As we approached, I worried about intruding on the privacy of the other participants. Then I remembered that oceans and thousands of miles separated me from them—and wasn’t the whole point of giving up the idea of privacy? So I tried to settle into intimacy.
“What happens in VR is a sense of complete oblivion to the existence of the outside world,” he says Agnieszka Sekula, a PhD student at the Center for Human Psychopharmacology in Australia and co-founder of a company that uses VR 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, she adds, “there are definitely differences between what a psychedelic experience feels like and what virtual reality feels like.” Because of this, she appreciates that Isness-D is charting a new path to transcendence, rather than simply imitating an already existing one.
More research is needed on the lasting effects of experiencing Isness-D and whether virtual reality in general can induce psychedelic-like benefits. The dominant theory of how psychedelics improve clinical outcomes (debat far from established) is that their effect is driven both by the subjective experience of the trip and by the drug’s neurochemical effect on the brain. Because VR only reflects subjective experience, its clinical benefit, which has not yet been rigorously tested, may not be as strong.
Jacob Addai, a psychiatry researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, says he wishes the study had measured the participants’ mental health. He thinks VR could possibly downregulate the default mode network—a brain network that’s active when our thoughts aren’t focused on a specific task, and that psychedelics can suppress (scientists theorize that this is what causes death of the ego). People shown awe-inspiring videos have decreased activity on this network. VR is better at awe-inspiring than regular video, so Isness-D can similarly reduce it.
Already, a startup called aNUma, which came out of Glowacki’s lab, allows anyone with a VR headset to sign up for Isness sessions every week. The startup sells a stripped-down version of Isness-D to virtual wellness retreat companies and provides 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 even piloted it in couples and family therapy.
“What we’ve found is that presenting people as pure light really frees them from a lot of judgment and prediction,” Glowacki says. This includes negative thoughts about their body and prejudice. He has personally facilitated NUMA 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, they were like jumbled balls of light.
For one phase of my Isness-D experience, the move created a brief electrical trail that marked where I had just been. After a few moments of this, the narration prompted, “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 write their names in the air. Just as quickly as I scratched them, I watched them disappear.