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Are VR ‘trips’ a sober alternative to psychedelic therapy?

Despite the evermore ubiquitous recognition of hallucinogenic drugs’ promising medical potential, they aren’t for everyone. With this in mind, researchers have begun investigating other methods of treating mental illness through altered states of consciousness, with technology at the helm.

As I’m sure you’re likely aware, hallucinogenic drugs have been steadily permeating mainstream media in recent years, thanks to their promising medical potential.

Social media feeds for young people struggling with mental health conditions are increasingly being filled with pro-hallucinogen content, too, as more Gen Zers turn to them to combat anxiety and depression.

Yet regardless of recent strides towards integrating them into therapy and the treatment of chronic pain, tripping isn’t for everyone.

For starters, it isn’t recommended for those with severe heart disease or anyone who shows signs of schizophrenia or related disorders.

And, generally speaking, many others simply aren’t prepared for the intensity of completely losing touch with reality (even if it does mean momentarily escaping the feelings of existential dread that are frequently brought on by news of virus outbreaks, wars, and everything in between).

So, does there exist a sober alternative to unlocking the same altered state of consciousness – and power to treat anxiety, PTSD, and depression – that DMT, psilocybin, and LSD are capable of?

Welcome to the trip of your life: the rise of underground LSD guides | Drugs | The Guardian

That’s what researchers are on a mission to find out.

And where better to start than with virtual reality – which you’ll know if you’ve ever donned one of those cumbersome headsets – can offer a rather otherworldly experience.

Unsurprisingly, this phenomena is already being capitalised on by various tech-heads.

There’s the buzzy meditation app Tripp which gives users the opportunity to float through celestial bodies, fractals, and awe-inspiring scenes, for example. The University of Sussex’s Hallucination Machine mimics the swirling visuals triggered by magic mushrooms and Atlas V’s Ayahuasca, Kosmik Journey offers total immersion in the kaleidoscopic images the brew is famous for.

However, there’s a reason why the search is still ongoing: because as intriguing as the possibility of embarking upon a mind-bending journey using only VR is, concern lies in the fact that no matter how advanced, it can’t replicate the intensely spiritual, psychologically healing benefits of psychedelics.

‘I highly doubt whether an app alone is going to approximate the magnitude of the efficacy of psychedelic therapy,’ says professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Johns Hopkins Medicine, Matthew Johnson.

Psychedelic VR meditation startup Tripp raises $11 million Series A | TechCrunch

‘VR can only directly manipulate the perceptual, but not the emotional, aspect of a trip. The latter – especially the mystical experience observed at higher doses – is what seems to underpin psychedelics’ therapeutic potential.’

On this note, it may be a while before tech-experts are able to verify the meaningful results of VR in this context, though this isn’t to say that their efforts so far have been futile.

And according to Johnson, ‘even an effect a quarter of the size of what preliminary psychedelic studies have uncovered’ is worth pursuing, which is why he deems it important to continue investigating.

After all, for people advised to steer clear of intoxicating substances, VR is a safer option.

Namely because you can always opt out or instantly transition to a more calming setting if things are becoming panic-inducing, whereas once you’re tripping there is, unfortunately, no stopping it.

‘You want to test these things, but it’s reasonable that VR would be, relatively speaking, safer than psychedelics,’ Johnson says. ‘A sort of psychedelics lite, if you will.’

 

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