Researchers explain how taking part in a virtual reality encounter in a group can cause reactions resembling those brought on by psychedelics.
Scientific Reports has a paper that shows how virtual reality group encounters can elicit reactions that are comparable to those brought on by psychoactive substances like hallucinogenic mushrooms or LSD.
Recent studies in a number of academic disciplines, including psychology, neurology, philosophy, pharmacology, and theology, have highlighted the significance and perception that persons who have experienced these events attribute to them.
Since this kind of experiential phenomenology reduces ego identity, boosts sense of connectedness, and is linked to long-lasting therapeutic benefit in the treatment of depression, addiction, and anxiety at the end of life, there is now a growing scientific interest in researching its therapeutic potential.
To take advantage of these “experiences of self-transcendence” and their potential advantages for mental health, it is important to understand how they might be created in laboratory settings.
Glowacki, the creator and director of the Intangible Realities Laboratory (IRL), believes that the controlled use of psychedelic drugs (chemicals like the hallucinogenic mushroom complex psilocybin or LSD) is a particularly viable strategy: For instance, a study from 2006 revealed that 67% of participants in a programme for “psychedelic psychotherapy” who had these subjective experiences thought the event was one of the most meaningful of their life.
However, there are a number of taboos and practical obstacles that prevent these therapies from being widely used. For example, because of their intense phenomenology, patients may experience fear, panic, or other physiologic reactions that are difficult for the therapist to control in terms of timing or duration.
“Of these, virtual reality has emerged as a particularly interesting candidate, given its ability to create strong alterations in perceptual phenomenology,” says David Glowacki.
Glowacki has spent years developing an immersive virtual reality experience for multiple users that they have termed Isness with his IRL coworkers. Isness abstracts the human body as a luminous and diffuse energetic essence, an aesthetic representation that is associated with “spirit” in various wisdom and meditation traditions. In this setting, groups of up to five participants experience collectively the emergence, fluctuation, and dissipation of their own bodies.
In their most recent study, which was published in Scientific Reports, the researchers took the design of these intersubjective group spaces a step further by enabling participants to coexist in the same virtual space from different locations around the globe in order to remotely experience corporeal overlap.
“We continue to improve our technology to safely generate these experiences of self-transcendence from virtual reality and thus contribute to the development of therapeutic alternatives,” says the group. Glowacki says, “The new technology [provides] moments of ‘energetic coalescence,’ a new kind of intersubjective experience in which bodies can fluidly merge, allowing participants to include other individuals in their self-representation.”
Isness-D (Isness-distributed), a cloud-based, multi-user virtual reality experience developed by Glowacki’s team, dissolves the traditional lines of personal space that people often maintain between themselves. Participants in Isness-D have accessed this virtual world through a network of nodes in various nations (the U.S., Germany, and the U.K.), where they are only depicted as luminous energy essences with a heart-centered concentration of radiance. Isness-bodily D’s borders are hazy, unclear, and supple because they go beyond the bounds of the physical body, making it challenging to define where one body ends and another begins.
Four important scales that have been used in prior research with psychedelics to evaluate the subjective phenomenology of Isness-D were used to analyse the findings.
To the best of our knowledge, our work is the first to try to use these measuring scales to evaluate a virtual reality experience.
Isness-D scores on all four dimensions were statistically indistinguishable from those of recently published psychedelic drug research, despite the challenges presented by such a distributed experiment. The results, according to the authors, show that distributed virtual reality can be used to create intersubjective self-transcendent experiences in which people lose their sense of self in relation to others. As a result, these techniques may provide similar therapeutic benefits in the treatment of different pathologies.
At the conclusion of their Isness-D session, participants also felt favourable feelings and a “overwhelming sense of serenity and relaxation.”
The research team then gave them a questionnaire, and they responded to it with elegant language that demonstrated how much they had enjoyed it.