As we got closer, I was worried about invading the personal space of the other participants. Then I remembered that the oceans and thousands of miles separated me from them, and was not the problem to abandon the notion of personal space? So I tried to settle in privacy.
“What happens in virtual reality is that feeling of completely forgetting about the existence of the external world,” he says. Agnieszka Sekula, PhD candidate at the Australian Center for Human Psychopharmacology and co-founder of a company using virtual reality to improve psychedelic therapy. “So there’s definitely a similarity to this feeling of experiencing an alternate reality under psychedelics that feels more real than actually exists.”
But, he adds, “there are definitely differences between what a psychedelic experience feels like and what virtual reality feels like.” Because of this, he appreciates Isness-D charting a new path to transcendence rather than simply mimicking one that already existed.
More research is needed on the lasting effects of an Isness-D experience and whether virtual reality, in general, can induce psychedelic-like benefits. The dominant theory about how psychedelics improve clinical outcomes (a debate far from settling) is that its effect is driven both by the subjective experience of a trip and by the neurochemical effect of the drug on the brain. Since VR only reflects subjective experience, its clinical benefit, which has not yet been rigorously tested, may not be as strong.
jacob aday, a psychiatry researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, says he wishes the study had measured the mental well-being of the participants. He thinks VR can probably down-regulate the default network, a brain network that’s active when our thoughts aren’t task-oriented, and which psychedelics can suppress (scientists theorize this is what causes ego death). People who are shown amazing videos have decreased activity on this network. Virtual reality is better at inducing awe than regular video, so Isness-D could reduce it similarly.
A startup called aNUma that grew out of Glowacki’s lab allows anyone with a VR headset to sign up for weekly Isness sessions. The startup sells a shortened version of Isness-D to companies for virtual wellness retreats and offers a similar experience called Ripple to help patients, their families and caregivers cope with terminal illness. A co-author of the paper describing Isness-D is even testing it in marriage 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. That includes negative thoughts about their bodies and prejudice. She has personally facilitated aNUma sessions for cancer patients and their loved ones. One, a woman with pancreatic cancer, died days later. The last time she and her friends got together it was like balls of light blending together.
During one phase of my experience with Isness-D, the movement created a brief electrical trail marking where I had just been. After a few moments of this, the narration insisted: “How does it feel to see the past?” I started thinking about people from my past that I missed or hurt. In sloppy cursive, I used my finger to write their names in the air. As fast as I scribbled them down, I watched them disappear.