In Search of New Terrain: Similarities Between Travel and the Psychedelic Experience
A psychedelic experience is commonly referred to as a ‘trip’ or a ‘journey’, and the analogy with travel is a helpful one; psychedelics take you to new internal territory, whereas travelling takes you to new external territory. But I believe there are several ways in which we can compare tripping to travelling, and these similarities may help explain why certain people become attracted to both, or why those who become passionate about one are then primed to take an interest in the other later on.
British electronic musician Simon Posford, who is one-half of Shpongle, was interviewed by writer David Jay Brown for an article that appeared in the MAPS Bulletin (Spring 2012) and then later in a book compiling several MAPS Bulletin pieces titled Manifesting Minds: A Review of Psychedelics in Science, Medicine, Sex, and Spirituality (2014). In the interview, Posford said the following when asked how psychedelics can have affected his audience and his interaction with them:
I don’t know if I can really speak for my audience, because the psychedelic experience is a very personal journey. But I would say that quite a large percentage of our audience appears to have certainly had that experience, and I think that it provides a way to relate. Our music creates a common thread and instant bond of alliance to other people who have had a psychedelic experience, in the same way that, say, traveling might.
I think that I get on better with people if they’ve done psychedelics and traveled, because it opens your mind up in a way that is unequivocal. It makes one adept at relating and interacting in a playful intangible broad-minded way, that perhaps you don’t have with people that maybe haven’t had those experiences.
I think that there’s something very similar about traveling and tripping, because they both help you to become more culturally transcendent. They allow one to dissolve and transcend the boundaries of culture, and most people don’t even know that culture creates limitations until they are free of them.
Indeed, both psychedelics and travel can lead to more open-mindedness but perhaps for different reasons. While tripping can enhance broad-mindedness through the diverse and novel perspectives one can take (towards oneself, others, nature, and reality itself), travelling can do so through first-hand experience of other cultures and the varied beliefs, attitudes, practices, and lifestyles that these cultures encompass.
It is a common adage that ‘travel broadens the mind’, but there is now research showing that living abroad leads to increases in openness to new experiences (one of the Big Five personality traits), although researchers Dr Julia Zimmermann and Dr Franz Neyer found that those university students who studied abroad were generally higher in extraversion than those who chose not to travel during their studies, which is to be expected.
Similarly, studies have found that taking psychedelics in both a clinical and recreational context is associated with elevations in openness. However, we should keep in mind that those already high in openness to experience — as well as other personality traits like risk-taking and novelty-seeking — will be more likely to take psychedelics and travel in the first place, although this doesn’t discount the fact that both types of experience can enhance open-mindedness, aesthetic sensitivity, and creativity, including for those who score lower on personality trait openness.
However, travelling doesn’t automatically make you open-minded. I’ve certainly met people while backpacking who held some unpleasant prejudices, and many in the psychedelic community can likewise be closed- or narrow-minded, not just with respect to psychedelics (in terms of having a rose-tinted perspective on them) but also in terms of other subjects and areas of life.
Turning Challenging Experiences Into Valuable Stories
Taking psychedelics can result in challenging experiences, wherein the whole or majority of the experience can be felt to be unpleasant or just some parts or moments of it are. While distressing at the time (sometimes extremely so), one may later look back on these experiences in a positive light, sometimes lightheartedly. Indeed, as one study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy found, challenging trips — where you have a fearful ego dissolution experience or feel like you’re ‘going crazy’ — can be transformed into valuable experiences through the narrative you construct surrounding them.
In a similar vein, travelling can lead to many kinds of challenging experiences: pre-trip nerves, getting lost, homesickness, and feelings of fear, paranoia, and anxiety due to stressful, uncertain, or potentially threatening situations. One may, nonetheless, look back on these experiences fondly and find that they are great material for (often) funny stories.
In a way, we can think of the homesickness felt when abroad for a long period of time as similar to the feeling of wanting a trip to end — to be sober again. Sometimes, for the sake of one’s mental well-being, it is necessary to go home or prematurely end a psychedelic experience by using ‘trip killers’ like benzodiazepines, but often, trying to accept and cope with the difficult feelings, overcome them, or utilise outside support can lead to more beneficial outcomes. This of course depends on the severity of the distress, and there is no shame in deciding to cut a trip short (psychedelic or otherwise).
I certainly don’t want to glamourise all challenging experiences, psychedelic or otherwise. That would be simplistic and runs the risk of minimising, trivialising, or ignoring experiences that involve great suffering or which can have persistent negative effects. Getting lost abroad is not the same as feeling traumatised if one is robbed at gunpoint, and likewise, some psychedelic experiences can feel traumatic and may result in mental health problems.
However, it is still true that psychonauts and travellers can feel grateful for negative experiences they have while in an altered state or while abroad, and such experiences can be positively transformed through storytelling. Dealing with negative experiences in real-time can also create a feeling of resiliency, confidence, self-determination, and resourcefulness; and these are positive effects on self-esteem that can persist when the trip is over, thereby spilling over into areas of sober/normal life.
More often than not, the negative emotions and overwhelm one can experience during a psychedelic trip is going to greater than what one would experience (sober) while abroad, but still, both experiences invite the person to step out of their comfort zone and face unfamiliar and tricky situations that require a self-determined solution or perspective/attitude shift.
The Altered Self
One of the most common (and often beneficial) effects of travelling and psychedelic use is an altered sense of self, particularly during the experience. (It is also common for the old self to return once back home or sober, respectively, which is why integration matters, and I like to think that the ideas surrounding psychedelic integration could also be applied to your life when you return from a trip abroad).
In terms of travel, I think alterations to the sense of self are most obvious when the trip is a solo one, as this presents an opportunity to be, feel, and act in ways without the unappreciated constraints of others’ expectations of who we are (our self is shaped, in part, by how those close to us think of us) and cultural expectations (our attitudes and behaviour are also shaped by what our native culture deems normal, or acceptable and unacceptable). It is a common experience when travelling solo to feel more confident and gregarious, and this can be for the reasons mentioned previously but also because you are kind of forced to bring those aspects of yourself to the surface so that you can get around, solve problems, and make connections with others.
Likewise, the sense of self while tripping, if not dissolved, is altered. One may feel more confident and gregarious, like when travelling solo, but it’s also common to feel more playful, silly, calm, creative, and childlike. Through integration, these altered traits, or this altered self, can outlive the trip, thereby enlivening one’s life and relationships with more fun and joy.
Group vs Solo Experiences
Tripping with others instead of tripping on your own tends to be a very different experience — and this is true of travelling as well. This is relevant in terms of the previous points made since many people find their most edifying and life-changing psychedelic or travel experiences occur while journeying solo.
This might be because psychedelic trips with friends may be more centred on joking around, having a good time, and talking (which is valuable in itself, of course, and often a therapeutic and bonding experience); plus, being with others and having to consider their needs and welfare can distract from your own internal experience. And when it comes to travelling, going abroad with a group means you have fewer opportunities to get out of your comfort zone and get around on your own. You also have less time on your own, which can be isolating and frustrating at times, but it can also lead to valuable introspection, insights, self-connection, and self-appreciation.
I don’t want to make this a clear-cut distinction, however. I’m not suggesting that tripping or travelling solo always has greater therapeutic or transformative potential compared to group experiences. After all, some people’s most positive, profound, and life-changing experiences happen when going abroad with others or when tripping with others (psychedelic retreat experiences would be an example of the latter, although this is largely because they are meant to be deep, internal experiences, rather than interactive ones).
Nevertheless, when you decide to journey somewhere unfamiliar by yourself, even if you put in place options for psychological support (e.g. a call back home if abroad or a sitter/guide if tripping), this tends to be a qualitatively different experience compared to journeying with others. This is not to say one experience is better than the other. There is no value judgement involved. The experiences are just different — uniquely valuable in their own right.
The Common Ground Between Psychonauts and Travellers
Pre-existing personality traits may make someone prone to both psychedelic explorations as well as long-term solo travel, but enjoying and growing from one can also lead to curiosity — increased openness — about what the other may offer. When you feel nervous about tripping or travelling solo and take the plunge anyway, and end up with profound experiences, it makes sense that you would apply this attitude towards other activities. For these reasons, and the others described above, psychonauts and travellers can find a lot of common ground with each other. It is no coincidence that many people who take an interest in psychedelic experiences are also avid travellers, and vice versa.