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Are Apps the Future of Psychedelic Therapy?

Psychedelic therapy is reaching new levels of popularity, and Big Tech wants a piece of the shroom

Thousands of years ago, the Mayans were ingesting all sorts of psychedelics, from peyote to magic mushrooms. Their elaborate drug-taking ceremonies were regularly performed in dim caves, which they believed served as points of access to the underworld. Music, dance and a healthy dose of hallucinogens helped shepherd brave Mayan psychonauts into that metaphysical realm, where they communicated with gods and forces of nature (and came back with premonitions).

Intricate rituals like these helped the Mayans make sense of their psychedelic trips, and while many of those trips forecasted the future, I’m sure they never could have imagined that in the year 2021, phone apps would replace their ceremonies.

Ever since legalized psychedelics became a possibility a few years ago, apps designed to expand access to psychedelic therapy, promote more meaningful trips and support integration — i.e., making sense of whatever you experience — have been cropping up. PsycheDev guides users through their trips, Trip leads them through specialized integration protocols (like journaling) and Wavepaths serves up sweet psychedelic soundscapes. There are even apps that aim to replicate psychedelic experiences for sober folks.

But for users, apps like these are a mixed bag. Some find them hard to navigate while tripping, which is understandable — pushing buttons on your phone doesn’t exactly seem attractive after a heroic dose of shrooms. Others, especially those who use them alongside professional therapy, say they’ve revolutionized their approach to tripping.

To that end, there are apps like Homecoming, which are specifically designed to accompany legal treatments offered by clinics, therapists and retreat centers. It allows patients to chronicle their physical, mental, social and spiritual well-being throughout the process, as well as suggests wellness-enhancing tasks (like journaling again), depending on which of those areas need more support. For example, if your social well-being feels impaired, it may prompt you to journal about your most meaningful connection.

Not only can this help you understand how your psychedelic treatment is going, it can also inform your therapist or guide. “The app combines tailored content and exercises with therapy progress measurements from check-ins,” says Yuriy Blokhin, Homecoming’s founder and CEO. “All this information, with the patient’s consent, can help their therapist keep track of progress and further individualize their treatment.”

While many of these apps are available to anyone, which is useful for people who choose to self-medicate (and those who can’t afford professional therapy), there’s some concern among the psychedelic community that technology will eventually replace human connection, which would be bad news for trippers. Thus, an app like Homecoming, which is made to support and amplify personalized treatment (not replace it), may be a safer bet than an app that functions on its own. 

That’s because apps that take a sweeping approach to psychedelics likely lack the nuance necessary to help everyone make sense of what they’ve been through. “If you have a psychedelic experience that transcends the human mind and the English language, how is an automated app going to help you tease the meaning out of that?” asks Nicholas Levich, co-founder of Psychedelic Passage, a network of psychedelic guides. “Psychedelic healing is meant to take place between humans, not a human and an algorithm. Humans aren’t accountable to apps; they’re accountable to each other.”

This sentiment is especially relevant when it comes to the process of integration.

“People — and psychedelic experiences for that matter — don’t fit into specific categories; they’re all one-of-ones, entirely unique,” says Levich. “To say that an algorithm can truly substitute a human in the integration process is a bit of a stretch. Can it help? Sure. Is it an adequate substitute for professional support? I think not. So much of this work is emotional in nature, and technology lacks emotion. I highly doubt that an app can allow you to feel truly heard, seen and understood as you unpack your psychedelic experience.”

Blokhin agrees, which is why he says integration should be guided by Homecoming and a professional. “There’s a window of opportunity there during which the energy and insights can be combined with the increased post-psychedelic neuroplasticity to achieve sustainable change in their lives,” he explains. “The opportunity is immense, and having a guide in the process can help avoid costly mistakes and make the most of that window of time.”

Nonetheless, Blokhin says psychedelic apps like his can produce a “sense of certainty and support” between treatments, which could be especially helpful for anyone who feels understandably nervous about tripping. He also firmly believes that technology can make psychedelics even more helpful. “I see how psychedelics being introduced into the Western medical model is similar in its magnitude of impact to the invention of modern surgery,” he says. “As [renowned psychedelic researcher] Stan Grof said, ‘Psychedelics, used responsibly and with proper caution, would be for psychiatry what the microscope is to the study of biology and medicine.’”

But even the microscope needs a human to look through it and make sense of what it sees, and the same goes for psychedelics. While an app can help a person better understand their experience, an app and a therapist can really help. “It’s a great idea, and perhaps it will aid some individuals,” says Levich. “But it’s not a substitute for working with a professional.”

I’m sure the Mayans would feel the same.