VR is as good as psychedelics at helping people reach transcendence

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Fifteen years ago, David Glowacki was walking in the mountains when he took a sharp fall. When he hit the ground, blood began leaking into his lungs. As he lay there suffocating, Glowacki’s field of perception swelled. He peered down at his own body—and, instead of his typical form, saw that he was made up of balled-up light.

“I knew that the intensity of the light was related to the extent to which I inhabited my body,” he recalls. Yet watching it dim didn’t frighten him. From his new vantage point, Glowacki could see that the light wasn’t disappearing. It was transforming—leaking out of his body into the environment around him.

This realization—which he took to signify that his awareness could outlast and transcend his physical form—brought Glowacki a sublime sense of peace. So he approached what he thought was death with curiosity: What might come next?

Since his accident, Glowacki—an artist and computational molecular physicist—has worked to recapture that transcendence.

A VR experience called Isness-D is his latest effort. And on four key indicators used in studies of psychedelics, the program showed the same effect as a medium dose of LSD or psilocybin (the main psychoactive component of “magic” mushrooms), according to a recent study in Nature Scientific Reports.

Isness-D is designed for groups of four to five people based anywhere in the world. Each participant is represented as a diffuse cloud of smoke with a ball of light right about where a person’s heart would be.

Isness-D and energetic coalescence from a user’s perspective. Courtesy of David Glowacki.

Participants can partake in an experience called energetic coalescence: they gather in the same spot in the virtual-reality landscape to overlap their diffuse bodies, making it impossible to tell where each person begins and ends. The resulting sense of deep connectedness and ego attenuation mirrors feelings commonly brought about by a psychedelic experience.

Turning down ego

Psychedelics are a class of drugs unified by their ability to alter sensory perception and change the way we process information. Clinical trials incorporating these drugs, which have resurged after being shuttered in the 1970s, have demonstrated that psychedelic-assisted therapy is remarkably good at alleviating symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression, which have standard treatments that fail many. The FDA designated psilocybin as a “breakthrough therapy” for severe depression in 2019, fast-tracking its approval process.

Glowacki didn’t design Isness-D with the goal of replicating a psychedelic trip. But he was interested in using VR to produce something psychedelics reliably elicit—what’s known as a “self-transcendent experience.”

Self-transcendent experiences exist on a spectrum. Getting lost in a great book could be considered a weak one; the ego death that high doses of psychedelics can induce is on the opposite end. In psychedelic clinical trials, people who report more intense feelings of self-transcendence typically also see the most significant symptom improvements.

Glowacki was interested in using VR to produce something psychedelics reliably elicit—what’s known as a “self-transcendent experience.”

What marks a self-transcendent experience is the dissolution of our typical self-definition as a discrete individual, separate from other people and the environment. During such an experience, a deep feeling of unity with other people or your surroundings allows you to expand your self-concept to include them.

There are many routes to a self-transcendent experience. Near-death experiences like Glowacki’s often momentarily blur the boundaries of the self. The overview effect—the feeling astronauts reliably report after seeing Earth from space—creates a sense of connection with humanity as a whole. Meditation can also help people reach self-transcendence.

Isness-D is another route. To create it, Glowacki took aesthetic inspiration from quantum mechanics—as he puts it, “where the definition of what’s matter and what’s energy starts to become blurred.” 

For their paper, Glowacki and his collaborators measured the emotional response Isness-D elicited in 75 participants. They based their measurements on four metrics used in psychedelics research—the MEQ30 (a mystical experience questionnaire), the ego dissolution inventory scale, the “communitas” scale, and the “inclusion of community in self” scale. Communitas is defined as an experience of intense shared humanity that transcends social structure. Participants’ responses were then compared with those given in published, double-blind psychedelics studies.

For all four metrics, Isness-D elicited responses indistinguishable from those associated with medium doses of psychedelics. On the mystical experience scale, Isness-D participants reported an experience as intense as that elicited by 20 milligrams of psilocybin or 200 micrograms of LSD, and stronger than that induced by microdoses of either substance.

My VR trip 

Last week, I decided to try Isness-D for myself. The three other participants in my Isness-D session—who tuned in from Portugal, Italy, and California—were already arranged in a circle facing one another by the time I arrived. The landscape surrounding us was sparse and gray, with a sky that reminded me of the moment before dawn. Looking down at where my hands should have been, I saw two dull lights, which I could brighten by pressing the controller I held in each hand.

The only object in the barren landscape was a “molecular thread”—a long string of one of the simplest amino acids, alanine, which wiggled with lifelike spontaneity. (“We had some physics models lying around for how to simulate its motion in real time,” Glowacki explains.) At the start, we were instructed to hold the thread and state something we wanted to connect to better, as if we were infusing it with this intention.

Then a narration directed our thoughts and movements like a guided meditation. When it came time to energetically coalesce, the gentle voice instructed us to scoot a little closer. Then we moved closer still, until we left our four corners and met in the center of the circle—four clumps of smoke billowing together.

As we inched nearer, I worried about infringing upon the other participants’ personal space. Then I remembered that oceans and thousands of miles separated me from them—and wasn’t ditching the notion of personal space the whole point? So I tried to settle into the intimacy.

“What happens in VR is that sense of completely forgetting about the existence of the external world,” says Agnieszka Sekula, a PhD candidate at the Centre for Human Psychopharmacology in Australia and a cofounder of a company that uses VR to enhance psychedelic therapy. “So there is definitely similarity there to this sense of experiencing an alternate reality under psychedelics that feels more real than what’s actually out there.” 

But, she adds, “there’s definitely differences between what a psychedelic experience feels like and what virtual reality feels like.” Because of this, she appreciates that Isness-D charts a new path to transcendence instead of just mimicking one that existed already.

More research is needed on the enduring effects of an Isness-D experience and whether virtual reality, in general, can induce benefits similar to psychedelics. The dominant theory on 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 drug’s neurochemical effect on the brain. Since VR only mirrors the subjective experience, its clinical benefit, which has yet to be rigorously tested, may not be as strong.

We moved closer still, until we met in the center of the circle—four clumps of smoke billowing together.

Jacob Aday, a psychiatry researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, says he wishes the study had measured participants’ mental wellness. He thinks VR likely can downregulate the default mode network—a brain network that’s active when our thoughts aren’t directed at a specific task, and which psychedelics can suppress (scientists theorize that this is what causes ego death). People shown awe-inspiring videos have diminished activity in this network. VR is better at inducing awe than regular video, so Isness-D might similarly dial it down.

Already, a startup called aNUma that spun out of Glowacki’s lab allows anyone with a VR headset to sign up for Isness sessions weekly. The startup sells a shortened version of Isness-D to companies for virtual wellness retreats, and provides a similar experience called Ripple to help patients, their families, and their caregivers cope with terminal illness. A coauthor of the paper describing Isness-D is even piloting it in couples and family therapy.

“What we’ve found is that representing people as pure luminosity really releases them from a lot of judgments and projections,” Glowacki says. That includes negative thoughts about their body 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 gathered was as mingling balls of light.

For one phase of my Isness-D experience, moving created a brief electric trail that marked where I’d just been. After a few moments of this, the narration prodded: “What does it feel like to see the past?” I started to think of people from my past who I missed or had hurt. In sloppy cursive, I used my finger to write their names in the air. Just as quickly as I scribbled them, I watched them vanish.

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