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Virtual Reality Can Replicate Mystical Psychedelic Experiences, Study Says
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Psychedelic drugs like LSD, MDMA, psilocybin, and DMT may revolutionize psychiatric therapy, but some computer scientists are trying to find ways to simulate the best parts of tripping without ever needing to dose anyone on anything.
Published on February 20, 2020

A new computer science study found that simulating psychedelic trips in virtual reality replicated the same life-altering, mystical experiences that drugs could. 

The study, published through Cornell University and led by an international group composed of computer coders, virtual reality specialists, and medical doctors, employed a program called Isness. Isness is a “multi-person VR journey where participants experience the collective emergence, fluctuation, and dissipation of their bodies as energetic essences,” the researchers wrote. Pretty trippy, right?

The study included 57 participants who first went into the VR simulation, then undertook a brief meditative session outside of the VR environment. Afterward, they answered a questionnaire that psychologists have traditionally used to assess the subjective aspects of psychedelic drugs such as LSD, psilocybin, MDMA, and DMT. The researchers concluded that the mystical-type experiences participants had through Isness were “comparable to those reported in double-blind clinical studies after high doses of psilocybin and LSD.”

Most of Isness’s participants reported experiencing ego dissolution or ego death, a crucial component of all psychedelic experiences where one’s individual identity merges or dissolves into a collective non-identity. They also reported feeling an innate knowledge of their being and their relation to the universe, another aspect of psychedelic experiences. The majority of participants also said they felt a deep, indescribable interconnectedness with the other participants and with their environment.

“Within a supportive setting and conceptual framework,” the researchers concluded, “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.” 

Since Isness is a virtual reality experience that does not include drugs, the researchers eschewed the term “psychedelic” for describing Isness’s effects and coined a new term for virtually-induced mysticality: “numedelic,” from the Latin numen (“spiritual” or “sublime”) and the Greek pneuma (“spirit,” or “soul”). 

“In a supportive therapeutic context,” the researchers continued, “numedelic 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.”

However, can VR ever truly replace psychedelic drugs, which have been with humanity since the first cultures arose? Some studies suggest that the brain — and the body — cannot tell the difference between imagined actions and physically performing those actions in the real world. On the other hand, other studies have shown that the brain can distinguish between real-world experiences and virtual reality journeys, so the verdict is still out on whether programs like Isness will ever render our plant-derived entheogenic tools and substances obsolete. 

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Randy Robinson
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Based in Denver, Randy studied cannabinoid science while getting a degree in molecular biology at the University of Colorado. When not writing about cannabis, science, politics, or LGBT issues, they can be found exploring nature somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. Catch Randy on Twitter and Instagram @randieseljay
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