Virtual reality app replicates effects of magic mushrooms and LSD
Dr David Glowacki and his team have created a VR experience that, according to standard research metrics and feedback from participants, replicates an experience that is the same as taking a medium dose of magic mushrooms or LSD.
Without putting an actual virtual reality (VR) headset on someone’s head, the all-consuming experience of VR is nearly impossible to explain. No amount of awkward Mark Zuckerberg avatars explaining the wonders of his version of the metaverse can capture the sense of presence one feels within the detailed digital 360-degree environments.
Over the past few years, VR Fail videos of people walking into walls or punching furniture while immersed in VR games have grown into a YouTube and TikTok genre of their own, but more than the laughs they provide viewers, they are also a testament to the immersive nature of VR, which tricks the brain into accepting the virtual world as real.
Considering the variety of apps, from education to productivity apps, VR in 2022 is certainly not just about games either. Dr David Glowacki’s work in the field of digital therapeutics is one such example. He is one of several researchers looking to replicate the potential therapeutic benefits of psychedelics without prescribing actual psychedelics, but rather using virtual reality technology. And according to a research paper published in May 2022, together with a team of collaborators, he has managed to create a VR experience that produces results that are comparable to medium doses of LSD of magic mushrooms.
“Early results have confirmed that the benefits of one or two doses of psilocybin can be “extraordinary”: it apparently has few side effects and there is allegedly no risk of dependence. If used together with psychotherapy in a controlled and safe environment, it has the potential to significantly improve those suffering from treatment-resistant depression, anxiety, racial trauma and addiction,” writes Maverick Life contributor, Iza Trengove, in her article about the growing body of research into the role magic mushrooms and other psychedelics can play in psychotherapy, published by Maverick Life in January 2022.
Psychedelics-assisted therapy is still a relatively nascent and experimental field, and legislation still has to catch up to shifting cultural perceptions about the use of magic mushrooms and LSD as something more than recreational drugs. And as Trengrove writes, it is important that these controlled doses are used alongside “psychotherapy in a controlled and safe environment.”
Drawing from previous studies about the effects of psychedelics, Glowacki and his team’s paper notes the self-reported diminishing of “egoic identity and increases [in] one’s sense of connectedness.” They go on to describe these as “‘self-transcendent experiences”, and in an effort to replicate them using VR, they designed an app “called ‘Isness-distributed’ (Isness-D) which harnesses the unique affordances of distributed multi-person VR to blur conventional self-other boundaries.”
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A group of users, in different locations, be it different homes, countries or continents, wear their virtual reality headsets and cohabit a shared virtual space for the duration of the Isness-D VR experience.
In this immersive virtual environment, they are rendered as shapes resembling balls of light, or as described in the paper, “luminous energetic essences with radiance concentrated at the heart centre… body boundaries are diffuse, fuzzy, and soft: they extend beyond the limits of the physical body, making it difficult to specify clearly where one body ends and another begins.”
These fluid bodies are able to merge with each other in what Glowacki and his collaborators call energetic coalescence, an experience where the participant’s virtual representations, these bodies of light, overlap, enabling them to include many others within their own self-representation. “To the best of our knowledge, ‘energetic coalescence’ represents a new class of experience which is only possible within a multi-person distributed VR environment — i.e., it cannot be realised in any other way,” they write.
After the guided 50-minute-long experience, the 75 participants’ responses were measured using various metrics that are used as the standard in psychedelics research. Using this as qualitative analysis, the team was able to confirm that indeed, Isness D replicated self-transcendent experiences comparable to those experienced when taking psychedelics. Additionally, participants were invited to put into their own words, what the experience was like for them.
Their responses included statements such as that Isness-D left them with a “sense of interconnectedness… only previously noticed with the help of psychedelics in the right setting.” Another was “amazed by how moved” they were. Others experienced it as “definitely a spiritual experience of some sort.”
Perhaps most importantly for the research team, “connectedness” emerged as the strongest qualitative theme for the participants, with some reporting that “I felt connected with myself but also with everyone else here…” and “experiencing myself and the other people in the group as light energy was joyful. It… allowed me to think about other spaces connecting in the world.”
As with psychedelics, some participants found the level of connection to be significantly more intense than the connections they experience in their day-to-day lives, reporting that “we could get closer than [in real-life] which felt more intimate, and connecting — nearly as much so as with a partner, child or pet — even though we were in different places.”
Another still, commented how, during some moments, “I got quite emotional… I got this surge of emotion where I don’t know if I wanted to gasp or cry or what it was, but I was kind of shocked in awe.”
None reported feeling uncomfortable when others “coalesced with their energetic essence.” A number of participants also reported that during the experience of connectedness to others, they felt as though social status and identity didn’t matter, and they felt calmer and less anxious after the experience.
Going forward, the team is looking to understand in greater detail, the mechanisms responsible for the results that were obtained during Isness-D, as well as following up with the participants to study the long-term effects of Isness-D use. In the meantime, Glowacki has partnered with aNUma, a start-up focused on VR therapeutics. Isness -D is currently not available to the general public. DM/ML