VR is as good as psychedelics at helping people reach transcendence

VR is as good as psychedelics at helping people reach transcendence

As we got closer, I worried that I would violate the personal space of the other participants. Then I remembered that oceans and thousands of miles separated me from them—and wasn’t that the point of rejecting the notion of personal space? So I tried to calm down in intimacy.

“What happens in VR is a sense of completely forgetting about the existence of the outside world,” he says Agnieszka Sekula, a PhD candidate at the Center for Human Psychopharmacology in Australia and co-founder of a company using VR to enhance psychedelic therapy. “So there’s definitely a similarity there with this feeling of experiencing an alternate reality under psychedelics that feels more real than what’s actually there.”

But, she adds, “there are definitely differences between what a psychedelic experience is and what virtual reality is.” Because of this, she appreciates that Isness-D is charting a new path to transcendence rather than merely imitating one that already existed.

More research is needed on the lasting effects of the Isness-D experience and whether virtual reality, in general, can induce psychedelic-like benefits. The dominant theory of how psychedelics improve clinical outcomes (debate far from settled) is that their effect is driven by both the subjective experience of travel and the drug’s neurochemical effects on the brain. Because VR only reflects subjective experience, its clinical benefit, which has yet to be rigorously tested, may not be as strong.

We were still getting closer, until we met in the center of the circle – four puffs of smoke billowing together.

Jacob Aday, a psychiatry researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, says he wishes the study had measured participants’ mental health. He thinks VR can likely reduce the default network—the brain network that’s active when our thoughts aren’t focused on a particular task and that psychedelics can suppress (scientists theorize that this is what causes ego death). People shown awe-inspiring videos have reduced activity in this network. VR is better at awe-inspiring than regular video, so Isness-D could similarly reduce it.

Already, a startup called aNUma that emerged from Glowacki’s lab allows anyone with a VR headset to sign up for weekly Isness sessions. The startup sells a shortened version of Isness-D to virtual wellness vacation companies and provides a similar experience called Ripple to help patients, their families and their caregivers cope with terminal illness. The co-author of the paper describing Isness-D is even piloting it in couples and family therapy.

“What we’ve found is that presenting people as pure brilliance really frees them from a lot of judgment and projection,” says Glowacki. This includes negative thoughts about their body and prejudice. He personally conducted aNUma sessions for cancer patients and their loved ones. One, a woman with pancreatic cancer, died a few days later. The last time she and her friends got together it was like mixing balls of light.

For one phase of my Isness-D experience, the movement created a short electrical trail that marked where I had just been. After a few moments of this, the narration prompted, “How does it feel to see the past?” I started thinking about people from my past that I missed or hurt. In sloppy cursive, I wrote their names in the air with my finger. As fast as I scribbled them down, I watched them disappear.

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