A new study found virtual reality programs can replicate mystical-type experiences commonly associated with psychedelics.
Instead of dropping acid, what about dropping into virtual reality? A growing movement of researchers and artists have explored whether VR simulations can replicate the mystical type experiences psychedelics users often report.
A new study published through Cornell University found that participants who went through a VR program developed by scientists had life-altering changes “comparable to those reported in double-blind clinical studies after high doses of psilocybin and LSD.”
An international group of computer programmers, VR specialists, and medical researchers created a program they called “Isness.” The term appears in various spiritual and moral teachings, but Quartz loosely explains the concept as acting with no moral imperative or sense of obligation. Others just define isness as “wasting time.” The Isness program in the study, however, is a “multi-person VR journey where participants experience the collective emergence, fluctuation, and dissipation of their bodies as energetic essences,” researchers wrote.
The study included 57 participants who ran through Isness. In the multi-sensory program, users wore custom-made “mudra gloves.” The gloves would generate light when a person would form the “mudra pose,” achieved by bringing the top of your thumb into the tip of your forefinger or middle finger. Light would also appear when participants interacted with one another, as visuals and audio responded to their movements in real time.
Afterwards, these participants were asked to answer a survey usually given in psychedelic-focused research. It’s called the Mystical Experience questionnaire, or MEQ30. The study didn’t feature a control group, so instead researchers compared the results to 26 other studies that used the MEQ30 questionnaire.
Answers given by those undergoing the Isness experience were either “indistinguishable” or “more intense” than those previous studies. Only three other studies were rated as “more intense” than Isness — two where participants were given 30mg of psilocybin mushrooms and 5MeO-DMT, which naturally occurs in the Sonora Desert toad.
“Within a supportive setting and conceptual framework, we have presented evidence suggesting that it is possible to design phenomenological experiences using multi-person VR which create the conditions for mystical-type experiences from which participants derive insight and meaning,” researchers concluded.
Whether this program might one day replace psychedelic experiences remains to be seen. But researchers found that many participants experienced the ego death, or ego dissolution, common when users take psychedelics. In addition, there those who reported a deeper connection within themselves and the universe around them.
Researchers wrote that, “In a supportive therapeutic context…technologies like Isness may offer an opportunity for a digital culture which is addicted to unhealthy economic growth narratives to meditate on its own mortality.”