[C] CHI’2020 Paper: Isness: Using Multi-Person VR to Design Peak Mystical-Type Experiences Comparable to Psychedelics

Abstract: Studies combining psychotherapy with psychedelic drugs (PsiDs) have demonstrated positive outcomes that are often associated with PsiDs’ ability to induce ‘mystical-type’ experiences (MTEs) – i.e., subjective experiences whose characteristics include a sense of connectedness, transcendence, and ineffability. We suggest that both PsiDs and virtual reality can be situated on a broader spectrum of psychedelic technologies. To test this hypothesis, we used concepts, methods, and analysis strategies from PsiD research to design and evaluate ‘Isness’, a multi-person VR journey where participants experience the collective emergence, fluctuation, and dissipation of their bodies as energetic essences. A study (N=57) analyzing participant responses to a commonly used PsiD experience questionnaire (MEQ30) indicates that Isness participants had MTEs comparable to those reported in double-blind clinical studies after high doses of psilocybin & LSD. Within a supportive setting and conceptual framework, VR phenomenology can create the conditions for MTEs from which participants derive insight and meaning.