Could Altered States Provide a More Creative Approach to Travel?

Or even just travel experience design…

For some time I’ve wondered what impact altered states can have on mental health. I’ve long promoted the psychological benefits of travel, and it occurred to me that it might be interesting to consider the psychological benefits of other unusual mood-boosters.

Did you know that ‘forest bathing’ is proven to reduce the production of stress hormones and to lower your heart rate and blood pressure? Or looking at photographs of baby animals is scientifically confirmed to make you happier by causing a surge of dopamine?

As the legalization of marijuana in certain U.S states and the public acceptance of the drug slowly makes its way across the globe, it might be interesting to look at other mind-altering substances (beyond the more socially-acceptable coffee, alcohol, tobacco, Ritalin, Vicodin etc.) that might have a positive impact on our well-being.

At the end of 2019, the largest ever controlled study of psilocybin (the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms) proved that the compound is safe for human consumption, bringing researchers one step closer to developing a psilocybin-based treatment for depression. Other research suggests that it could also aid those dealing with addiction. This could be a major development for those whose mental health problems haven’t improved with conventional therapy, such as treatment-resistant depression.

Minor adverse events recorded were of the expected psychedelic nature, changing sensory perception and mood of the volunteers, but there were no negative effects on cognitive and emotional functioning. The benefit of using psilocybin over traditional anti-depressants is that test participants reported the former provoking a cathartic emotional release and reconnection, whereas anti-depressants are well known for ‘blunting’ all emotions- both happy and sad.

Those familiar with the 1960s darling, LSD (or acid), might have come across the more modern concept of micro-dosing. Micro-dosing involves taking minute amounts of a normal dose, to achieve a state of highly present and creative focus. The results are sub-perceptual (none of the visuals or auditory manifestations you might experience with a full dose), users simply feel themselves, but a little bit ‘better’.

People might use micro-dosing to finally finish a creative project, and the movement is becoming more mainstream. In the same way that 10 years ago, students might have used Adderall to help them pull an all-nighter, young professionals and students are becoming more likely to be using imperceptible doses of psychedelics to open their minds and free them of mental blockages.

A former colleague described the full experience of psychedelics to be ‘like finally opening a door to another reality that has existed next to you all along, but you just couldn’t see it before.’ The positive effects of this kind of experience can last for years, if not a lifetime, with participants in both studies, and recreational users, reporting that since their first dose they have felt happier, more emotionally aware, and more open to new experiences.

So, if we travel the world to experience new realities, different states and unknown communities abroad, how likely is it in the future that people will be consuming legalised and pharmacy-approved psychoactives, to gain the benefits of travel, without the inconvenience of actually going anywhere?

Ayahuasca ceremonies are a common experience for travelers in the Amazon. The drink is brewed from the leaves of the Psychotria Viridis shrub, along with the stalks of a vine, and has a history of being used for spiritual and religious purposes by ancient Amazonian tribes. Traditionally a shaman — an experienced healer — prepares the brew and leads the ceremony. The active ingredient in the leaves is DMT, a powerful hallucinogenic chemical that produces a more potent altered state than LSD. An ayahuasca trip can lead to hallucinations, out of body experiences, and euphoria that will last for hours.

Today, many people travel to Peru, Costa Rica, and Brazil where they can take part in multi-day ayahuasca retreats. Reasons to participate range from wanting to heal from past traumas, to open one’s mind, or to simply experience an ayahuasca journey.

DMT has been found to activate the Sigma-1 receptor, a protein in the brain which blocks neurodegeneration and helps to protect your brain cells. A test-tube study indicated that DMT protects brain cells from damage caused by lack of oxygen, and another ingredient known as harmine has been found to have memory-boosting effects.

A study of 20 people found that consuming DMT once a week for four weeks, was as effective as an 8-week mindfulness program. A study of 57 people found that ratings of depression and stress were reduced immediately after consumption, and the effect was still significant four weeks afterward. DMT is being investigated as a potential ‘cure’ for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Clearly, an unregulated consumption of any psychedelic is not a sure-fire way of permanently fixing a mental disorder and can in fact make the symptoms worse. Psychedelics are mood-enhancers, not mood-improvers. They will connect you deeply with how you feel at the time you take the drug. If you are feeling unhappy or unsafe, then these feelings will be heightened and can result in a bad trip. Anxiety, fear or lingering flashbacks are all common aftereffects of a bad trip. Even while on a good trip, you are at still at risk of participating in dangerous activities or losing complete control of what you’re doing.

Also, it’s difficult to know the purity or quality of drugs bought and consumed outside of a lab setting. Although magic mushrooms are not poisonous themselves, it’s entirely possible to confuse a psychedelic Liberty Cap with a highly toxic Fool’s Conecap, resulting in the kind of trip that ends up at the hospital.

But if legalized, regulated, and responsibly distributed, psychoactive drugs might become a new alternative to physical travel. Improved mental health, openness, and acceptance of new experiences are shared benefits of both physical travel and ‘tripping’. Perhaps recreational drug use might become a more socially accepted route to altered states, as carbon-heavy travel becomes less so. Combine this with virtual worlds and you could have a potent combination.

Or at the very least travel professionals could explore this arena to see whether it could help them be more creative in their travel experience design.

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Philippe Brown

Philippe Brown

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Researcher, expedition leader, fixer. Founder Brown + Hudson and REVISIT. Consultant, speaker and author of REVISIT The New Art & Science of Luxury Travel.