Virtual reality is as effective as psychedelics in helping people achieve transcendence

As we got closer, I worried about encroaching on the personal space of the other attendees. Then I remembered that oceans and thousands of miles separated me from it – and wasn’t that the whole point of letting go of the notion of personal space? So I tried to settle down in privacy.

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

But, she adds, “there are definitely differences between what a psychedelic experience looks like and what virtual reality looks like.” For this reason, she appreciates that Isness-D charts a new path to transcendence instead of simply emulating one that already exists.

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

We moved closer, until we met in the center of the circle – four clumps of smoke curling together.

Jacob Ajour, a psychiatry researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, says he wished the study had measured participants’ mental well-being. He thinks virtual reality can probably downregulate the default mode network — a brain network that’s active when our thoughts aren’t directed to a specific task, and which psychedelics can suppress (scientists theorize that this is what causes the death of the ego). People who have seen awesome videos have reduced activity in this network. Virtual reality is better for arousing admiration than ordinary video, so Isness-D could also reduce it.

Already, a startup called aNUma spun out of Glowacki’s lab is allowing anyone with a VR headset to sign up for Isness sessions every week. The startup sells a shortened version of Isness-D to businesses for virtual wellness retreats and offers a similar experience called Ripple to help patients, their families, and caregivers cope with terminal illness. A co-author of the article describing Isness-D pilots it even in couple and family therapy.

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

During one phase of my Isness-D experience, the displacement created a brief electrical trail that marked where I had just been. After a few moments, the narration pushed, “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 used my finger to write their names in the air. As quickly as I scribbled them, I saw them disappear.

Lance B. Holton