An example of the original scene (top left) and Deep-Dreamed scenes (top right, bottom left and right). Photo: Scientific Reports, ISSN 2045-2322

Researchers from the University of Sussex’s Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science have developed a way to study the effects of psychedelic drugs and psychiatric disorders on the human brain – without the use of any psychedelic drugs.

“The Hallucination Machine” incorporates Google’s Deep Dream algorithm and virtual reality to mimic the experiences of psychedelic hallucinations, or altered states of consciousness (ASC), in a controlled setting.

The study, published in Scientific Reports, involved two experiments. First, the researchers took panoramic 4k video of a student plaza on the university campus, and used the Google Deep Dream algorithm to transform the video into a psychedelic scene with distorted visuals, bright colors and images of dogs littered throughout the setting. Twelve volunteers immersed themselves into the unaltered world, and the Goggle Dream world via a virtual reality (VR) headset. After experiencing the two worlds, the volunteers completed a questionnaire asking whether they felt any odd sensations – such as visualizing colors and patterns, experiencing the feeling of floating, a dissolution of self, emotional arousal or distortion of time – all of which are commonly-reported effects from taking psychedelic drugs.

As the researchers expected, the normal version of the student plaza did not trigger the sensations listed on the questionnaire, but the hallucinogenic version conjured up many of those sensations. Additionally, responses from the “Hallucination Machine” matched almost exactly to responses from people who had actually taken psilocybin, the active compound in “magic mushrooms.” The only sensation that wasn’t experienced by those immersed in the Hallucination Machine was the feeling of time distortion. Those who have taken psychedelic drugs can misinterpret time duration, and feel like an hour has passed when in reality, only a few minutes have gone by.

In the second experiment, participants were instructed to reproduce the exact time length of various musical tones while experiencing the normal VR world and the hallucinating world. But participants performed equally well in both settings, demonstrating that while the VR system could replace having to use psychedelic drugs in a lab study to study conscious perception, there’s still room for improvement.

For future versions of the study, the team wants to improve the hallucinating experience. Rather than immersing participants in a pre-recorded visual world, where the only interaction participants had was moving their heads around, the researchers may use a real-time video feed from a camera on the participants’ heads. Real-time actions from the participants, such as waving their hands, could turn into hallucinations, like their hands turning into dog heads. This method could trigger stronger responses and better replicate the experiences of true hallucinations.

“Overall, the Hallucination Machine offers a valuable new technique for simulating altered phenomenology without directly altering the underlying neurophysiology,” wrote the researchers.

Altered states of consciousness can be triggered by psychedelic drugs such as LSD or “magic mushrooms”, as well as pathological or psychiatric conditions like epilepsy or psychosis. Recently, researchers have regained interest in examining these altered states induced by drugs, and investigating the neural underpinnings that cause hallucinating experiences, as well as the potential psychotherapeutic applications of these drugs.

The benefit of the Hallucination Machine system is that it can separate the different elements that are normally triggered all at once after taking psychedelic drugs, which can provide a better understanding of the chemical effects and changes that occur in the brain during a hallucination.