VR + Psych

Simulated States of Consciousness: Inducing Psychedelic Experiences in Virtual Reality

Abstract
Virtual reality has recently been utilized in a therapeutic tool within the area of psychotherapy. VR therapy has become a significant approach to a number of psychological disorders such as anxiety, PTSD, and depression through exposure therapy and simulated environments (Park et al., 2019). However, the potential to mimic psychedelic experiences through VR simulations as a therapeutic modality has yet to be examined. Current research suggests individuals in VR simulated psychedelic experiences undergo similar effects to those using psychedelic drugs (Suzuki et al., 2017). Yet the extent to which psychedelic VR simulations can physiologically impact the brain and mind is largely unexplored. To determine whether VR simulations can mimic psychedelic drugs, a targeting of 5-HT receptor activity, within the frontal lobe, is proposed in order to hypothesize an area of activation for psychedelic simulations (Lu and Liu, 2017). This paper will examine drug mechanisms of psychedelics, the theoretical application of VR-based psychedelic therapy, and postulate a method to measure the effectiveness of psychedelic simulations with respect to psychopathology.
About the Author
Harman Brar

Harman Brar is a researcher and artist interested in understanding the mind and consciousness through the integration of science, art, and technology. She received her Bachelor of Science in Psychology and Human Biology from the University of Toronto and a certificate in Advanced Web Development and Design from the University of Waterloo. Harman has previously worked as a research assistant at a psychiatric facility and is a certified meditation teacher. The underlying theme in all her work is an exploration of consciousness, and she believes that art, science, and technology can be utilized to improve cognitive functioning. Her thesis project is focused on inducing altered states of consciousness in virtual reality, specifically psychedelic experiences that can potentially mimic the neuropharmacological therapeutic effects of psychedelic drugs.

About the Project

Background

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.

Information

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.

Fig. 1. Brain imaging displaying the effects of psilocybin.

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.

Research Questions

  • 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?

Hypothesis

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.

Methodology

Simulated Psychedelic VR Experience

Fig. 2 MIRAGE experience still depicting blurred vision effects.
Fig. 3 MIRAGE experience still illustrating high colour saturation.

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.


Theoretical Applications

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.


Future Research

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:

www.entermirage.com

MY NEONORMAL STORY
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The COVID-19 pandemic restrictions led me to alter my approach to this research project. Initially, I had intended to run experimental studies to collect neurofeedback from participants (fMRI, EEG) while they were immersed in a VR psychedelic environment. However, my project quickly became a theoretical approach to a potentially therapeutic experience in VR. This shift allowed me to have more time to work on my technical prototype while taking a more creative approach in the design and development of the VR experience. Furthermore, my research paper became highly theoretical while attempting to address a cognitive science based question with hypothesis that may be tested in future research studies. Considering the effect the pandemic has on psychological wellbeing, I believe technology can be used as a tool to mediate such psychological stressors and potentially offer a therapeutic modality.