Virtual reality and psychedelic drugs are both used to disrupt the ordinary sensory experience. Psychedelics such as LSD, and psilocybin produce their effects through activation of the serotonin 5-HT2A receptor, while VR is classed as a 3-D interactive experience navigated via an avatar.
Early discussion around VR was concerned with the capacity to change a mental experience, something reluctantly accepted by the tech industry. On the other hand, many in the psychedelic community embraced the idea that a game could be an acceptable tool to induce an altered state.
Despite this early observation, there has been minimal research into the similarities between VR and psychedelics. This article will uncover the similarities and differences, the potential applications, and what the future holds.
VR and Psychedelics: The Similarities
There have been many anecdotal reports of the similarities between VR and psychedelics. However, limited scientific evidence, until the recent study Psychedelics and virtual reality: parallels and applications by Emily Bloesch, Jacob Aday, and Christopher Davoli in 2020. The paper collates a series of studies surrounding VR and psychedelics. The findings are as follows:
Ability to Alter Perceptual Experience and create Therapy
The study found that both VR and psychedelics are able to alter a person's perceptual experience, especially their visual perception. One key aim of VR is to immerse you into a visual experience that transcends the usual limitations of the physical self. While psychedelics, most notably DMT, is a strong hallucinogenic giving the user extremely vivid visual experiences.
While the experience of immense visual immersion may be pleasurable in both VR and psychedelic usage, it also has potential for therapy. For anxiety sufferers, by exposing them to a situation that would usually cause anxiety, exposure therapy can be used.
Awe is a feeling of respect, wonder, and fear that, according to studies, makes you happier, healthier, and even more connected to other people. Both VR and psychedelics have the ability to evoke awe in their users. While seemingly trivial, awe has been linked to many benefits such as increased curiosity, better academic outcomes, and enhanced wellbeing.
Psychedelic Therapy with substances like Psilocybin Also Alter Perception and Create Awe
Studies have shown that when participants are given psilocybin, they rate the experience as one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives. Awe is a valuable emotion as it supports positive emotions, feelings of unity, and gratitude. The same feeling of awe can be induced with VR environments with a study showing that VR evoked increased presence, social connection, and feeling of awe.
In terms of therapeutic applications, a study found that psilocybin sessions increased participants' feelings of awe and reduced their need or desire to smoke cigarettes. The participants in the study not only felt more connected and more curious, but they also gained vivid insights into their self-identity which encouraged questioning into their smoking.
Mental Health Treatments
Researchers are also beginning to uncover a connection between how VR and psychedelics can help people with mental health issues like treatment-resistant depression.
VR is also being used in similar studies to treat similar mental health conditions, as well as palliative care by creating travel experiences for patients that are housebound. These studies are showing that VR has the potential to offer a visual environment to confirm fears and anxieties in a safe setting.
"Tripping" with VR
With many touting VR as the safe way to trip, "cyberdelics” is the term coined for using virtual reality to stimulate out-of-body or trip-like experiences associated with psychedelic drugs.
Famous philosopher, Timothy Leary, encouraged his followers to "turn on, boot up, jack in”, touting it as a way to have a legal, easy, trip-like experience, without the risk or comedown. But most VR experts feel that while the experience is worth investing in, there’s some way to go before it stimulates the full experience of psychedelics.
But What About Psychedelics and VR?
In today’s world, it’s commonplace for adults to combine cannabis and gaming (both VR games and regular flat screen games). It enhances their gaming experience, allowing them to feel the game in greater depth. For instance, a gamer may smoke weed while playing Call of Duty as it makes the game feel much more real and more fun than while sober.
So it’s no surprise that nowadays, people are turning to a combination of psychedelics and VR, to augment their experience. A growing number of people are combining psychedelics and virtual reality for recreational purposes.
Reddit: Leading the Charge in The Discussion of VR Tripping
On prominent websites like Reddit, entire online communities have sprung up dedicated to the debate of utilizing virtual reality while on psychedelics. The psychedelics/VR Reddit topic has over 9000 users.
As you’d expect, there are no scientific studies on the combination of the two, but there’s much anecdotal evidence online.
For example, Millermac13 on Reddit said “I played Skyrim VR off of 3 tabs for a few hours, an incredible experience. Didn’t really do missions, just walked around taking in the scenery. Highly recommend”.
While Dripticc said, “I really hated it. Felt unnatural as f*** and made it seem like I wasn’t even tripping on acid. Took the VR headset off and felt amazing”.
Another Reddit thread offers a menu of suggestions for combining your VR with an additional trip. Here’s what to has to say:
- LSD: This is shown to work well with fast, visual VR experiences, with “visually orgasmic” music.
- Magic mushrooms: The thread claims that mushrooms enhance your presence, so audiobooks that immerse you into the experience would be a good choice.
- Ketamine: The suggestion for ketamine is to opt for trippy and colorful experiences with immersive music. Do not attempt anything that will throw you off balance.
- Weed: Technically not a psychedelic but an excellent enhancement to any VR experience, according to the thread.
Nature, VR, and Psychedelics for Therapeutic purposes
While there are clearly similarities between VR and psychedelics, one point of difference could be their connection to nature. It’s well known that psychedelics help people to feel closer to nature, but VR is the polar opposite to the natural environment. While it warrants further research, it’s highly likely that some people who want to enjoy VR with psychedelics may find that the experience is overly artificial, and prefer the connection to nature. In other words, combining psychedelics with VR can be really fun, but not for everyone.
The Metaverse and Augmented Reality
When companies like Facebook and Apple make significant investments in new technology, such as augmented reality, you know it's worth paying attention to. Both firms have lately stated their commitment to developing, testing, and implementing augmented reality technologies. Apple is concentrating on developing tools for developers, but Facebook's objective is to make AR accessible to the general public.
Augmented reality is a technology that allows virtual things to be placed in the real environment utilizing an AR headset or a phone or tablet's camera. Users can then connect with those virtual objects overlapping the screen, blurring the virtual and the actual boundaries. AR was also the technology underpinning the Pokémon GO video game, which debuted in 2016 and soon became a worldwide craze as gamers hunted for Pokémon characters across public spaces.
Entering Zuckerberg's Metaverse
With Facebook's recent name change to Meta, the metaverse - a shared, enduring digital world where users may do nearly anything, including work, play, watch films, attend games, go to events, participate in sports, and just generally hang out – is receiving more attention than ever before.
In the metaverse, your avatar (a 3D digital representation of you) could migrate from virtual reality (VR) surroundings to 3D applications shown on a flat-screen monitor or TV to augmented reality (AR) apps on your smartphone. The crucial thing is that the metaverse provides a consistent user experience.
The surreal notion of the metaverse could take more than a decade to spread fully across the globe, and it may need the help of the world's major IT companies, but there's no denying that it is a definite reality, even if the ETA is a little blurry.
The last unresolved question is who will own the AR metaverse — an augmented virtual environment that maps on to the actual one.
The Future of VR and Psychedelics
VR and psychedelics have a lot in common. From how they make you feel to the range of therapeutic benefits for mental health, tech can learn from psychedelics. By 2027, tech experts are predicting that VR will provide multisensory experiences that are so vivid they blend and perceive reality.
Could VR eliminate the need for drugs? Or will we continue to learn from both? Only the future will tell.