As we got closer, I worried that I would invade the personal space of the other participants. Then I remembered that oceans and thousands of miles separated me from them – and the idea of personal space wasn’t dumping the whole point? So I tried to settle into the intimacy.
“What happens in VR is that feeling of completely forgetting the existence of the outside world,” says Agnieszka Sekula, a PhD student at the Center for Human Psychopharmacology in Australia and co-founder of a company using VR to improve psychedelic therapy. “So there’s definitely similarity with this sense of experiencing an alternate reality among psychedelics that feels more real than what actually is.”
But, she adds, “there are definitely differences between what a psychedelic experience feels like and what virtual reality feels like.” Therefore, she appreciates that Isness-D charts a new path to transcendence rather than just mimicking one that already existed.
More research is needed on the lasting effects of an Isness-D experience and whether virtual reality in general can provide benefits comparable to psychedelics. The dominant theory of how psychedelics improve clinical outcomes (a debate that is far from settled) is that their effect is driven by both the subjective experience of a trip and the drug’s neurochemical effect on the brain. Because VR only reflects the subjective experience, the clinical benefit, which has yet to be tested thoroughly, may not be as strong.
Jacob Aday, a psychiatric researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, says he wished the study had measured participants’ mental well-being. He thinks VR can probably down-regulate the default mode network — a brain network that’s active when our thoughts aren’t focused on a specific task, and that psychedelics can suppress (scientists theorize this causes ego death). People who have shown awesome videos have decreased activity in this network. VR is better at instilling awe than regular video, so Isness-D can turn it down the same way.
A startup called aNUma that emerged from Glowacki’s lab allows anyone with a VR headset to sign up for Isness sessions on a weekly basis. The startup sells a shortened version of Isness-D to virtual wellness retreat companies and offers a similar experience called Ripple to help patients, their families and their caregivers cope with terminal illness. A co-author of the paper describing Isness-D is even testing it in couples and family therapy.
“What we found is that imagining people as pure clarity really frees them from a lot of judgments and projections,” Glowacki says. 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 days later. The last time she and her friends got together was like a mixture of orbs.
For a phase of my Isness-D experience, moving created a short electrical trail marking where I had just been. After a few moments of this, the narration insisted, “How does it feel to see the past?” I started thinking about people from my past that I missed or hurt. In sloppy italics, I used my finger to write their names in the air. Just as quickly as I scribbled them, I saw them disappear.