This study (n=57) assessed the experiences of people undergoing a Virtual Reality (VR) journey using the Mystical Experience Questionnaire (MEQ30). ‘Isness’ is a VR experience developed using concepts, methods and analysis strategies from psychedelic research. It was found that Isness participants reported Mystical Type Experiences comparable to those reported in double-blind clinical studies after high doses of psilocybin and LSD.
“Studies combining psychotherapy with psychedelic drugs (Ds) have demonstrated positive outcomes that are often associated with ‘Ds’ ability to induce ‘mystical-type’ experiences (MTEs) i.e., subjective experiences whose characteristics include a sense of connectedness, transcendence, and ineffability. We suggest that both PsiDs and virtual reality can be situated on a broader spectrum of psychedelic technologies. To test this hypothesis, we used concepts, methods, and analysis strategies from D research to design and evaluate ‘Isness’, a multi-person VR journey where participants experience the collective emergence, fluctuation, and dissipation of their bodies as energetic essences. A study (N=57) analyzing participant responses to a commonly used D experience questionnaire (MEQ30) indicates that Isness participants reported MTEs comparable to those reported in double-blind clinical studies after high doses of psilocybin and LSD. Within a supportive setting and conceptual framework, VR phenomenology can create the conditions for MTEs from which participants derive insight and meaning.”
Authors: David R. Glowacki, Mark D. Wonnacott, Rachel Freire, Becca R. Glowacki, Ella M. Gale, James E. Pike, Tiu de Haan, Mike Chatziapostolou & Oussama Metatla
Studies combining psychotherapy with psychedelic drugs have demonstrated positive outcomes. We suggest that virtual reality can be situated on a broader spectrum of psychedelic technologies, and that participants reported MTEs comparable to those reported in double-blind clinical studies after high doses of psilocybin & LSD.
Aldous Huxley took mescaline under the guidance of psychiatrist Humphrey Osmond, and reported seeing the miracle of naked existence in a vase of flowers. The word ‘psychedelic’ was coined by Osmond in correspondence with Huxley in 1956.
We investigate the extent to which immersive technologies (specifically multi-person VR) enable purer forms of awareness, and compare these experiences to mystical-type experiences (MTEs) that participants recount as being profoundly meaningful.
We attempt to understand whether multi-person VR experiences enable phenomenological experiences that participants perceive as insightful and meaningful. We use concepts from human-computer-interaction to evaluate psychedelic drug experiences, and to make moral progress at a time of emerging crisis and instability.
The question of meaning is important right now, as climate predictions are worsening and the rate of extinction within the biosphere is unprecedented. The ACM community has acknowledged this problem, and is working to solve it.
We show how immersive forms of computing can be used to cultivate awareness, ego-dissolution, and a sense of connectedness in order to help people imagine their way out of the damaging and addictive paradigms in which our culture is stuck.
The ‘classical YDs’ include LSD, mescaline, psilocybin, and DMT, and produce non-ordinary and variable forms of consciousness. They are associated with effects on human consciousness and sense of self, and have been studied for their potential as therapeutics for depression, addiction, and end-of-life anxiety.
YDs and MTEs
Early researchers identified the ability of YDs to facilitate powerful MTEs for participants, and several studies have shown that subjective reports of MTEs following YD ingestion offers a good predictor of positive therapeutic outcomes.
A mystical experience is characterized by a sense of unity with all that exists, a sense of noetic quality, a sense of sacredness, a positive mood, and a transcendence of time and space.
Most studies measuring MTEs use the Hood Mysticism Scale, but Griffiths and co-workers developed the Mystical Experience Questionnaire to measure MTEs occasioned by YDs. The MEQ30 has been thoroughly tested and is used in 26 previous experiments on 540 total participants.
YD Phenomenology and Immersive Technology
Grof wrote that YDs can be used to study important processes that are not available for direct observation, and that immersive technology may be able to unravel the subjective phenomenological threads which combine to construct MTEs.
Practically, MTEs occasioned using immersive technology might sometimes be preferable to those which arise from ingestion of YDs. This is because YDs remain subject to a host of regulatory challenges, and because YDs can cause short-term physiological effects.
There are relatively few rigorous empirical studies analysing technological approaches to understand altered states, but Suzuki et al. have designed a framework to simulate YD phenomenology using panoramic 360 videos, but were unable to evoke in participants the temporal distortion commonly associated with altered states.
Our work represents a significant departure from previous approaches, as we use immersive technology to construct MTEs comparable to those that arise during YDEs. The results show that Isness can occasion MTEs similar to those which arise from large YD doses.
64 healthy adults participated in Isness, a VR art installation at a biennial psychedelics and consciousness conference held in 2019 at the University of Greenwich (London). Each group was led by one of three trained guides.
Multi-person VR setup
We developed Isness as a fork of the open-source Narupa project, which enables 4 participants to cohabit real-time scientific simulation environments.
Using Narupa, we designed MTEs by defining a set of aesthetic hyperparameters that can be precisely varied using an interface. The progression through the Isness journey was synchronized with a narrated soundtrack and involved varying 25 different aesthetic hyperparameters.
Isness participants can generate light by making a mudra pose by bringing the tip of their thumb in contact with the tip of either their forefinger or middle finger. The light-generating mudra pose is possible using custom-made ‘mudra gloves’ constructed using four-way stretch technical knit fabric.
Set and Setting
The YDE is sensitive to a number of non-pharmacological contextual factors, including the participants’ prior psychological traits, personality structure, and the specific physical, social, and cultural environment in which the experience unfolds. Set and setting can also influence the psychological effects of any psychotropic substance.
Phase 1: Preparation
The introductory session lasted 15 – 20 mins and involved addressing a number of practical issues, building rapport with the guide, explaining the matter/energy framework underpinning Isness, and leading participants through some gentle movement and breath sequences. They were blindfolded and led into the VR room, where they sat or kneeled on a soft mat.
Phase 2: Multi-person VR Session
Participants were comfortably knelt or sat at the four corners of the mat, and were guided through a short meditation. They were then fitted with VR headsets and embarked on a 35-minute narrative journey.
Phase 3: Integration
The Isness VR journey ended with participants going back to a kneeling or sitting pose, closing their eyes, and being guided on a breath meditation. They were then invited to open their eyes, notice the space around them, and make one last mudra pose.
Matter as Energy
The Isness narrative consistently referred to matter and energy as interconvertible essences that exist on the same continuum, and participants were encouraged to reflect on the fact that everyday material objects are actually constructed from the dynamical choreography of molecular organisms whose essences are fundamentally energetic.
MTEs are characterized by a sense of connectedness, which emerges quite naturally from reimagining conventional matter in terms of a common energetic essence. The mudra motif was an important mechanism for facilitating a sense of connection.
Stace defined unity as a state of pure awareness uninterrupted by the brain’s default tendency to construct egoic identity. Participants were encouraged to cultivate a sense of external unity during phase 2 of Isness, and a sense of internal unity during phase 1 and 3.
We designed the Isness journey around a loose arc of energetic emergence, fluctuation, and eventual dissipation, encouraging reflection on transience and ‘mutability’. Participants were invited to focus less on their own internal ego narrative and engage in embodied forms of sensing.
Transcendence of Space and Time
VR is well suited to exploring alterations in our experience of space and time. Participants were invited to become aware that they could simultaneously perceive both the past and the present.
Noetic quality is often associated with a subjective experience of something greater than oneself. In the Isness narrative, participants were encouraged to engage with the energetic organism, and actively sculpt its dynamics, while also being encouraged to explore the feeling of both stillness and motion.
Each of the 64 participants completed all three phases of the Isness test and made comments during group discussion. 50 participants carried out reflective writing and 57 answered the MEQ30 afterward.
The MEQ30, which is available in ref , is a 30-item measure that captures ineffability, mystical experiences, positive mood, and transcendence of time/space. It can be used to distinguish between dose dependent effects of YDs.
Isness MEQ30 scores are noisier than M, P, and T scores, and lower than might be expected. This may be because participants had undertaken 10 – 15 mins group discussion and reflective writing before being given the MEQ30.
We undertook comparative analysis of Isness to the previously published psychedelic studies using independent sample t-tests with a = 0.05, and found that the results were broadly aligned with more sophisticated statistical analyses described in Table SM3 & SM4.
There are 3 more intense studies, 7 indistinguishable studies, and 16 less intense studies. The more intense studies include a MeO-DMT study, a 30 mg psilocybin study, and a 2018 study by Griffiths et al..
Griffiths and co-workers reported that 57% of participants had a complete MTE in a meta-analysis of high dose psilocybin studies, and 75% of participants had a complete MTE in a study of 5-MeO-DMT.
We carried out qualitative analysis of participants’ group discussions and reflective writing after exiting VR. The 14 themes outlined in Fig 3 were broadly similar across both the interviews and reflective writing, and enabled us to classify 95% of the transcribed text.
We designed Isness as a form of psychedelic technology to elicit subjective accounts of MTEs. The group aspect of Isness amplified participants’ sense of ego-dissolution, releasing them from the projections associated with typical social interactions, and encouraging a form of ‘pure presence’.
Participants in Isness reported that the end felt like a peaceful death, and that their energy would remain in a connection even after their body was gone. This contrasts with the ego-amplification encouraged by social media.
Participants’ subjective attributions of meaning to VR experiences depend on the supportiveness of the context framing the experience, and the broader conceptual framework in which it is embedded.
The features that characterize MTEs provide a rich cross-disciplinary conceptual framework for thinking about meaning in HCI. The empirical study presented herein shows how these concepts can be practically implemented so as to design the kinds of meaning-making experiences that HCI workers have outlined theoretically.
Isness differs from psychedelic psychotherapy studies in that its preparation lasted 15 mins for a group of four, and its three phases lasted a total of 70 minutes, considerably shorter than typical psilocybin and LSD experiences, which last anywhere from 6 – 14 hours.
Isness results are more intense than 6 previously published baseline studies, including one that gave 1 mg psilocybin to participants who were engaged in a supportive program of meditation and spiritual practice. Participants may have been more willing to provide mystical-type responses during group discussion, reflective writing, and during the MEQ30 analysis because they believed we wanted such responses, and they were able to compare Isness to previous YDEs.
The question of ‘authenticity’ of a VR-occasioned MTE like that which arose during Isness has similarly been raised with respect to YDEs. However, Griffiths et al show that YDEs and nondrug MTEs are markedly similar, suggesting that ‘virtual reality’ may be a concept best understood from a wider vantage point.
The approach outlined herein allows the design of aesthetic hyperparameters defining a particular journey to be precisely defined, opening up a range of further research directions. It will be interesting to explore how different Isness variants compare to different YDEs.
We have presented evidence suggesting that multi-person VR experiences can be used to create MTEs from which participants derive insight and meaning. These experiences may be described as numedelic, and may be used to help patients deal with addictions and end-of-life anxiety.
DRG is supported by the Leverhulme Trust, Royal Society, EPSRC, OM, MW, JEP, TdH, and the ArtSci International Foundation. Many people provided support and useful conversations at various stages.
Table SM1 shows the experimental conditions and results of previously published YD studies. Table SM2 shows the results of independent sample t-tests and normality tests, and Table SM5 shows the raw MEQ30 I, M, P, and T scores obtained from Isness participants.
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This paper (2022) introduces "Isness-distributed" (Isness-D), a VR framework which harnesses the unique affordances of distributed multi-person VR to blur conventional self-other boundaries. To evaluate Isness-D, the results of 4 different self-report scales previously applied to analyze subjective psychedelic drug phenomenology were analysed. Across all four scales, the Isness-D scores were statistically indistinguishable from recently published studies with psychedelic drugs highlighting the power of VR to develop self-transcendent experiences.