SXSW mental health bob moses

Photo courtesy Aimi

Psychedelics, Chat GPT, Chopra: At SXSW, Silicon Valley gets in its feelings

Mental health takes center stage during the annual tech blowout.


Ramon Ramirez

Internet Culture

Posted on Mar 15, 2023   Updated on Mar 15, 2023, 8:25 am CDT


The vibes are different.

Deepak Chopra is advocating for psychedelic therapy as a gateway to higher collective consciousness. SXSW patrons are invited to take off their shoes and meditate in a dark room while a harpist plays along to music written by plants. New apps like Aimi offer AI-generated music that adapts to your mood and effectively functions as a responsive, customizable “Lo-fi hip-hop beats to relax/study to.” Jeff Tweedy of Wilco is performing three songs about his dead father at the Audible party as sad people in flannel quietly sob between h’ordeuvres. 

Like the meme goes, attendees are “looking good, feeling bad.”

It’s a change-of-pace for the annual music, film, and tech conference in Austin, Texas that has made its mark on the hubris and fatalist excess of Silicon Valley’s shadow. Where Twitter and the QR code went mainstream. Where just last year blockchain bros raved about NFTs. By contrast, the 2023 SXSW, ongoing until Sunday, is inward-gazing and sober. 

That’s because there’s lots of money to be made in the wellness space as once-taboo tools and problems garner mainstream acceptance—and simultaneously, responses from the private sector.

Wellness tech

Artificial intelligence cast a shadow during SXSW’s opening weekend. Fears about its disruptive consequences seeped into many futurist discussions. But while patients forging problematic bonds with chatbots was raised as a thought experiment by at least one panel moderator, AI isn’t exactly poised to take over the mental health profession.

“I’m excited to be here at the health and medtech forum to discuss the practical applications of AI,” ascending-in-notoriety robot Chat GPT told SXSW Friday during a Johnson & Johnson panel. ChatGPT was on-site to address “serious diseases and inequities in healthcare.” 

Its bloggy interface unremarkably perched on meeting room screens historically reserved for PowerPoint presentations, its clunky, stilted voice loudly hushed the room when it spoke.

How can we tell if AI’s looming healthcare integration proves successful?

“Whether or not the technology is able to meet its intended goals,” ChatGPT answered. 

Like any self-important tech bro, ChatGPT’s live responses were loaded with broad corporate lingo. Other speakers were more inspired.

“[AI will] get rid of the stupid stuff” and “infuse some humanity into the fragmented system that everyone experiences in healthcare,” Dr. Adrienne Boissy, Qualtrics chief medical officer, said on Sunday during “Operationalizing Empathy: How AI Will Shift Human Consciousness and Accelerate Emotional Intelligence.” 

The short-term SXSW consensus? These AI tools are going to help declutter the desks of providers by doing their paperwork and untangling data so that the experts can focus on patients.

OK, so the near-term AI future of therapy will be defined by… administrative tools slowly rolled out because of concerns about how your medical history is shared both internally and online, as Boissy noted. What about more organic and established methods for getting inside our heads?

‘Shrooms as self-care

We should have known mushrooms would become buzzy SXSW breakout performers when they became last month the subject of a John Oliver segment.

In Austin, activist and mycologist Paul Stamets tamed passionate, selfie-snapping fans while preaching the gospel of psychedelics. He believes ‘shrooms will literally save the world and called for a “paradigm shift in consciousness”; he thinks that psilocybin mushrooms can cure depression, anxiety, and even addiction.

“‘We are all one people’ is the message of the mushrooms,” he said Friday. “Open your receptors.”

Some experts theorize that mushrooms are from outer space and brought consciousness to ancient apes via, like, a meteor. Through that lens, you can understand the enthusiasm of Stamets, who at SXSW praised the mycelial-like networks that form throughout the universe and forged the internet. He said this wiring is a reflection of mushrooms and that “we’re all embedded into this microverse of interconnectivity.” 

Stamets likewise lambasted the “hubris of scientists” who have never done ‘shrooms and hold up the legalization of psychedelics. He leads an internet project wherein microdosing participants self-report their experiences via an encrypted app, and points to 22,000 respondents and their preliminary data that supports the notion that psilocybin mushrooms reduce anxiety and depression.  

“Everything I’ve said has to be proven clinically,” Stamets clarified. “We have hypotheses and data and supporting data.”

However, he added: “I believe psilocybin makes nicer people and reduces violence and can break the shackles of addiction.”

Magic mushrooms are mostly illegal worldwide, but Oregon became the first U.S. state to legalize psilocybin mushrooms for depression this year. According to Stamets, 22 states have or have had ballots and bills on behalf of the same cause. This bubbling enthusiasm has led to one looming problem, however: Patents.

There are more than 400 companies playing in the psychedelic space, according to journalist Josh Hardman, who is the editor and founder of Psychedelic Alpha: “That’s led to a situation where we’ve seen a huge rise in psilocybin patents.”

Patents can mean inequality, journalist Shayla Love added, because these companies can camp on an idea for 20 years.

“If you get overly broad parents you’re effectively discouraging others from trying to work in that field as well,” she said.

And it’s a two-front battle, advocates say: decriminalization and commodification. But it’s one with aligned interests that are pushing in the same direction, Hardman noted.

“I think we can have both.”

Self-help guru Dr. Deepok Chopra is also Team Psychedelics.

Chopra said that during medical school, he participated in an LSD study and “watched Mother Teresa on a poster” and was “overwhelmed with compassion and the desire to heal.” He said he realized that was his mission. But after a bad experience in Ecuador, he said he no longer takes psychedelics mostly because “I can get into that space anytime” via meditation, i.e. “the state of bliss and joy by intention,” though he supports their medical use.

“They take you beyond the dark alleys,” Chopra said. “And secret passages of your mind which bamboozled you into thinking that this is reality.”

If therapy is about breaking maladaptive patterns in your thoughts, Cybin CEO Doug Drysdale noted, psychedelics are like a “fresh fall of snow so you can ski in a different direction.”

Drysdale leads research linking psychedelic use to mental health. He, psychotherapist Cristie Strongman, and Chopra appeared alongside and they feature in a new docuseries about this field.

Drysdale leads research linking psychedelic use to mental health. He, psychotherapist Cristie Strongman, and Chopra appeared alongside and they feature in a new docuseries, Open Minds, about this field.

Chopra’s is certainly open. In Austin, he’d oscillate between highly specific medical terminology and then speak with broad intention about consciousness as an end-all to humanity’s problems. And psychedelics as perfectly reasonable conduits for elevated minds.

When Jesus converted water to wine, Chopra deadpanned, “I bet you there was fungus in it.”

Mind, body, spirit, tacos

I began seeing a therapist in earnest for the first time in December. My SXSW reporter’s lens is colored by a trendy self-help book that he recommended: The Inside Out Revolution, built on the teachings of Scottish philosopher Sydney Banks. It jives with Chopra’s writing in self-help books such as The 7 Spiritual Laws of Success. Ditto the popular Waking Up meditation app that my therapist strongly suggested I download.

They all remove religion from spirituality and run on the notion that we’re just waves in a giant ocean of consciousness.

To be well, we just need to default to our “factory defaults” like a smartphone, as Inside Out author and viral TED Talk dude Michael Neill writes. That’s because we are the universe and we’re here to let our light shine, spread love, generate abundance. 

Doing psychedelics can help us see the dang kaleidoscope itself, apparently. Or as Chopra told SXSW, the “nonlinear transpersonal reordering of space-time” as a “holographic representation of the universe” wherein you realize that “you are that.” 

“You are not just a drop in the ocean, you are also the ocean,” he emphasized.

In his 7 Laws book, Chopra takes it a step further and thinks we’re here to fulfill a purpose, a dharma. 

At the Aimi launch party, for a music app that plays you AI-composed mood music, Canadian electronic duo Bob Moses performed in front of an AI-powered installation of 10,000 LED lights.

“Let’s party before AI comes for our jobs,” singer Tom Howie riffed onstage, apparently fulfilling his dharma as a begrudging ambassador between past and future.

Will a more meditative SXSW move thought leaders inward? Will panels like “Getting Real About Mental Health in Startups” help the tech sector find its dharma and serve humanity in earnest? It’s more noble than crypto. 

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*First Published: Mar 15, 2023, 8:08 am CDT