folder Filed in Design, Mind
What Ayahuasca taught me about design
Joseph C Lawrence

A couple of months ago I found myself in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, in Peru. In fact I found myself lying on my back on a small mattress in the dark with 14 other people, waiting for an extremely powerful visionary and hallucinogenic medicine I had just drunk to take effect. The 6 hour journey I was about to embark on taught me an incredible amount about myself, about the human mind and consciousness. I still think about that experience a lot, and over the past few days I have thought a lot about what it taught me about Design.

Side note: As I learned whilst researching Ayahuasca, ‘hallucinogenic’ is a term usually to refer to substances and experiences that distort your normal perception of reality – think: with your eyes open. ‘Visionary’ seems to be usually used to refer to the capacity to initiate completely immersive visions/experiences that are not triggered by the world around you, but rather just by your brain, in conjunction with the substance – think: with your eyes closed. Ayahuasca is both, but it is the visionary side of things that is most revered, and that is the main reason why people take it.

To me design is about solving problems of human experience, and therefore about human bodies, minds and psychology more than about colour, lines and typography (although of course those are all important parts of a designer’s toolkit). I’ve always been interested in the philosophy of mind, cognitive science and psychology. I studied it at an undergraduate level, and now continue to at a postgraduate level. So the opportunity to take one of the most revered of all hallucinogens, the Amazonian brew known as Ayahuasca, was too good to miss.

Traditionally used in ceremonies to help participants purge old emotional or ‘spiritual’ trauma, or to help people gain new perspectives and levels of consciousness, ‘Ayahuasca’ is a foul tasting combination of two plants from the Amazon (amongst other things, depending on who made the brew) and woks primarily by way of the chemical dimethyltryptamine or DMT. DMT is present in nature in a lot of forms, in plants and even in our own brains (albeit in much lower quantities). It is thought that high amounts of DMT are related to the phenomenon of the near death experience, and an Ayahuasca session usually contains strong, possibly overwhelming visions with a lot of personal relevance, along with all kinds of possible other effects (vomiting wildly, writhing energy, inability to walk, and losing the sense of oneself as you dissolve into the oneness of the universe are all pretty common ones…). Ayahuasca is certainly not taken as a recreational drug, and is used regularly in traditional ceremonies that date back thousands of years. It is also used by people regularly that do not use any other kinds of recreational drugs (and also by some drug addicts, to cure them of their addictions, so far with great reported success rates).

When you take Ayahuasca you are often advised to set an intention. As the edge of the small but full cup touched my lips I asked, amongst other things, to learn more about human consciousness. An hour later my lecture began.

Despite what we like to think, we are not one distinct self

At one point I found myself soaring on the back of an immense dragon, over wild and fantastical natural landscapes. The vision was so strong, so perfect that I could look around me, trying to see the tips of the impossibly long wings, feeling the unbelievable upward pressure with each long, slow downward beat of the wings as whips of cloud sped past me. This was one of my most memorable visions, but the whole time I was experiencing it, this was accompanied by a strange phenomenon. What felt like another part of myself was viewing the first part of myself that was having the vision, and firstly reflecting on the downright wildness of being able to have a vision like this, secondly appreciating how enjoyable it was for that other part of myself, and simultaneously then reflecting on how amazing it was to have this other part of myself experiencing this at all. So no longer was that thing I usually think of as ‘I’ or ‘me’ just one central point inside myself somewhere, doing all the experiencing of my life. No, now I was two things, both simultaneously experiencing slightly different aspects of what was going on in my brain and nervous system at the time.

Now a quick aside – it doesn’t matter what meaning anyone attaches to these experiences, all I am going to talk about is what actually happened – what my actual experiences were. At the very least, the Ayahuasca’s effect in my brain was to allow these two levels of ‘consciousness’ to be experienced at the same time, when usually we only have one running at a time. We all are familiar with these different sides to ourselves – those moments when we feel like we have more perspective on ourselves, and view ourselves and our behaviour more objectively, as opposed to those times, perhaps at a dinner with friends, when we are totally engaged with our environment, and not really reflecting on ourselves at all. We don’t usually think of them as that different, because we never get to compare them – they never happen at the same time. Well, they did for me on various occasions with Ayahuasca, and it means something important for design.

This has made me pretty much throw the idea of personas out of the window, or at least treat them with less importance. I realised that we all have these different ways of operating, different ways of experiencing the world and analysing it in very different ways. Sometimes we are in one mode, and sometimes another. Sometimes we look closely for details, and analyse things as logically as possible, sometimes we just sit back and experience. Sometimes we are very aware of how we appear to others, sometimes we care much less, or are simply much less aware. It is incredibly important to consider these different modes when we are designing products, because they affect very much how people will interact with an interface or a product, how they will process any information being communicated, etc. So perhaps we need to think less about differences between different people, and more about the differences individuals have within themselves, at different times. How can we design things that work well for people when they are in different modes, or can we figure out what kind of mode any person is likely to be in when they use what we are designing, and design specifically for this?

A new and renewed appreciation for ‘Flow’

‘Flow’ is a term coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi and means ‘the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity’ (Wikipedia article on “Flow”). I’ve always known it is important, and often considered it when designing digital interactions, but a few times my experiences with Ayahusca hammered it home in a much more literal sense.

Near to the beginning of my experience, I started to see a beautiful black leopard or jaguar. My eyes were often open when I saw him, rather than closed as they were much of the rest of the time. I saw him very realistically, standing over me, or padding across the room, or even at one point crunching his strong jaws around my forearm (until I asked him not to, which he responded to thankfully). When I was watching him move I was never mistaken in any way about the fact that this was a vision, and I knew of course that my feline friend was not real, but that the walls of the room and the other participants were real, yet they all formed part of my same visual experience. I noticed at the time though, and realised more as I thought about it a lot afterwards, that as I engaged more fully with the jaguar, the ‘real world’ began to sort of fade away. It was still there – the information was still entering my visual system, but it was almost as if it wasn’t there at all. At these times the jaguar became more real.

I could feel the experiential effects of ‘flow’ in real time. I could feel the way in which my perceptual systems in my brain changed and resulted in vastly different experiences, even when given all the same sensory input. I saw how I could become blind to things right in front of me, and create a rich experience out of something that wasn’t even really there. Of course we aren’t usually designing things for people with brains flooded with DMT, but the same principles apply. If we can induce flow in someone, everything else fades away, their experience is completely engaged in the thing we have designed. Not only is this true, but I think it is interesting to go one step further than we usually do when we consider flow – trying to really step into the shoes of someone in that flow we have tried to create. Trying to really imagine that whole, deep world of experience that has taken the place of everything else that has been blocked out. In what ways can you improve a design when you try and imagine it filling the entirety of someone’s experience, when the rest of their world has faded away?

The importance of understanding top down and bottom up processing

Our brains work in wonderfully complex ways, all the time. Just to process whatever is in front of your eyes right now is a monumental task. Understanding how it works is very powerful for a designer, and can help you progress from understanding design as a mostly visual or tactile thing, to understanding design really as a discipline of creating parts of people’s minds and experiences.

The hallucinogenic properties of Ayahuasca put this into stark focus for me, because it truly highlights the split between ‘bottom up’, and ‘top down’ processing. Let’s take the visual system. Bottom up processing is really the grunt work here – the brain takes visual input from the eyes, and engages in what we can think of as many little programs identifying different aspects of the visual field. Sharp edges, corners, areas of colour contrast, rounded edges are all identified – the lowest common denominators of visual experience from which the whole picture is built up. From here there are several more rungs of the hierarchy up, as the results of those little programs feed into other higher level ones that identify whole shapes and objects, and the depth of the scene we have in front of us, or even words and other symbols that have semantic value.

Now for the interesting bit though – the top down processing. Top down processes work from our larger more complex and meaningful ideas about the world, about reality, about ourselves. Our brain has a general idea of what to expect from our environment, and so probably already has some of these ideas at the forefront, ready to check to see if they fit all that raw data coming in from the bottom-up processing. If we are staring out to sea from a beach, Some tiny, poorly perceived bits of edge and colour out on the horizon might quickly appear to us to be a ship, and this is because our brain’s top down processes have matched the concept of a boat, the fact that boats are out on the ocean, and could reasonably fit the incoming data. This happens every second that you are awake (and perhaps even more in ways we don’t yet fully understand when dreaming), with everything that you ever see.

It is thought by many that the underlying mechanism of a hallucination, is the effect of fairly normal top down processing working with mixed up, crazy data coming in from the bottom up processing. With the Ayahuasca, part of the DMT’s effect on the brain is to affect those fundamental bottom up systems, so that the data they produce doesn’t represent the outside world as is normally the case. At the same time your top down processes are trying to find meaningful concepts to make sense of all this data, and what results is a hallucination. A hallucination is a perfect example of how your ideas about the world, your personal history, your concept of yourself can literally shape your immediate experience of the world, so powerfully that you see things that aren’t really there.

Now whilst we aren’t usually hallucinating in every day life, these processes still take place. We would do well as designers to realise that every time someone engages with something we designed, their own, unique top down processes are constantly ‘creating’ or at least finishing off their experience. Your design can provide the raw data, but it is their brains that are going to make sense of it all, each in a unique way. This made me think about two things. Firstly the importance of giving clear, unambiguous visual and tactile signals, so that everyone’s bottom-up systems have nice clear information to work with. This lends support for designing minimal interfaces, with good colour contrast, obvious action areas, simple, clear use of language and so on. Secondly though, it made me think about how we might influence that top down processing in subtle ways as well. How might the use of a faint background photograph, or the gentle texture of a physical product, whilst not a functional feature of a design, perhaps subtly influence someone’s top down processing to give them more of whatever holistic experience you want them to have? It is these subtle associations we help create in people’s minds that allow us to forge emotional connections between people and the things we design, and that in turn can make the things we design really enrich people’s lives.

Well, I could go on for hours but I’ll leave it there. Feel free to leave any questions you have about this in the comments. In the interests of safety, of course always do your research and consult a doctor before taking Ayahuasca – there are some contraindications. Also make sure you are taking it somewhere where it’s legal (pretty much anywhere in South and Central America).