more on tripping.

mental health