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Psychedelic Medicine

Association

Applications of Virtual Reality in Psychedelic Therapy with Agnieszka Sekula, MSc

Summary

In this episode of the Psychedelic Medicine Podcast, Agnieszka Sekula joins to discuss her research into the applications of virtual reality in psychedelic-assisted therapy. Agnieszka is a researcher at Swinburne University and co-founder of Enosis Therapeutics. Her research focuses on investigating therapeutic mechanisms in psychedelic treatment that can be strengthened through experience design and translating findings of this research into real-life applications by developing virtual reality scenarios. Additionally, she has recently conducted the first ever case study of VR and psychedelics.

In her research, Agnieszka considers many possible uses of virtual reality in the context of psychedelic therapy, as well as potential dangers. The first application she discusses is using VR to promote relaxation prior to a psychedelic journey. Similar to the synergy between psychedelics and meditation, Agnieszka suggests that the immersive experience of VR could be useful in promoting states of calmness which are ideal for a person about to enter into a psychedelic experience. Additionally, she suggests that the otherworldly imagery and soundscapes possible with VR technology can help prime a client for the shifts and intensifications of perception caused by psychedelics. Having the opportunity to explore these states prior to the experience helps the patient to feel more prepared for the experiences, especially since with VR these explorations occur in a context where one maintains a connection with sober consciousness and can easily opt out if things become overstimulating.

Next Agnieszka discusses the potential of augmenting peak psychedelic experiences with VR. Considering both psychedelics and virtual reality have the potential to occasion dramatic shifts in consciousness and affect, pairing these together is likely to be synergistic in promoting mystical experiences in the therapeutic process—something which appears to be closely tied to the efficacy of psychedelic-assisted therapy. Though little research currently exists in this area, Agnieszka believes that VR may have the potential to more reliably facilitate experiences of ego dissolution and deep awe during the psychedelic journey.

Perhaps one of the most novel proposals in Agnieszka’s research is using VR to facilitate greater recollection of the psychedelic journey in order to promote more effective integration. She proposes that by building models of the psychedelic experience in the VR space, a patient can more readily return to the experience in sober consciousness by encountering these same stimuli again in virtual reality. The immersive experience of virtual reality may help facilitate access to feelings, memories, and intuitions which arose during the psychedelic session, leading to an easier process of integration.

However, Agnieszka’s research also considers potential dangers in combining VR and psychedelics. These include the risk of overstimulation and the potential of a trauma being triggered by certain imagery or auditory input. More mundanely, there is also the possibility of “cyber-sickness” and physical discomfort caused by the VR headset. Despite these potential drawbacks, however, Agnieszka is confident there are powerful applications of VR in psychedelic therapy, particularly in allowing for a more holistic and integrated approach to the altered states of consciousness theorized to be at the center of the efficacy of these new treatments.

In This Episode

• Using VR to induce relaxation in preparation for psychedelic journeys
• Augmenting peak psychedelic experiences with VR
• VR as a technology which may promote therapeutic alliance
• Using VR to store memories of psychedelic experiences to facilitate integration
• Transitioning between normal consciousness and altered states with the help of VR
• VR as a “digital diazepam” for decreasing the intensity of a psychedelic experience without pharmacological intervention
• The potential dangers of overstimulation or triggering traumas with VR and psychedelics

Quotes

“VR in itself is just a tool—it’s a method of delivery—but in itself it’s not the active ingredient. So whenever we speak of VR we think about the way of delivering the content, and the content is that active ingredient.” [2:22]

“The best way to prepare someone for what an altered state experience feels like is by actually experiencing an altered state, and here again VR can be very helpful in approximating… what that psychedelic experience might feel like.” [18:51]

“VR is used as a multi-sensory canvas where the patient is building the model of their psychedelic experience so that they can store it for themselves and return to it later.” [28:17]

“Using VR just as beautiful content, or… contextual design for the entire experience might not be beneficial because it might work more as a distraction than as something that supports the journey.” [49:15]

“For me the most important thing is to start looking at psychedelic treatment as an experience in its totality and to look a little bit more deeply into design principles that could be used to maximize that experience of the patient, of the client.” [53:46]

Links

* The Psychedelic Medicine Podcast has allowed the Psychedelic Medicine Association to post episodes as an educational resource, and in return the PMA is hosting the podcast show notes.