While the word “psychedelic” may always be associated with LSD, psilocybin mushrooms, and other entheogens, taking these substances isn’t the only way to have a psychedelic experience. In fact, there are several ways to alter your perception without having to ingest anything at all, and some of these methods may even have their own therapeutic benefits. Looking for a sober trip? Here are five ways to have a psychedelic experience without a psychedelic.
You don’t need LSD to experience life-altering visions. In fact, all you need is already inside your chest, according to proponents of Holotropic Breathwork (HB), which unlocks the psychedelic potential of your lungs.
Holotropic Breathwork is a form of self-healing and self-discovery developed by LSD researcher Stanislav Grof and his wife Christina. HB involves lying down with your eyes closed and breathing in fast, deep and forceful breaths until you induce a non-ordinary state of consciousness that’s like a vivid, waking dream.
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What you see in that dream is determined by what you need to experience in order to develop your mind and spirit, according to HB pioneer Mark Boroson, who believes that Holotropic Breathwork conjures images and symbols needed to help you achieve the next level in your personal evolution.
For journalist Michael Pollan, that image was a surreal race through a forest:
“There wasn’t much visual imagery [at first], just the naked sensation of exhilaration, until I began to picture myself on the back of a big black horse, galloping headlong down a path through the forest,” Pollan wrote of his experience with HB in a chapter from his 2018 book How to Change Your Mind. “I could feel myself absorbing the animal’s power. It felt so fantastic to fully inhabit my body, as if for the first time.”
And that’s not the only benefit you can get from the exercise. Holotropic Breathwork has been used to help people work through several conditions, including severe trauma, stress, addiction, depression and chronic pain. Studies have shown that HB can reduce death anxiety, boost self-esteem, promote higher levels of self-awareness and improve behavioral problems like hostility, neediness and controllingness.
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But you probably won’t get those benefits just by lying on the floor of your living room and hyperventilating. For best results, you should consider working with a trained Holotropic Breathwork facilitator, who will design the right setting (including evocative music) for the session, which usually lasts three hours.
Afterward, the facilitator will encourage you to express your experience verbally or through art. The Grofs designed Holotropic Breathwork to empower people to take control of their own healing and personal growth, so an HB facilitator may ask questions to help you probe the meaning of your experience, but they won’t interpret it for you. HB facilitators are taught that the experience is intensely personal, so the only way for you to understand what it means is to work it out for yourself.
If you’re an extreme introvert, there’s no better way to enjoy a drug-free psychedelic experience than inside a sensory deprivation tank, which isolates you from everyone else on earth as well as your own senses.
The traditional tank is an unlit, soundproof chamber containing about 10 inches of skin-temperature water that is saturated with epsom salts to help you float, which reduces your sense of touch. Getting used to those conditions can be difficult, and many first-timers experience panic attacks and even nausea. But if you can breathe deep and work through those unpleasant side effects, the sensory-deprivation experience eventually induces a deep meditative state that can result in feelings of euphoria, hallucinations, and even out-of-body experiences.
Those hallucinations can involve seeing surreal images or hearing imaginary music.
“I heard a beautiful aria drifting in and out, like music from a faraway phonograph; soon it morphed into a full symphony before settling into a simple, tribal beat,” Shelly Fan of Discover wrote after a session at Vancouver’s Float House in 2014. “Incredibly, I did not recognize any of these tunes; my brain was spontaneously generating them.”
Fan isn’t the only one who’s found that sensory deprivation tanks can boost the creative juices. A handful of studies suggest that floating can boost originality, imagination and intuition. There’s also research to support using sensory deprivation to help people quit smoking, reduce drinking, lower blood pressure, manage symptoms of General Anxiety DIsorder, enhance physical flexibility, improve sleep quality, alleviate stress, and combat depression. Additional research is needed to support those findings, but the initial results suggest that sensory deprivation could treat everything from anxiety to writer’s block.
Those findings might make you wonder why more people aren’t flocking to “float spas” every day. Well, there are two reasons why sensory deprivation hasn’t been embraced by mainstream health enthusiasts. The tanks have had a bad reputation ever since it was discovered that the CIA studied them in the 1970s as an alternative form of torture. That reputation only worsened when the tank’s inventor—neuroscientist and psychoanalyst John C. Lilly—started experimenting with his invention while under the influence of LSD and ketamine (because sensory deprivation wasn’t trippy enough for him, apparently).
“Due to Lilly’s unconventional methods, his public relationship with recreational drugs and seemingly unscientific experiments, research on floatation tanks and anything under the umbrella of sensory deprivation were abandoned due to stigma from both Lily and torture,” Kimberley Carder, a doctoral student at Alliant International University, wrote in her 2018 dissertation on sensory deprivation.
But that could change in the near future. Perceptions of hallucinogenic drugs have been steadily improving as more and more studies suggest that psychedelics have therapeutic potential. As that progress continues, we’ll probably see attitudes toward sensory deprivation tanks improve, as well.
Sensory deprivation tanks are soundproof, but they aren’t completely soundless. While your ears won’t pick up anything outside the chamber, you can hear the swishing of the water and other ambient noises inside the tank. To experience total sound deprivation, you have to visit special facilities like the anechoic chamber at the Orfield Laboratories in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
The chamber is so quiet that it actually registers a negative level of decibels, which means that it’s below the threshold for human hearing. Reachers achieved this feat by installing large wedges made of fibreglass on all six sides of the room, so that any noise made inside the chamber is quickly swallowed up by the ridges in the walls. And to keep outside noises from penetrating the chamber, researchers encased the room in 12-inch thick walls of solid concrete.
The first thing that people notice when they sit inside the anechoic chamber is that they can hear noises inside their bodies much clearer than ever before. Visitors have reported that their heartbeat and the gurgling of their digestive system sounds louder than ever in the chamber. Some have even said that they could hear the sound of their blood flowing and their bones moving.
Visitors have also experienced hallucinations after sitting in the room for a few minutes with the lights out.
“I began to feel weightless and detached, as though my consciousness was separating from my body,” journalist Bill Hanstock wrote in a 2017 article for UPROXX after spending 10 minutes in the chamber. “My head began to feel elongated, like a balloon filling with air. I’ve never taken any hallucinogenic drugs, but I believe you would describe the sensations I felt as ‘mildly tripping balls.’ I didn’t see any colors or visions; I didn’t see anything at all, of course [because it was pitch black]. But I felt the perfect stillness and serenity of the room, I heard nothing, I saw nothing, and I began to feel as though I was stretching in all directions; that my being was filling the void.”
If you’re brave enough to stare into the void, you can check out the anechoic chamber in Minneapolis for an entrance fee of $125 USD per person (minimum $250).
Most of the entries on this list can’t be induced at home unless your neighbours happen to be Holotropic Breathwork facilitators or you have enough cash to buy your own sensory deprivation tank or build an anechoic chamber. But this entry is different. All you have to do is watch the video below, which was designed to create hallucinations based on the motion aftereffect (MAE) illusion.
MAE is also known as the “Waterfall Illusion” because it often happens naturally when people stare at a waterfall for a while and then look at a stationary object, which will appear to be moving because their eyes have become accustomed to watching things in motion.
This video takes that illusion and puts it on steroids by adding visual effects to enhance the distorted view of the world that you’ll get after staring at your screen for about 90 seconds.
“I was watching tv and doing this and looked back [and] the TV was moving,” said YouTube commenter Oblivion.EXE.
Another noticed that the decorations in their room had turned into a Salvador Dali painting: “The paintings on my walls stretched apart from eachother [sic] and then flowed back inwards lol” wrote a user called malfunction.
Some found the results downright terrifying: “I did this and looked at my girlfriends [sic] face…..I screamed” wrote watchEm.
One commenter lamented that the trippy experience was too brief: “Wish it would last longer than 10-20 secs” said Robert Lance. Others were frustrated with how long the effects lasted: “I just watched this about 15 minutes ago and my eyes are still tripping out, when Im [sic] typing this, i cant [sic] see everything on the screen ffs” wrote avd.
If you want to find out what they’re talking about, check out the video below. But don’t watch it while you’re in the middle of anything important as the effects of the clip can be extremely disorienting.
The Vortex Tunnel
If you’re looking for a mind-bending experience during your next trip to Canada, consider swinging by the Museum of Illusions in Toronto. Inside, you’ll find The Vortex Tunnel, which is basically a bigger version of the video above, but instead of watching it on YouTube, you can step inside the illusion.
The Vortex Tunnel is a large corridor with rotating walls that are lit with blacklights. As you walk into the tunnel, the fluorescent paint on the spinning walls will make you feel like you’ve been thrown inside a washing machine full of neon pink and purple clothes. I made it about a third of the way down the metal catwalk in the centre of the tunnel before freaking out because it felt like I was about to go cartwheeling into a technicolour abyss.
After doubling back, I took a few deep breaths to steady myself and work up the courage to face the vortex again. This time, I kept a tight grip on the metal railing that runs through the tunnel, which provided just enough support to convince my panicking brain that I wasn’t actually tumbling through the eye of a psychedelic cyclone.
A minute later, I emerged on the other side and felt the euphoria of triumph for a few fleeting seconds before crashing into a wall. Turns out, the tunnel’s disorienting effects last for a little while after you’ve left the spinning room behind. As soon as I could walk straight again, I went back through the tunnel one more time to snap a video for all of you to see.
Admission to the Vortex Tunnel is included in the price of admission to the museum ($28.36 CAD), which includes many other trippy attractions.
James McClure is a journalist, playwright and scholar based in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada who specializes in cannabis culture, international drug policy, hockey and English literature. His work has appeared in Civilized, Mental Floss and other publications.