Virtual Reality has recently been utilized as a therapeutic tool in psychotherapy, through exposure therapy and simulated environments. However, the possibility to simulate neuropharmacological effects in VR is largely unexplored.This research project examines the potential positive neurocognitive effects of a simulated psychedelic experience in virtual reality. A VR psychedelic experience is proposed to examine the possible neural target areas of activation, specifically 5-HT2A receptors within the frontal lobe, that when activated may result in positive neuropsychological effects similar to those induced by psychedelic drugs. In order to test this theoretical hypothesis, MIRAGE, a psychedelic VR experience, was designed.
While previous studies have indicated that VR psychedelic simulations can impact individuals’ self-reported experiences, currently the neurophysiological implications of said simulations have yet to be examined. To establish a theoretical framework, this paper hypotheses specific neural areas of activation that can be targeted in order to simulate the positive effects associated with psychedelic drugs. Specifically, 5-HT2A receptors within the frontal lobe are proposed to be areas that may be activated in a psychedelic simulation to mirror the activation that occurs under the psychedelic drug conditions.
5-HT receptors are serotonergic receptors activated by psychedelic drugs such as psilocybin (Kometer et al., 2013). Additionally, recent studies have suggested that 5-HT2A receptors are responsible for the visual hallucinations that occur under the influence of psychedelic drugs, specifically psilocybin. (Kometer et al., 2020). Thus, the simulated experience was designed to isolate for visual hallucinations and the hypothesized area of activation by which to measure the potential of a psychedelic simulation is the 5-HT2A receptors within the frontal lobe.
- Can a psychedelic virtual reality simulation mimic the psychological and physiological effects of psychedelic drugs?
- If we isolate for visual hallucinations, can we simulate these effects and target specific brain areas of activation to measure the physiological effects of the experience?
- If we can trick our brain into perceiving a simulation as a true psychedelic experience physiologically, how can this further our understanding of the mind with respect to psychopathology?
If brain activity of individuals in a psychedelic VR simulation shows activation of 5HT2A receptors, leading to increased serotonin levels and the associated “positive” feelings, then it may indicate that simulated psychedelic experiences can mirror psychedelic drugs when isolating for visual hallucinatory effects on the brain.
Simulated Psychedelic VR Experience
To test the hypothesis and understand the effects of a simulation on the brain, a virtual reality experience, MIRAGE, was designed. The experience is set in a desert environment, where the desert serves as a metaphor for the mind and a mirage representing a visual hallucination. The desert landscape also references psychedelic plants that thrive in the arid environment (Peyote) and the historical significance of the California desert in the 60s counter-culture movement.
The proposed VR simulation experiment focuses on the visual hallucinations often induced by psychedelic drugs. These effects include blurred vision, tracers, increased saturation of colour, dizziness, moving patterns and textures, among other visual hallucinatory phenomena. The user would thus enter a virtual reality environment and interact with and experience visual hallucinatory effects while immersed in the simulation. The VR simulation was developed in Unity3D and designed to be experienced using Oculus Rift. Additionally, a psychedelically inspired interactive website was created for users to understand the inspiration and process of the experience.
In order to determine the potential of a psychedelic VR simulation mimicking the effects of psychedelic drugs, neurofeedback would be measured to assess whether the hypothesized area of activation (5HT2A receptors) were affected while in the simulated environment. Should the proposed areas be activated, serotonin levels and serotonin metabolites would be analyzed and compared with neural activity of psychedelic drug induced experiences. Potential findings that may suggest successful simulation of a psychedelic experience include 5HT2A receptor activity, increased serotonin production and decreased production of serotonin metabolites thus indicating increased serotonin levels.
To extend this research project, further analysis and experimental data collection would be required to assess the validity of the simulation effects and impact on the neural activity of participants versus drug control groups. Specifically, acquiring neurofeedback would be instrumental in understanding the extent to which a simulation can mimic a psychedelic drug experience. Furthermore, additional research would aid in identifying alternative neural areas of activation with respect to psychedelic drug actions.
MIRAGE VR Experience
To experience MIRAGE and learn more about the development of the project visit: