#20 Believing in and surrendering to simulated experiences

A Neurophenomenology of Awe and Wonder by Gallagher et al, pages 59-111

In this portion of text, I read about Experiment 1’s setup which included the simulated environment. I want to comment on a blurb of text: “The simulation designers wanted participants to engage in a willing suspension of disbelief, surrendering to the experience” (Gallagher et al, 2015, p. 69). I may be making a mountain out of a molehill, but as I read this sentence I thought: if willingness to suspend disbelief that one is in a simulation is connected to surrendering to the experience, then does not surrendering to the experience entail not believing in the simulation of astronaut perspectives from space and their accounts of awe and wonder? In other words, if one fights the belief in the simulated experience, then, does one not have the same experience of awe and wonder? Study participants might believe that astronauts do experience awe and wonder, but perhaps not believing that the simulation will produce awe and wonder in themselves or the same levels of awe and wonder as experienced by the astronauts. 

Astronaut experiencing awe and wonder.

I wonder if what I wrote above makes sense? I suppose the kernel of the thought I initially had was this: if belief of and surrender to the simulation are tied, then, is disbelief of and a lack of surrender to the simulation also tied? Let’s go deeper into what one believes in and surrenders to. One might suspend their disbelief to a high degree, that is to say, forget momentarily that one is in a simulation observing the earth from space. Thus, that which researchers are aiming to suspend is perhaps a disbelief in the specific experience-that-occasions awe and wonder, in this case, seeing the earth from space. There is no suspension of disbelief through simulation, there is only direct experience of seeing the earth from space regardless whether one is physically in space or sitting comfortably in a laboratory. So, we are testing the direct experience of awe and wonder regardless whether the experience is real or not. As well, it sounds like the simulation is real enough to the study participants because the images of the earth seen from space are real (e.g. not computer-generated) even though participants did not board and see them from a spacecraft. If the images were fake in any way, then the suspension of disbelief would be difficult. The experiment includes a combination of real images, simulated narratives, sounds of rockets blasting off, coming back down to earth, etc. The fact that the images of earth and space were actual real images suggests the simulation is only semi-simulated. The simulation is more believable considering the images seen from the windows are real; if participants suspected otherwise, that the images were faked, then researchers would have a harder time reproducing feelings of awe and wonder in participants. 

Gallagher et al (2015, p. 80) speak of simulations having “low fidelity” (e.g. boardgames that allow players to temporarily feel what it’s like to take on one of the game’s character roles) and “high fidelity” (e.g. amusement parks wherein visitors have a more integrated experience of imagined worlds) and they argue that their simulation had aspects of both, thus being a “mixed-reality” simulation” that “helped create an immersive experience.” 

This got me thinking: what are instances of low and high fidelity psychedelic experiences? First, dosage would impact how believable experiences were. Second, the type of substance depending on which receptors in the brain it affects. A serotonin-agonizing tryptamine (e.g. DMT) likely affects one’s subjective experience much differently than a NMDA-agonizing dissociative (e.g. ketamine) or a kappa-opioid-agonizing psychedelic (e.g. Salvia divinorum; not sure which psychedelic sub-family in which it belongs). The reason I bring up these three receptors is because these are the receptors agonized by tabernanthe iboga (the substance I’m fascinated by), all at the same time. Anyway, I wonder whether certain psychedelics are phenomenally more convincing or believable or more surrender-prone than others, and then how users make sense of and conceptualize these experiences. 

Another interesting question is: Can we make simulations for psychedelic experiences? Scientists are already using artificial intelligence to simulate psychedelic experiences. Short answer: likely, yes. Are we there yet? No. I would like to see more VR and AR psychedelic simulation technology and apply the same awe and wonder experimental protocols used by Gallagher et al (2015) to test for awe and wonder. I would like to know whether a simulated psychedelic drug experience can produce the same feelings that an actual psychedelic drug experience can? As well, can we use a mixed-reality simulation, incorporating psychedelic drugs with modern technology in novel ways? Yes, we can, I know we can, but this research will not happen for a little while longer until I write about it in my upcoming books. 

Gallagher et al’s research is still fascinating to me in how it can be used with psychedelics because they use simulated environments in their experiments. We must also ask how we can cut out the idea of simulations and use their methods on people who actually take the substance in first-person fashion. For example, their research tries to replicate feelings of awe and wonder experienced by astronauts in space in non-astronaut participants through simulations. Instead of replication in psychedelic research of awe and wonder, let us test the level of awe and wonder experienced by psychedelic drug users. Which drugs and dosages produce the most awe and wonder? Can the neurophysiological maps be reproduced, that is, artificially created to produce a psychedelic experience? We know that electrically stimulating the brain will make the body do certain things, so if we have a series of still shots or brain maps, can we electrically reproduce these without the use of the psychedelic to occasion the same phenomenal experiences in nondrug users? I don’t know, but I like where these questions and research in general is going. We will combine modern technology, neurophenomenology, and other techniques one day. This will happen. I look forward to reading, writing, and knowing more about this subject. 

I end with a quote I liked from the pages I read today: 

“The correct response to the reductionist challenge is to point out that there is a responsibility for science to ‘explain what there is’ (Gallagher, 2007, p. 311). What there is may not, necessarily be quantifiable, or entirely reducible without loss of some relevant aspects. The responsibility of science remains: if it exists, it ought to be explored. Experiences of awe and wonder do exist, and as experiences, they are first-person – that is, they are experienced from the perspective of the subject who is experiencing them. To offer an explanation of them in purely third-person, neurological terms seems to miss both the perspectival and phenomenal aspects of such experiences” (Gallagher et al, 2015, p. 66, italics are mine).

Gallagher, S., Reinerman-Jones, L., Janz, B., Bockelman, P., & Trempler, J. (2015). A Neurophenomenology of Awe and Wonder: Towards a Non-Reductionist Cognitive Science. Palgrave Macmillan. 

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