The growing field of psychedelic science has shown that altered states of consciousness can potentially radically improve people’s mental health. This is true both in the short- and long-term . Can virtual reality (VR) do the same?
Many people will be interested in trying a different therapeutic technique for alleviating distress. However, this doesn’t mean trying psychedelics for the first time will be done with enthusiasm and eagerness. Indeed, someone can be attracted to altered states of consciousness and their healing potential. At the same they, they could be hesitant about committing to a psychedelic journey. This is because psychedelic experiences can last for several hours. They can also involve physical effects like nausea, feeling out of control, or can become overwhelming.
The lecturer, author, and psychonaut Terence McKenna said, “The drugs of the future will be computers. The computers of the future will be drugs.” It seems his prediction was true, as virtual reality is now being used to induce altered states of consciousness. In addition, research indicates that this technology can allow people to experience mystical effects and therapeutic benefits, similar to what is seen in psychedelic research. Crucially, VR-induced altered states can allow people to experience these benefits with far fewer risks compared to psychedelics.
How VR Can Help People Achieve Psychedelic States
There are now several VR games aiming to simulate psychedelic experiences – not just the visual component, but emotional effects too. Users put on a VR headset (such as Oculus Rift), which provides the visual experience. They wear headphones so that music can complement the experience.
Psychedelic VR programs typically place participants in a 360-degree environment, with guided meditation or emotionally evocative music included. Drawing inspiration from psychedelic studies, developers have added visuals like kaleidoscopic and technicolor patterns. Along with this is distorted audio intended to mimic the altered sense of time you experience during a trip.
These programs can vary in terms of their visual and audio content. However, the ones that have been studied have the aim of inducing therapeutic psychedelic states as effectively as possible.
Research on VR and Altered States of Consciousness
Psychedelic VR Programs Can Induce Mystical States
A 2022 study published in Scientific Reports looked at a VR experience called ‘Isness-D’. It found that it could give participants the same effect as a medium dose of LSD or psilocybin . This result was based on the use of four key scales that are used in psychedelic studies. These scales were the inclusion of community in self scale, ego-dissolution inventory, communitas scale, and the MEQ30 mystical experience questionnaire.
Isness-D is designed for groups of four to five people (who can be based anywhere in the world). Each participant is represented as a cloud of smoke with a ball of light where their heart would be. Participants can engage in an experience known as ‘energetic coalescence’. This involves gathering in the same spot in the VR landscape to overlap their diffuse bodies. By doing so, it makes it impossible to tell where one person begins and ends. This results in a sense of deep interconnectedness and dampening of the ego, feelings commonly occasioned by psychedelics.
Self-Transcendent Experiences with Virtual Reality
The researchers wanted to use VR to induce a ‘self-transcendent experience’, in which you lose your sense of self. Self-transcendent experiences exist on a spectrum. For example, getting lost in an engrossing book would be a weak one. In contrast, the ego death elicited by high doses of psychedelics would be a strong one. In psychedelic clinical trials, people who report more intense feelings of self-transcendence tend to be those who experience the most improvements in symptoms .
During a self-transcendent experience, you lose the sense that you are a discrete individual, separate from others and the environment. Instead, you can experience a deep feeling of unity with other people and your surroundings. There are many routes to these experiences. Some include near-death experiences (NDEs), meditation, and the overview effect (the feeling astronauts report after seeing Earth from space). Isness-D is another such route.
Participants’ responses to the four scales were compared with those given in double-blind psychedelic trials. For all four metrics, Isness-D elicited responses that were indistinguishable from those elicited by medium doses of classic psychedelics. In terms of the mystical experience scale, Isness-D participants reported an experience that was as intense as that occasioned by 20 milligrams of psilocybin or 200 micrograms of LSD.
Self-transcendent, mystical experiences induced by psychedelics are strongly associated with mental health benefits. So if VR programs can create similar experiences, then similar psychological benefits may follow.
Psychedelic VR Programs Can Alleviate Mental Distress
A 2023 study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry looked at a VR program called ‘Psyrreal’. Indeed, it led to significant decreases in depressive symptoms at the 2-week follow-up. This was measured by the Emotional State Questionnaire .
The researchers also analyzed semi-structured interviews. The results suggest that Psyrreal could also lead to insight and alterations in the sense of self in some people. The study included 13 participants with mild-to-moderate depression. They experienced Psyrreal (an immersive journey through virtual psychedelic environments) alongside meetings with a psychologist (as in psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy). While traveling through surreal worlds, participants also listened to a psychedelics-inspired soundtrack. It varied in tempo and intensity to amp up the emotional and spiritual quality of the experience.
Karl Kristjan Kaup, a co-author of the study, told Inverse: “What was quite surprising is the reactions of some of the people. They really report things that are remarkably similar to psychedelic experiences — not everybody, but quite often.” This matches the findings of the research on Isness-D. Psyrreal, in contrast, focuses on individual (not group) journeys. ANUma is another program offering group VR experiences informed by psychedelic science.
Using VR to Augment a Psychedelic Experience
Some companies are even combining VR with psychedelics to enhance the psychedelic experience for clients. The digital wellness company TRIPP, for instance, carried out a study in which participants received a VR session to ease anxiety before taking ketamine. Key preliminary findings indicate that VR can be an effective tool to help patients prepare for their ketamine experience.
The Advantages of VR Over Psychedelics
Jacob Aday, a postdoctoral psychiatry researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, told Inverse: “A lot of people are excited about the potential of psychedelics, but they’re very scared about doing it themselves; it sounds like a very overwhelming thing. It’s hard to predict how any individual is going to react to a psychedelic, so it’s understandable.”
Of course, if VR can better prepare people for psychedelic journeys, then that’s a novel and promising approach to take. But if VR programs can offer psychedelic-like experiences and benefits without the need to take a psychedelic drug, then people won’t have to commit to more overwhelming (and potentially riskier) journeys. After all, a participant can end the experience at any time (by taking off the headset). It is also short-lived and typically feels less out of control, less confusing, and less anxiety-inducing than a psychedelic trip.
This doesn’t mean that the positive experience elicited by Isness-D is identical to a psychedelic experience. There are obvious differences. Thus, psychedelic VR programs may offer a new path to transcendent experiences instead of just mimicking one that already exists.
More research is also needed on the enduring effects of a psychedelic VR experience. Can VR induce benefits similar to psychedelics? It is generally believed that psychedelics improve clinical outcomes. This is through both the subjective experience of a trip and the drug’s brain effects (such as enhanced neurogenesis and neuroplasticity) . However, the degree to which these aspects matter is far from settled. In any case, VR only mimics subjective psychedelic effects (and not the drug’s neurochemical effect). As such, its clinical benefit may not be as strong compared to a psychedelic.
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- Romeo, B., Karila, L., Martelli, C., and Benyamina, A. (2020). Efficacy of psychedelic treatments on depressive symptoms: A meta-analysis. 34(10), 1079-1085.
- Glowacki, D.R., Williams, R.R., Wonnacott, M.D., Maynard, O.M., Freire, R., Pike, J.E., and Chatziapostolou, M. (2022). Group VR experiences can produce ego attenuation and connectedness comparable to psychedelics. Scientific Reports, 12, Article: 8995.
- Ko, K., Knight, G., Rucker, J.L., and Cleare, A.J. (2022). Psychedelics, Mystical Experience, and Therapeutic Efficacy: A Systematic Review. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 13, Article: 917199.
- Kaup, K.K., Vasser, M., Tulver, K., Munk, M., Pikamäe, J., and Aru, J. (2023). Psychedelic replications in virtual reality and their potential as a therapeutic instrument: an open-label feasibility study. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 14, Article: 1088896.