Chaos, Hallucinogens, Virtual Reality, and the Science of Self

Chaotic Awesome is a webseries hosted by Chloe Dykstra and Michele Morrow, generally focused on all things geeky, such as gaming and technology. But the good influence of correspondent Christina Ochoa ensures that there is also a healthy dose of real science on the show. It was a perfect venue for Jennifer Ouellette — science writer extraordinaire, as well as beloved spouse of your humble blogger — to talk about her latest masterwork, Me, Myself, and Why: Searching for the Science of Self.

Jennifer’s book runs the gamut from the role of genes in forming personality to the nature of consciousness as an emergent phenomenon. But it also fits very naturally into a discussion of gaming, since our brains tend to identify very strongly with avatars that represent us in virtual spaces. (My favorite example is Jaron Lanier’s virtual lobster — the homuncular body map inside our brain is flexible enough to “grow new limbs” when an avatar takes a dramatically non-human form.) And just for fun for the sake of scientific research, Jennifer and her husband tried out some psychoactive substances that affect the self/other boundary in a profound way. I’m mostly a theorist, myself, but willing to collect data when it’s absolutely necessary.

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26 Responses to Chaos, Hallucinogens, Virtual Reality, and the Science of Self

  1. Since you are mentioning gaming, genetics, and the sense of self in VR, here’s an article of potential interest about sexism in the Oculus Rift. Are male brains/ocular systems programmed for the types of spatial cues that are possible to program in virtual reality, and thus females experience a higher instance of simulator sickness? See,3/
    by danah boyd, researcher at Microsoft.

    Personally, I LOVE the Oculus Rift, and can spend hours inside UCSB’s Allosphere (if they would let me) without getting sick, and I’m about as girly a geek-girl as they come. But, emerging research seems to suggest that I may be an anomaly, in that female vision systems are not programmed for virtual reality as it is currently programmed. This may particularly affect research I am proposing on the use of immersive virtual reality systems, particularly the Oculus Rift, for improving concept development and spatial reasoning in undergraduate astronomy courses.

    I’d love to hear the Awesome Dynamic Duo of Sean & Jennifer comment on this. Have you tried a Rift yet? Next time you visit Santa Barbara we’ll have to get you into some of the labs here to try it out, and then comment…

    currently Education Project Manager for the Planck Mission and
    project scientist at UCSB, Physics Department

  2. Dan says:

    Sean Carroll, a man whose pursuit of scientific advancement knows no bounds. You’re an inspiration or something.

  3. Ben Goren says:

    Sean, was this also your first experience with said psychoactive substances? If not, how did it compare with earlier experiences?

    …and, I’m sure the answer is, “no,” but I still gotta ask just in case: any chance your experience gave you any insights into how to weave together a ~125 GeV Higgs with r=0.2 and ~35 GeV WIMPs into a GUT? Or any other insights worthy of note?



  4. Michael Tiberi says:

    That is so very happening that you two were open to the experience!

    If I might make an observation and a suggestion. One might argue that you did it the wrong way around. This is you selected the drug before deciding on the experience you wanted. Jennifer mentioned in the video that one of her interests was to strip away at ego/self. If that was/is the intention then Ayahuasca rather than LSD would have been a better choice. There are groups that meet and to do such things and they’re very smart about it. The very ritual itself and the advanced perpetration for the experience is designed to chip away at self. Ultimately it becomes a group experience and ego is gone.

  5. Michael Tiberi says:

    Oh, and you don’t need a doctor on speed dial. The Shaman will take care of you. As you say, folks have been doing this for a very long time 🙂

  6. BobC says:

    Damn, I miss the ’70’s.

  7. Baron Ludwig von Nichts says:

    In nature, when an animal becomes decadent or complacent, predators swoop in and devour them. A similar principle applies to the “bourgeois bohemians” of our own species, though the effects are generally slower.

    A truly transformative, shamanic experience requires some of the danger, chaos and discomfort inherent in nature — things which your kind do all they can to remove from the human world. Hence your utterly mundane, bourgeois-sounding psychedelic experience for science nerds. Pathetic!

  8. James Cross says:

    Any idea what dose you took?

    I’ve read something recently that most doses on the market today are around 100 mcg whereas in the 60’s they were more like 400 mcg.

    Big difference in experience. At 100 mcg, you are more likely to experience the visual and time distortions but generally be in control. At 400 mcg you are more likely to have your ego stripped away.

    I am not sure whether LSD or ayahausca is superior for stripping away the ego. They are remarkably different experiences with some commonality. With LSD you typically get visual distortions. With ayahausca true hallucinations (if true makes sense) – entire scenes with beings and buildings constructed seemingly from nothing.

    My own experiences with ayahausca are here:

  9. Joan Hendricks says:

    Just started reading “Me, Myself and Why”. Now, I’m going to have to figure out how to get you and Jennifer to both autograph my Kindle book, Sean!!

  10. Sean Carroll says:

    Jatila– Thanks for pointing to that, I hadn’t really heard about it. Interesting.

    Ben– It was our first experience, and we haven’t had another chance to try since. I know that Steve Jobs, for example, claimed that acid trips helped his creativity in important ways. But if my experience is any guide, it’s completely useless for thinking about physics.

    James– No idea what the dose was, sorry.

  11. DM says:

    Fascinating stuff. Can you tell us more about what your experience was like? What do you think was happening in the brain?

  12. John D says:

    That Jennifer Ouellette’s husband is one lucky guy!

  13. James Cross says:

    ” But if my experience is any guide, it’s completely useless for thinking about physics.”

    The idea is not to do physics but to let physics do you.

    The world should speak to you rather than you thinking your thoughts about the world.

    It’s tough to let go.

  14. DM says:

    James –

    “The world should speak to you rather than you thinking your thoughts about the world.

    It’s tough to let go”.

    What do you mean by this?

  15. James Cross says:

    You have to take LSD to understand it.

    It means stop trying to grasp and control. Let the world speak. If it says anything interesting you can always reduce it to mathematics/physics/whatever later if you are so inclined.

  16. DM says:

    Interesting. Yes, the mind can have a tendency to want to control everything, and to understand everything. Thanks for posting the link regarding your own experiences, I’ll definitely check that out.

  17. DM says:

    Ms. Ouellette,
    The topic of your book is super interesting
    In the above video, you talked about how LSD didn’t so much get rid of the ego, but dissolved the boundary between self and other…do you have any ideas on what is going on in the brain while on LSD? Are there any lasting effects on brain chemistry?
    Also, you might find this interesting:
    She described a somewhat similar experience as a result of a stroke.
    Sorry I’m posting so much!

  18. Dave Hooke says:

    First time couple of times I took acid, the whole group of us were simply joking and laughing about ducks and hills. Until a friend had an epiphany and said “Don’t fight it, feel it.” We all thought this was hilarious hippy crap (as well as a track from classic LSD inspired album Screamadelica, which dates the experience) but it turns out that if you let you get in the way too much, you do miss out on a fair bit of the fun. Another way to get “the world to come to you” is to take a higher dose, then you don’t have much of a choice.

    I didn’t find that LSD gave me any great insight into the self (other than the fragility of the self/other boundary) or anything else, but I will certainly be reading the book, mainly due to interest on the nature of self, and enjoying Jennifer’s writing in the past, but also for another perspective on the self and LSD, as well as finding out what SC might say or do when out of his gourd.

  19. Tony says:

    Humble blogger? Really? Does your wife agree?

  20. adel sadeq (@AdelQsa) says:

    From my experience the bad stuff from the 70’s made me think in an unconventional ways. Here is the proof.

  21. candide says:

    This is off topic. But I’m hoping someone can briefly refute the following Christian apologist’s criticism of Sean’s position in the Craig debate.

    “In arguing for the Kalam, Craig has often used the Borde Guth Vilenkin (or BVG) theorem to argue that the universe had a beginning. In response, Carroll pointed out that the BVG theorem only works within relativity but does not take quantum effects into account. Given a lack of a complete theory of quantum gravity, he argued that Craig can not claim that the universe began to exist.
    “Though this is partly true, it turns out we are not completely in the dark. One thing known for certain about quantum gravity is something called the holographic principle. Precisely put, the holographic principle tells us that the entropy of a region of space (measured in terms of information) is directly proportional to a quarter of its surface area. The volume of this region is then actually a hologram of this information on its surface.
    “Except this tells us something interesting about the universe as well. Entropy, or the amount of disorder present, always increases with time. In fact not only is this law inviolate, it is also how the flow of time is defined. Without entropy, there is no way to discern forwards and backwards in time.
    “But if the holographic principle links the universe’s entropy and its horizon area then going back in time, all of space-time eventually vanishes to nothing at zero entropy. Thus Carroll’s argument is unsound. We already have enough knowledge about what happens beyond the BVG theorem that Craig cites. The universe is not eternal but created.
    “It is interesting to note that this also undermines claims made by atheists like Hawking and Krauss that the universe could have fluctuated into existence from nothing. Their argument rests on the assumption that there was a pre-existent zero-point field or ZPF. The only trouble is that the physics of a ZPF requires a space-time to exist in. No space-time means no zero-point field, and without a zero-point field, the universe can not spontaneously fluctuate into existence.
    The second point of Carroll’s that I wanted to address was his view that regardless of the physics discovered, the sort of supernatural explanation Craig gave could no longer be considered valid. Carroll, being a physicist, naturally believes that whatever the final answer is it will come in physical terms. Afterall it is not everyday that scientists speak of God or supernatural agents. Instead they expect explanations to come in material terms with equations.
    “But Carroll may be ruling something out too quickly. A holographic universe entails a world made of information. And information requires a mind to know it. But as I pointed out in my last blog this fits perfectly with the many scriptural references referring to the universe being created and upheld by God’s word. No dichotomy exists at all.”

  22. Ben Goren says:


    That apologist is using Aristotelian metaphysics through and through. A perfect example:

    A holographic universe entails a world made of information. And information requires a mind to know it.

    That makes as much sense as claiming that, since inertia moves the planets, therefore inertia itself is in motion and requires a Prime Mover.

    If there’s one consistent pattern in physics, it’s that our theories are valid only over limited domains, and extrapolating past the applicable domain results in absurd deviations from observations.

    For example, it is reasonably true to describe the Earth as flat. The curvature of the Earth is mere inches per mile; there are proverbial anthills that are taller than the difference between the difference between a flat Earth’s horizon and the real Earth’s horizon at human scales. As further evidence, go grab any regional map. Lay it flat on the table, and it’ll be far more than adequate for any navigation you’re going to do within that region.

    But if you extrapolate from the flatness of the Earth to continental scales, you’ll get hopelessly lost or confused. At that scale, the Earth really is a sphere. However, if you assume a spherical Earth in making your way to the library downtown, you’ll get the exact same results as if you assumed a flat Earth, only you’ll have had to do quite a bit more math for no positive effect.

    That same practice of successive models of increasing accuracy continues. The Earth isn’t really a sphere but an oblate spheroid. But even transcontinental pilots and ICBM missileers don’t need to bother themselves with that detail, though I wouldn’t be surprised if GPS navigation systems incorporate it into their programming. And, of course, the Earth isn’t really an oblate spheroid but a bumpy, quasi-fractal surface in constant motion. And on top of that we also have to add gravitational density maps as well if we really want to complete the picture.

    The same is true of physics. Newton is more than ample for almost everything we do as humans, but assuming Newtonian Mechanics holds at all scales gets you as far off the rails as assuming a flat Earth at all scales. But, of course, again, you can use Quantum Mechanics or Relativistic Mechanics to build your airplane; you’ll just insanely complicate the job for no practical benefit.

    And, similarly, cosmogenesis is precisely at the same type of boundary condition as we’ve faced so many times before. We know that we don’t yet have a good explanation for it, just as we once knew that we didn’t have a good explanation for Mercury’s orbit. What the apologist is doing is akin to declaring Jesus to be responsible for Mercury’s precession, because it’s moving and therefore requires a Mover.

    In reality, we’ve long since moved past the need for that type of primitive superstition. Just as even before Newton nobody worth paying attention to thought that Helios drew the Sun across the sky in a chariot, nobody worth paying attention to thinks that Jesus as the Logos Spoke the world into existence at the Beginning. Might as well ground all the airliners because, any moment now, they’ll get eaten by the monsters at the edge of the world.



  23. Tony says:

    The Universe popped into existence, or seemingly quantum fluctuated. Since there is nothing in the material world that is eternal, not even black holes, it will pop like a balloon out of existence. This being the case, I don’t know why people would reject out of hand the possibility of an eternal existence, without which in the end there is only despair, meaning close to death nothingness looms. Let me put it this way, if it was possible to be almost certain would you still reject an eternal existence? Would you prefer that it was not possible? Do you prefer nothingness rather than an Afterlife? Suppose when you died there were two doors, one would lead to an eternal life and one would lead to a region of nothingness. Which would you choose? I’m interested in the why.

  24. James Cross says:


    “I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

    Mark Twain

  25. Tony says:

    I understand that, I had not existed for eons myself, but having tasted life wouldn’t it be nice for it to go on? At least that’s my hope. I hope it’s yours as well even if it can’t be proven.