In recent years, a growing body of scientific research has shown that certain psychedelics, administered by a therapist, can provide relief for a wide range of psychological disorders, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, addiction and end-of-life anxiety. Now a company called Emotional Intelligence Ventures (EI) is working to bring psychedelic-assisted therapies to the metaverse.
David Nikzad, the company’s founder, wants to harness the power of virtual reality (VR) to bypass the geographical and economic barriers that have historically prevented a large portion of the population from accessing psychedelic-assisted therapies. “The reality of being able to give a billion people a psychedelic experience [is that] not everybody’s going to be able to fly to Maui or Peru and have a $100,000 experience,” Nikzad says. “What we understood with technology – and we saw this back when [Meta’s] Oculus was born – [was that] eventually you could give people a psychedelic journey, and a shaman would show up, or Ram Dass would show up, and he would take you on this journey through something like a Hawaii that would be done through like a PS5.”
While it’s very much still in its developmental stages, the metaverse has nonetheless come to be regarded by many entrepreneurs as the next big thing for marketing and customer engagement. There’s very little that seems to be off-limits in this virtual landscape that’s literally unbound by the laws of physics – including, hypothetically, a visit from Ram Dass. There’s also a palpable sense of urgency, a sense that there’s only so many slices of the virtual pie to be divvied up. Many brands – from fast food chains to beer companies and banks – are rushing to be the first among their competitors to set up shop in the metaverse. The psychedelic industry is now joining the virtual land grab.
After dosing themselves with a psychedelic (more on that in a moment), EI customers will theoretically don their VR headsets, at which point they’ll embark upon a virtual journey. Those journeys, according to Nikzad’s vision, would be specially tailored to each customer’s unique background and personality. The idea, he says, is to deliver “a zone of comfortability” that can be modified “to your liking, depending on where you’re from. Not everybody’s going to have the same comfort zone. I might like beaches and waterfalls, somebody else might want to be in the Swiss Alps. We can fine-tune that experience.”
The journeys facilitated by EI’s proposed products would also not be as potent as those that are taking place in clinics and retreat centers, which often last for hours and can occasionally result in “mystical-type” experiences. Nikzad’s company is currently developing a microdosing product called “Psilly”(pronounced “silly”), a name that’s derived from “psilocybin,” the active ingredient found in magic mushrooms. It has also partnered with a company called Tioga Research to develop a transdermal patch, which will be able to deliver “a mini-mini-microdose,” leading to experiences that will “last no more than 20-40 minutes.”
There is, of course, a significant legal hurdle currently standing between Nikzad and his dream of bringing psychedelics to the metaverse. Each of the so-called ‘classic psychedelics’ – including LSD, psilocybin, DMT and mescaline – are currently listed as Schedule 1 substances by the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), meaning they have no recognized medical value and a high potential for abuse. Ongoing clinical research could soon change that ruling, and in fact a number of state and local governments across the US – such as those in Oregon and Oakland, California, for example – have already voted to decriminalize psychedelics. There are some experts within the burgeoning psychedelics industry who believe that psilocybin-assisted therapy could receive FDA approval within the next few years.
Nikzad believes that the process of legalizing psychedelics will overlap with the technological development that will be required to make his dream a reality. “By the time psychedelics really come into play, let’s say in the next 36 months, the hardware and software will be available to do a psychedelic journey in masses,” he says. “It’s going to be state-by-state. It’s going to be slow. But the end-goal for us when we look a decade out is really treating a billion people with different types of psychedelics.”
Nikzad – who was literally wearing rose-colored glasses during his interview with The Drum – speaks quite candidly about his dream of creating a “utopian society” built largely on the twin pillars of psychedelics and web3. To some degree, it was inevitable that these two worlds would fall into the same orbit. There are many starry-eyed psychedelic advocates who view these compounds as a kind of silver-bullet antidote to the mental health crisis that has descended upon our culture (which was exacerbated by the pandemic). The web3 movement also has its fair share of proselytizers who envision the blockchain as the foundation for a new era of art, information, finance and community-building. Psychedelics in the metaverse: the democratization of mental health meets the democratization of data.
His company has purchased a parcel of virtual land in The Sandbox, but no real development has yet taken place. Responding to a request for more information surrounding EI’s plans for the metaverse, the company’s “web3 metaverse developer” made it clear that the effort was still a work in progress. One idea for the design of the company’s property in The Sandbox was inspired by Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro. According to that idea, the EI experience might look something like this: “The protagonist [i.e. the customer] arrives on an island and starts exploring a fantasy land spiraling upwards from the pier, through a city, a forest, a cave and finally the Totoro forest … The protagonist will meet different characters … and help them solve their issues affecting their mind (anxiety, depression, addiction) by completing simple quests.”
Nebulous though they may be, EI’s plans to wed psychedelic-assisted therapy with the metaverse could mark a major innovation for both industries. In a world where many are excluded from basic healthcare – not to mention posh and expensive new therapies – the metaverse could provide a safe, supportive and affordable space for legitimate care. There are many logistical, legal and ethical hurdles that will need to be navigated on the road ahead. But Nikzad speaks with the conviction of someone who fully believes in his ability to realize his goal.