The brain, scientists say, is ridiculously complex in the way it perceives. That, scientists further assert, means that we're all probably hallucinating a little bit, and that reality might not be completely what you think it is. There's still plenty left to figure out about all this, so researchers are turning to Google AI and a virtual reality headset to pinpoint if and how the brain functions differently when perceiving reality compared to hallucinations.

No magic mushrooms? No problem

Researchers at Sussex University's Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science in the United Kingdom came up with a tech-savvy way to get some answers about perception.

  • The researchers investigated the capabilities of Google's DeepDream system. This technology is designed for image classification based on specific parameters. For example, you could train the system to recognize that a "hand" includes five fingers so you don't get pictures of, say, puppy paws. But if you run DeepSense in reverse, making the parameters broader instead of more strict, AI then can tweak features within your image until it morphs into the truly weird. The image will become more and more abstract with every iteration.
  • The team used a modified version of DeepSense to create a trippy panoramic video of the campus.
  • The researchers showed the video to 12 volunteers and asked them questions related to their sense of control, self and visualization of colors and patterns.
  • The researchers conducted a second similar experiment with 22 volunteers and asked about how the volunteers perceived time.

For the first experiment, researchers found that the hallucinations mimicked those created by psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. In the second experiment, results were similar to control videos. The researchers thus tentatively concluded that their 'hallucination machine' is effective at replicating some, but not all, of the effects of being high.

Know perception, know how to build

Today, more and more processes are done under augmented reality systems. Those systems can be used for fun, such as with video games. But they also have practical applications in a huge range of other fields. For example, augmented reality can allow doctors to practice for complicated surgeries ahead of time or even trick patients into not feeling as much pain. Another great example is in the automotive industry, where companies use virtual reality to design and perfect vehicles before they invest in the physical prototypes.

Now, as good as these systems are, if we can grasp perception processes a little more, then we also can build new systems that fool our brains even better. We can make the experience feel much more real, and we can take steps to make that experience safer and more enjoyable. The above research, as wild as it might seem, thus has huge here-and-now implications for major companies like Facebook. It even might redefine our concepts of self and mindfulness entirely. In the end, that might not be a bad trip to be on.