Watch: High on VR: Virtual experience boosts mood similar to psychedelics
Psychedelics are being hailed as a wonder drug to soothe all manner of mental health woes, but now a virtual reality experience claims to give similar mood-boosting effects. Yahoo Finance's The Crypto Mile investigates.
On this week's episode of The Crypto Mile, researcher David Glowacki explained how virtual reality could help people achieve a well-earned break from the constant chattering of their own minds.
The researcher created a VR experience, called Isness-D, which has much in common with the feelings of transcendence that can occur when people take psychedelic substances such as psilocybin or LSD.
Glowacki referred to the VR experience that was created and said: "I would not like to claim that this is the same as psychedelics, it's distinct, but it has some things in common."
He added: "It allows people who are distributed around the world to log into the same virtual space and have the 'Issness experience'".
The researcher said that people appear within the virtual space as "luminous, energetic essences".
He added: "There are moments within the virtual environment when bodies completely merge so you are not able to tell which is yourself, and which is another."
Speaking about the transcendent effects he added: "We set out to create what some psychiatrists call a self-transcendent experience.
"These take you out of your normal, habitual reference point that is separate and distinct from the whole.
"In a self-transcendent experience, people tend to have an experience of a larger unity beyond themselves and connectedness to others and the world around them."
In the study developed by David Glowacki, the researcher did not set out to replicate a psychedelic experience, instead, 'Issness-D' attempts to use VR headsets to give individuals a greater sense of interconnectedness and ego transcendence, or attenuation.
The paper that details the 'Issness-D' experience is called 'Group VR experiences can produce ego attenuation and connectedness comparable to psychedelics'.
And, the co-authors describe this self-transcendent experience, or ego attentuation, as a way of "dissolving yourself in connection to others".
Glowacki explained how this could potentially help those suffering mental anguish in the real world.
He says it could be used to help soothe anxiety, even in people facing an end-of-life experience.
The virtual reality framework that has been designed by the researcher uses the advances in virtual reality technology to create an experience that "blurs conventional self-other boundaries".
This is achieved by making the user of the experience see their own body, and other people's bodies, as "luminous energetic essences" within the virtual world.
The Issness-D experience is very different from a regular VR experience, where you would inhabit a humanoid avatar, as, within this particular VR world, you become a gaseous form that points of light within it.
Other people also appear as gaseous forms, and this allows users to "fluidly merge, enabling participants to include multiple others within their self-representation".
According to the research paper that accompanies the study, the 'Issness-D' experience aroused strong emotions in those who took part. Six participants were said to have cried at some point during their session. One participant was said to be shaking whilst two others felt sweats or chills. Although none of the participants said they were affected negatively or traumatically by the experience. These emotions may have been cathartic in nature.
Watch: The Crypto Mile - Episode 2 - A journey through the metaverse
The mood-boosting effects of a transcendent experience are now being taken seriously by the medical establishment.
At present, regulators are grappling with how to safely administer powerful psychedelics for treating depression and other mental health problems.
Yahoo Finance also spoke to co-founders of Enosis Therapeutics Prash Puspanathan and Agnieszka Sekula about the likelihood of doctors prescribing VR sessions to combat mental illnesses in the future.
They said: "VR scenarios are already beginning to be recognised by the FDA as a method of treatment that can be prescribed, so this tool certainly holds a lot of potential.
"We absolutely feel that in the future, doctors and therapists will increasingly rely on advanced technologies, such as VR, as tools to reinforce therapy."
Enosis Therapeutics does not set out to replace the psychedelic experience with a VR alternative, but as an adjunct to current psychedelic psychotherapy processes.
Puspanathan said that this complementary approach allows the user to better utilise "the insights and profundity" of the transcendent experience that can occur when taking psychedelic substances. Pushpanathan is co-author of a paper called Virtual Reality as a Moderator of Psychedelic-Assisted Psychotherapy.
Techniques used for dissolving the ego offer a way to soften the attachment to long-worn patterns of thought.
However, the ego does have its uses, as it did evolve for a reason.
Co-founder of Enosis Therapeutics Prash Puspanathan explained how the ego plays a necessary role in our psychological survival.
And, just as Shakespeare described Hamlet' lamenting the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune that flesh is air to", our inner selves need defence mechanisms in a world of trials and tribulations.
The co-founder of Enosis Therapeutics added: "The ego acts as a shield, protecting the soft, mushy insides of our psyche from the barrage of potential psychological insults that the world may expose us to. Over time, we come up with complex ego defences to enable us to feel safe and secure in our psychological shells."
However, he stressed that the ego's walls can sometimes be built too high, becoming a prison rather than a defence mechanism, and so "become impermeable to feedback, adaptation and thus, change".
The potential of virtual reality to boost mental health and transcend the traps of the ego is an exciting frontier where spirituality, psychiatry and computer science combine. And, in the words of Bob Marley, one day it may even allow us to "emancipate ourselves from mental slavery".
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