VR is as good as psychedelics at helping people achieve transcendence


As we got closer, I worried about hurting the other participants’ personal space. Then I remembered that oceans and thousands of miles separated me from them – and wasn’t the key point to abandon the notion of personal space? So I tried to get used to the intimacy.

“What happens in VR is this feeling of completely forgetting about 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 enhance psychedelic therapy. “So there are definitely similarities to this feeling of being on psychedelics experiencing an alternate reality that feels more real than what’s actually out there.”

But, she adds, “there are definitely differences between what a psychedelic experience feels like and what virtual reality feels like.” Because of this, she appreciates Isness-D showing a new path to transcendence, rather than just to mimic one that already exists.

More research is needed on the lasting effects of an Isness-D experience and whether virtual reality can induce similar benefits to psychedelics in general. The prevailing theory of how psychedelics improve clinical outcomes (a debate that is far from over) holds that their effects are determined by both the subjective experience of a trip and the neurochemical effects of the drug on the brain. Because VR only reflects subjective experience, its clinical utility, which has yet to be rigorously tested, may not be as strong.

We got even closer until we met in the middle of the circle – four plumes of smoke rising together.

Jacob Aday, a psychiatric researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, wishes the study had measured participants’ mental well-being. He thinks VR can likely down-regulate the default mode network — a brain network that’s active when our minds aren’t focused on a specific task, and that psychedelics can suppress (scientists suggest this is what causes ego death ). People who have been shown amazing videos have decreased activity on this network. VR is better at awe-inspiring than regular video, so Isness-D might tone it down similarly.

A startup called aNUma, which grew out of Glowacki’s lab, already allows anyone with a VR headset to sign up for weekly Isness sessions. 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 manage terminal illnesses. A co-author of the article describing Isness-D even tests it in couple and family therapy.

“What we found is that depicting people as pure luminosity really frees them from a lot of judgment and projection,” says Glowacki. This includes negative thoughts about their bodies and prejudices. He has personally moderated aNUma sessions for cancer patients and their families. One, a woman with pancreatic cancer, died days later. The last time she and her friends gathered were mingling balls of light.

For a phase of my Isness-D experience, moving created a brief electrical trail marking where I had just been. After a few moments, the narration urged, “How does it feel to see the past?” I started thinking about people from my past that I had missed or hurt. In sloppy cursive, I used my finger to scrawl their names in the air. Just as quickly as I scrawled them, I watched them disappear.


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