Fifteen years ago, David Glowacki was hiking in the mountains when he fell badly. As he hit the ground, blood began to seep into his lungs. As he lay there, suffocating, Glowacki’s field of vision expanded. He looked down at his own body – and saw that instead of its typical shape, it was made of clustered light.
“I knew that the intensity of the light was related to the extent to which I inhabited my body,” he recalls. But the dimming of the light didn’t scare him. From his new vantage point, Glowacki could see that the light didn’t go away. It transformed and poured out of his body into the environment around him.
This realization, which he took as a sign that his consciousness could outlast and transcend his physical form, brought Glowacki a sublime sense of peace. So he approached what he believed to be death with curiosity: what might come next?
With virtual reality into transcendence
Since his accident, Glowacki, an artist and molecular physicist, has worked to experience this transcendence again. His latest project is a virtual reality experience called Isness-D. The program showed the same effect as a medium dose of the hallucinogen LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) or psilocybin (the main psychoactive ingredient in so-called magic mushrooms) on four key indicators used in studies of psychedelics. This is shown by study results recently published in the journal “Nature Scientific Reports”.
Isness-D is designed for groups of four to five anywhere in the world. Each participant is represented as a diffuse puff of smoke with a sphere of light located roughly where the person’s heart would be. Participants can partake in an experience called energetic merging. To do this, they gather in the same place in the virtual reality landscape to superimpose their diffuse bodies, making it impossible to tell where each person begins and ends. The resulting feeling of deep connection and weakening of the ego mirrors feelings commonly evoked by psychedelic experiences.
Psychedelics are a class of drugs characterized by their ability to alter the senses and the way information is processed. Clinical trials of these drugs, which ceased in the 1970s and have since resumed, have shown that psychedelic-assisted therapy is remarkably good at relieving the symptoms of conditions for which many standard treatments fail: obsessive-compulsive disorder, addiction, post-traumatic stress disorder, and depression. In 2019, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classified psilocybin as a “breakthrough therapy” for major depression, speeding up the approval process.
Glowacki didn’t create Isness-D with the aim of reproducing a psychedelic trip. But he wanted to use virtual reality (VR) to create something that psychedelics reliably produce: a so-called “self-transcending experience.”
Relieving symptoms of illness with transcendence
Self-transcendent experiences lie on a wide spectrum. Losing yourself in a great book might be viewed as a weak experience; the death of the ego that high doses of psychedelics can produce lies at the other end. In clinical trials of psychedelics, people who report more intense feelings of self-transcendence have also typically experienced the most notable improvements in their symptoms.
Characteristic of an experience of self-transcendence is the dissolution of our typical self-definition as an independent individual, separate from other people and the environment. During such an experience, a deep sense of oneness with other people or the environment allows for an expansion of self-concept to include them.
There are many paths to an experience of self-transcendence. Near-death experiences like Glowacki’s often temporarily blur the boundaries of the self. The overview effect, such as the feeling that astronauts consistently report after seeing Earth from space, creates a sense of connectedness with humanity as a whole. Meditation can also help people achieve self-transcendence.
Inspired by quantum mechanics
Another possibility is added with Isness-D. In developing it, Glowacki took aesthetic inspiration from quantum mechanics, or as he puts it, “where the definition of what is matter and what is energy begins to blur”.
For their work, Glowacki and his collaborators measured the emotional response that Isness-D elicited in 75 participants. They drew on four measures used in psychedelics research: the MEQ30 Mystical Experience Questionnaire, the Ego Dissolution Scale, the Communitas Scale, and the Community Involvement in the Self scale. Communitas is defined as an experience of intense shared humanity that transcends social structure. The participants’ responses were then compared to those from published, double-blind psychedelics studies.
For all four parameters, Isness-D elicited responses indistinguishable from moderate doses of psychedelics. On the mystical experience scale, Isness-D participants reported an experience that was as intense as that of 20 milligrams of psilocybin or 200 micrograms of LSD and stronger than microdoses of either substance.
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