The psychedelic renaissance is upon us, with myriad research showing how substances like psilocybin, LSD, and more aid in mental health conditions like treatment-resistant depression and PTSD. More and more, the curiosity around psychedelics is increasing, with individuals seeing the potential of these mind-bending medicines to overcome perceived limits of the self.
At the same time, technology continues to evolve at a rapid pace, posing the question: Could tech like virtual reality provide comparable benefits that psychedelics offer? Evidently the answer is yes, according to a recent study of a new VR experience, Isness-D, made to mirror specific transcendent psychedelic effects.
It all started with creator David Glowacki, who took a steep fall while walking in the mountains 15 years ago. After hitting the ground, he laid there suffocating as blood began leaking into his lungs. During this experience, Glowacki’s field of perception began to shift, peering down at his own body and finding he was made up of balled-up light, MIT Technology Review reports.
He said the intensity of the light was related to the extent in which he inhabited his body, though watching the light slowly dim wasn’t frightening—It was transformative, leaking out of his body and around his environment. He took the experience as a signal that his awareness could outlast and transcend his physical body, ultimately bringing him peace.
The Nature study introduction brings up similar sensations from brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor following a left-hemisphere stroke. Taylor said, “I could no longer define the boundaries of my body. I can’t define where I begin and where I end, because the atoms and molecules of my arm blend with the atoms and molecules of the wall, and all I could detect was this energy… I was immediately captivated by the magnificence of the energy around me. And because I could no longer identify the boundaries of my body, I felt enormous and expansive. I felt at one with all the energy that was, and it was beautiful.”
After his accident, Glowacki approached the experience, which he related to death, with curiosity, attempting to recapture that transcendence.
The new technology is designed for groups of four to five, based anywhere in the world. The participants are represented as a cloud of smoke with a ball of light around the location of their heart. The experience features energetic coalescence, meaning that participants can gather in the same VR landscape and overlap their bodies, making it impossible to tell where one starts and another ends, contributing to a sense of connectedness and ego reduction that psychedelic experiences commonly bring.
In real life, the study notes that humans often default to conceptual relationships of ourselves and others and separate objects, rather than connected or coupled concepts. Authors define the term “self-transcendent experiences,” or the transient mental states in which “the subjective sense of one’s self as an isolated entity can temporarily fade into an experience of unity with other people or one’s surroundings, involving the dissolution of boundaries between the sense of self and ‘other,’” essentially what Glowacki is chasing with this new VR technology.
So, can people really achieve some of these same breakthroughs psychedelics, or intense life experiences can provide, simply with the help of VR?
Researchers in the study carried out 29 Isness sessions with 109 total participants from August-September 2020; the results ended up analyzing a total of 75 participants. After their experiences, participants scored the level of intensity with which they experienced 30 items (i.e. mood, mystical experiences), answered pre and post questionnaires around their connectedness with the other participants and scored their level of ego dissolution.
In the study discussion, authors note that the experiences of participants in the study, based on the questionnaires, are comparable to psychedelic experiences, in both naturalistic and laboratory settings. The qualitative analysis also indicated similarities, with participants observing how the VR program was “similar to experiences that I have had as somatic visions through medicine plants. The interconnective nature of energy/intention and the ‘strings’ that appear to interconnect us with all living matter [is] also related to childhood dreams I had prior to any ‘psychedelic experience.’”
Others similarly noted that Isness-D left them with a sense of interconnectedness that they had only previously experienced with the help of psychedelic use in the proper setting. Others attributed a spiritual significance to the experience, but the strongest qualitative theme for Isness-D participants was connectedness.
“I felt connected with myself but also with everyone else here… I think ‘connected’ is the word for me for the end of this session,” one participant said. Others said that Isness-D offered “a completely other way of connecting that I’m not familiar with, [where] all the usual stuff disappears.”
Researchers conclude saying that the study affirmed their speculation that multi-person VR experiences like Isness-D offers comparable self-transcendent experiences that psychedelics can offer. They suggest this technology could play a role in easing feelings of isolation and loneliness, especially in wake of the continuous COVID-19 pandemic.
While there is still more research to be done, namely on the long-term effects of these experiences and what specifically about Isness-D offers these reported outcomes, we could very well see a future where seeking psychedelic-adjacent, self-transcendent experiences is as simple as popping on a VR headset.