As we got closer, I worried about infringing on the personal space of the other participants. Then I remembered that oceans and thousands of miles separated me from them, and wasn’t the main goal to abandon the notion of personal space? So I tried to settle into intimacy.
“What happens in virtual reality is the feeling of completely forgetting the existence of the external world,” says Agnieszka Sekula, a PhD candidate at the Australian Center for Human Psychopharmacology and co-founder of a company that uses virtual reality to enhance psychedelic therapy. “So there’s definitely a similarity to that feeling of experiencing an alternate reality under psychedelics that feels more real than what’s actually there.”
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 that Isness-D is charting a new path to transcendence rather than merely imitating 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 prevailing theory about how psychedelics improve clinical outcomes (a far from settled debate) is that their effect is driven as much by the subjective experience of a trip as by the drug’s neurochemical effect on the brain. Because virtual reality 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 participants’ mental well-being. He believes virtual reality can likely reduce the default mode network—a brain network that’s active when our thoughts aren’t directed toward a specific task and that psychedelics can suppress (scientists theorize that this is what causes the death of the ego). People who are shown impressive videos have decreased activity on this network. VR is better at inducing awe than regular video, so Isness-D could cut that too.
Already, a startup called aNUma that grew out of Glowacki’s lab lets anyone with a VR headset sign up for Isness sessions on a weekly basis. The startup sells an abbreviated 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 couple and family therapy.
“What we’ve 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 your body and prejudice. He 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 she was like a jumble of balls of light.
During one phase of my Isness-D experience, the movement created a short electrical path that marked where I had been. After a few moments of this, the narration prompts, “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 quickly as I scribbled them down, I watched them disappear.