VR is as good as psychedelics at helping people reach transcendence
As we got closer, I worried about invading the other participants’ personal spaces. Then I remembered that the ocean and thousands of miles had separated me from them — and not completely abandoning the concept of personal space? So I tried to fit in the intimacy.
“What happens in VR is the feeling of completely forgetting the existence of the outside world,” says Agnieszka Sekula, a PhD candidate at the Center for Human Psychophysiology in Australia and co-founder of a company that uses VR to enhance psychedelic therapy. “So there’s definitely a parallel there with what it feels like to experience an alternate reality under the illusion, which feels more real than what’s really out there.”
However, she added, “there is definitely a difference between a psychedelic experience and a virtual reality sensation.” Because of this, she appreciates Isness-D charting a new path to transcendence rather than simply imitating an already existing one.
More research is needed on the long-term effects of Isness-D experiences and whether virtual reality in general can produce the same benefits as hallucinations. The dominant theory of how hallucinations improve clinical outcomes (a debate far from the place of settlement) is that their effects are driven by both the subjective experience of a trip and the neurochemical effects of the drug on the brain. Since VR only reflects subjective experience, its clinical benefits, which have yet to be rigorously tested, may not be as strong.
Jacob Aday, a psychiatry researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, says he wishes the study had measured the mental health of the participants. He suggests that VR could potentially modulate the default mode network — a brain network that works when our thoughts aren’t directed at a particular task and that hallucinations are preventable (the scientists hypothesize). that this is the cause of the death of the ego). People who have watched amazingly inspirational videos have reduced activity in this network. VR is better at creating awe than regular video, so Isness-D can also dial it down similarly.
Now, a startup called aNUma has spun off from Glowacki’s lab allowing anyone with a VR headset to sign up for weekly Isness sessions. The startup sells a stripped-down version of Isness-D to companies to conduct virtual wellness retreats and provide a similar experience called Ripple to help patients, their families and carers deal with terminal illness. A co-author of the paper describing Isness-D is even testing it in couples and family therapy.
“What we found was that presenting people as pure brilliance really freed them from a lot of judgment and anticipation,” says Glowacki. That includes negative thoughts about their bodies and prejudices. He has personally facilitated 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 gathered were like spheres of light mingling.
During one phase of my Isness-D experience, the move created a brief electrical trail that marked where I had just been. After a few moments of this, the narrative prompts: “How does it feel to see the past?” I started thinking about people in my past who I missed or hurt. In sloppy cursive, I used my finger to write their names in the air. As soon as I scribbled them down, I watched them disappear.