Virtual Psychedelics: How VR Affects Your Brain

What does virtual reality have in common with psychedelics? This is a question that I set out to discover at SXSW 2017, attending an AR/VR panel session that included SOOK-LEI LIEW of University of Southern California, TARYN SOUTHERN of Happy Cat Media & Tribe of Good, IAN FORESTER of VR Playhouse (moderating) and Khayyam Wakkil of Live Planet. The panel began with the topic of psychotropes, and then expanded the discussion to explore how VR impacts our sense of self, VR therapies, challenges and opportunities.

Taryn Southern was the resident expert on psychedelics, having studied them at the University of Miami. Obviously both psychedelics and virtual reality can both separate us from the real world. They both trick the brain, creating a sense of dissociation from the body. Virtual reality tricks the brain by putting people in situations that they would not otherwise be in. Audio creates additional reference points for the brain to make the experience more convincing.  However, brain maps of people using  virtual reality and psychedelics show that the same neural pathways are not activated – virtual reality opens new neural pathways.

Virtual reality offers a primarily visual experience. The brain is really smart, it knows you are in VR, because the vision we are given in VR is not the same as vision in the real world. Psychedelics change the way neurons fire and interact, whereas VR forms some new neural patterns.

Below is a summary of the major topics covered during this fascinating session.

Consciousness, “Self”, and the Neuroplasticity of the Human Brain

The panel explored the question of how our view of consciousness and “self” can change in VR, and how using VR to put the body in an alternative “container” can adjust that perception of self moving forwards.

The brain has a lot of neuro plasticity. Sook-Lei Liew, who uses AI and VR to help stroke victims, revealed that after a stroke, when your brain sends a signal for your arm to move, your arm does not move. However, using a closed loop brain computer interface and virtual reality, when your brain exhibits the intent to move, the arm that won’t move in real life moves in the virtual reality environment, closing that feedback loop and embodying the intent, and beginning the process of healing that connection. Similarly, it can help paraplegics regain muscle control over their bodies.

Long before Snap Chat was on the scene, Liew was experimenting with mirrors to blend peoples faces together and determine how it impacts empathy via an implicit association test that has individuals use positive and negative words to describe themselves following the experience. In general,  prior to the experiment, people tend to think of themselves more positively than they think of other people. Our scientist went into the experiment expecting the subjects to think of the other individual their image had been blended with in a more positive away. In reality, they found that they actually thought of themselves more negatively. This experiment illustrates how fragile our sense of “self” is, and that it can be manipulated in a number of ways. The therapeutic implications of this are deep.

From there, the panel touched on the subject of what makes us human, and made the audience realize that we were quickly descending into the realm of science fiction. Early research has revealed that if you are given a body in VR that is different than the body you inhabit in real life, you begin to take on the characteristics of the new body. For example, if you have extra long arms in VR, you will begin to believe you have extra long arms in real life, or if you are given a child like body in VR, this translates to the exhibition of more childlike behavior in reality.

So what is it that makes us uniquely human, when this sense of who we are can be challenged so readily? A VR study out of Stanford gave people a third arm in the headset, which was controlled by flicks of the wrist. First individuals were asked to build something with 2 arms, then with 3. Within 3 minutes those with 3 arms where able to build things more quickly than they had with 2 arms. Their brains quickly learned new skill and assimilated the third arm. The possibilities to human potential seem limitless, and we are at the beginning of our understanding. With the exponential rate of technological development, humans merging with machines no longer seems to be in the realm of fantasy.


Exposure Therapies – PTSD in Veterans

Virtual reality can be extremely useful in exposure therapies. Skip Rizzo, a psychologist working out of USC works with veterans and provides VR centric therapies for veterans. He also employs facial recognition technology to measure reactions to VR experiences. Interestingly, the AI behind this facial recognition technology typically works better than a real therapist, as it is more accurately able to read facial expressions and therefore progress.

The VR experiences recreate various war settings for the individual’s veterans who are receiving treatment. These experiences are recreated using visual, audio, and haptic suits (touch), allowing patients to discuss their experiences both in and outside of the VR setting. By reliving these experiences in a constructive way. Veterans are able to diminish their experience of PTSD over time. The therapy means the experience is not just in their head, but can be shared with others, and allows a re-consolidation of unstable memories. As Ian Forrester points out, Donald Hoffman said that 60% of what we perceive is built from our core mythology / subconscious, and now virtual reality can disrupt that.

Potential Dangers and Challenges of Virtual Reality

One of the questions asked during the session was what are some of the challenges that people doing this research are running in to. As virtual reality has not been around for a long time, there are no long term studies on it’s side effects. Oculus recommends that children under the age of 13 does not use their VR headset. Particular concerns for children include a lack of understanding that VR headset use has on visual development, particularly depth perception. On the flip side, VR opens up a number of therapeutic opportunities for children with social disorders such as autism, by enabling to interact with an avatar in a controlled environment. In general, studies done in individuals using VR will not keep the subject in the HMD for longer than an hour at a time.

Other reported side effects that people who frequently use VR systems have reported (such as developers) include a sense of dissociation from their bodies, vertigo and motion sickness. Interestingly, studies on rats placed in a virtual environment show that neuron activity inside the hippocampus was very different than when a rat is searching in a  real world environment, In fact, 60% of neural activity shut down in hippocampus completely.

Humans show a lot of brain plasticity in general – an example we are probably all familiar with realtes to blind people. If you are blind the visual cortex gets taken over by your other senses. VR uses primarily visual systems, and this can skew the way brain processes the other senses outside of vr. When outside of VR, the brain may have to re-adapt and readjust the senses.

An audience member asked the question of whether VR can help people who are already experiencing hallucinations in real life, such as an indivudal with a psychological disorder. The panel was quick to advise that if you are already experiencing hullicinations, you should not use virtual reality. This is in line with recommendations not to use psychotropics drugs when experiencing similar disorders.

The brain processes an amazing amount of data – 2 billion bits every second. We are truly at the infancy of this technology and at this stage, do not even know what we don’t know.

Learning in Virtual Reality

Virtual reality has some great implications for learning, whether it is allowing students to participate in a virtual classroom, or using augmented reality for medical students to examine brains, rather than having to use cadavers.

We are still understanding how learning skills in VR translates to learning skills in real life. Learning in VR looks the same, but what you actually learn (the way your brain is firing) is different from how you learn in reality. In virtual reality, neural circuits are move cognitive, versus in the real world where you are using all of your senses. A lot of studies have been done with rats and how they learn in VR, although Liew kindly pointed out that scientists are not currently going around and sticking electrodes in human brains yet!

Controlling Robots with Your Mind

Virtual reality has demonstrated that humans can control a body that is different to their own in VR, and this has implications for controlling robots with our minds. Southern has a vision of using mind controlled robots in war zones, that an expert can occupy for a recovery mission, then another expert can take over for other tasks, such as medical or carpentry.

However, the brain is a noisy place, and it is important to “manage the hype” as we are not there yet. It takes populations of neurons to control really discrete movements, and it will take time for technology to catch up to the vision. An example of an early tool is a forehead band that sense muscle movement in an individuals forehead to control the mouth of an avatar.

Southpark Goes VR

I’ll leave you with this final video: (yes, there panel went there…)

About The Panel

Khayyam Wakkil quit technology for 1 ½ years, because of it’s ability to manipulate trust, ironically, that is the way it is being used in many therapies today. Wakkil argues that you might know that you are standing 2” off the ground on a 2×4, but a VR headset can make your brain believe that you are standing over a cliff. His most moving VR experience was watching someone else, watch someone give birth via VR. Wakkil is the CSO & Head of Creative Partnerships at Live Planet.

Taryn Southern began her career with a rather colorful study of psychotropics at the University of Miami, and has long been fascinated with how we can push the outer limits of our brains. In recent years there has been a resurgence of interest in psychadelics. Southern got into VR two years ago, after experiencing the HTC Vive for the first time and immediately being fascinated by the way entertainment can impact the brain. She was particularly fascinated by the intersection of science, technology and psychology. Her most moving experience was using Tiltbrush for the first time. Taryn Southern is a content creator, digital strategist, VR/AR enthusiast, and internet personality whose videos have received more than 700 million views online.

Sook-Lei Liew’s most moving experience in VR was coming face to face with a whale in The Blue. Liew is the Assistant Professor & Directer of the Neural Plasticity & Neurorehabilitation Laboratory at the University of Southern California

Ian Forrester didn’t eat bacon for a month after watching an experience about a slaughterhouse in mexico by VRPlayhouse. He also mentioned a particularly moving experience tracking the journey of Jewish children through Nazi Germany. Ian is the Chief Creative Officer and Co-Founder of VR Playhouse. He unities his extensive backgrounds in digital entertainment and immersive live storytelling to forge innovative paths for the future of virtual reality.

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