Can VR Mimic A Psychedelic Drug Experience?

By Lindsey Weedston 08/08/19

A new psychedelic virtual reality experience has some questioning if VR can provide the same psychedelic experience as the real thing.

Image: 
woman having a psychedelic VR experience
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A new feature in the form of a psychedelic virtual reality experience at the Tribeca Film Festival this year has the Pacific Standard wondering if VR technology could create anything close to a replacement for drugs like LSD, psilocybin mushrooms and ayahuasca.

Ayahuasca, a substance made from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine found in the Amazon basin, is also the name of the 12-minute “virtual arcade” exhibit offered at the festival.

“Participants are immersed in visions triggered by a dose of ayahuasca,” the exhibit's description reads. “The spectator lives this through director Jan Kounen’s eyes as he travels on a spiritual voyage.”

Perceived Reality

In some ways, psychedelic drugs and virtual reality do produce similar experiences. Both alter one’s perceived reality, resulting in an emotional experience while the individual is aware (typically) that what they are seeing or hearing isn’t really there.

Skip Rizzo, director for medical virtual reality at the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies, says, “We can create these simulated worlds that fool some of the brain, but not the whole brain.”

That’s because the amygdala responds to convincing virtual danger as though it’s real, producing a fear response complete with a pounding heart. However, because the frontal lobes know everything is safe, the response is diminished.

Mental Health Treatment

Researchers are already looking into how virtual reality could be used to treat mental illness due to the technology’s ability to reproduce this kind of emotion. University of California psychiatry researcher Michelle Craske is currently working on using VR to treat anhedonia, a particularly stubborn symptom of depression and other mental illnesses.

There are certainly differences between how the brain reacts to a colorful virtual reality experience and how it reacts to a drug like ayahuasca. However, not much is known about how psychedelics affect the human brain due to the fact that they have only been studied since the 1990s.

"And there hasn't been a proper perception researcher that's really studied these drugs. So we really don't know the actual patterns that people are experiencing when they have these drugs," said John Hopkins Psychedelic Research Unit neuropsychopharmacologist Manoj Doss. "Is there a predictable change there, do certain colors pop out more, or all the colors pop out more? We don't know.”

Once psychedelics are studied more, Doss believes that information could absolutely be used to make better, and more trippy, virtual reality experiences.

Rizzo, however, does not think that VR could come close to giving users the same experience as an actual psychedelic drug.

"I hate to say it, and I might sound like an old fart here. But I just don't see it being capable of inducing that [emotional] state to that level that you can get with a big time acid trip," he says.

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Lindsey Weedston is a Seattle area writer focused on mental health and addiction, politics, human rights, and various social issues. Her work has appeared in The Establishment, Ravishly, ThinkProgress, Little Things, Yes! Magazine, and others. You can find her daily writings at NotSorryFeminism.com. Twitter: https://twitter.com/LindseyWeedston

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