Escape From Reality
The human desire to escape from reality is essentially the desire to break patterns - to free ourselves from the shackles of habitual thoughts and behaviors, even if just for a short period of time. Ranging from lite 'escapist' activities (like reading novels and meditation) to more extreme pastimes (virtual reality, Second Life, and psychedelics), we have designed a spectrum of escapist methods - from analog to digital.
Two activities have more in common than you may think - psychedelics and virtual reality. (After all, it is no coincidence that the birthplace of virtual reality technology overlaps with the psychedelic movements taking place in the San Francisco area). Both create altered states of perception to understand - and hack into - human consciousness and our sense of self. Both are guided, immersive journeys that brings users closer to the 'essence' of something or one's inner self. And both are tools to solve problems and transcend current realities into a more imaginative world. By choreographing the senses and temporarily suspending the order of the brain, there are opportunities to create new connections and form new habits with measurable, long-lasting effects - even once you return to reality.
Psychedelics & Virtual Reality have the potential to help us cope with our fears and treat mental illness.
George Greer, medical director of the Heffter Research Institute (who recently funded psilocybin studies from Johns Hopkins and NYU), states that “psilocybin could be more effective at treating some significant psychiatric diseases than existing pharmaceutical approaches” – especially because a single treatment can improve symptoms for months, and even years. Psilocybin suppresses the default mode network (DMN) which is closely tied to our ego, and in doing so, researchers believe this allows the brain to lower our defenses, diminish our sense of self, and therefore free users from personal loops which may have led them to depression, anxiety, or PTSD. In the recent studies at Johns Hopkins and NYU, terminal cancer patients were guided through an 8-hour psychedelic journey as a way of coping with “existential distress” at the end of their lives. In this case, about 80% of the patients showed significant reductions in anxiety and depression. Researchers theorize this suppression of the ego and dissociation with one’s body leads to an overall greater sense of openness and connection with the world at large.
Likewise, virtual reality plays a role in both cognitive therapy and exposure therapy by creating a simulated environment in which patients interact with scenarios and variables that aren’t real, over and over again until the brain is re-trained to understand there is no danger. Ranging from treating phobias (spiders, flying, and heights are common) to paranoia- and delusion- based illnesses such as schizophrenia, patients’ avatars face various ‘trigger events’ until they gain the confidence and training to deal with the scenarios in real life. Virtual reality also removes the typical social constructs between doctors and patients – because therapists observe their patients interact in the virtual environment, they can potentially make insights and gain information that the patient might not reveal in ‘real life.’
Psychedelics & Virtual Reality are key to unlocking transformative experiences by expanding the mind.
Many users of psychedelics report feeling an increase in understanding and appreciation for the world around them and for others. By suppressing the Default Mode Network (through psychedelics, meditation, fasting, sensory deprivation tanks, and even virtual reality), other neural systems step in and form new connections. In his latest book, Michael Pollan writes: “These new connections may manifest as new perspectives, new ideas, new metaphors. By temporarily disrupting the order of the brain, a new order forms” - which is essentially the definition of the creative and ideation process (forming new connections). In the short-term, a dose of psilocybin could lead to the inspiration and generation of new ideas. In the long-term, when confronted with new experiences it cannot immediately comprehend, the brain continues to create new neural pathways and alter existing ones as it adapts and learns, leading to an “increased sense of openness and wider interest in different experiences.”
Without dabbling in psychedelia, virtual reality allows similar opportunities to engage with the fantastical and unlock one’s imagination. VR can transport elderly or handicapped patients with little to no mobility to locations they would otherwise never get to experience. VR journalism can bring readers to the very heart of a story to build empathy and context around the subject matter. VR broadcasting can create a social space where thousands of people can simultaneously experience live events together. VR artist Roger Essig is even combining his psychedelic experiences with virtual reality technology to create fantastical art experiences. An effective VR experience enables users to temporarily escape the constraints of the real world – and as designers, it gives us the chance to imagine a world where nothing is impossible.
This year, the ICRAVE Visualization team developed an interactive VR art installation that takes users on a transformative retail experience. Rather than mimicking real-world experiences, R.E.M. (Retail Environment Machine) was imaginative and abstract, and pushed the boundaries of what a virtual world could look like.
Our brains are likely locked into patterns and a VR trip could be just what the doctor ordered to break free.
Cover image by Guided Meditation VR.