Can Virtual Reality be Psychedelic?
Guided Meditation VR on Quantitative EEG, Altered States, and Mood
Jeff Tarrant, Ph.D., BCN
Fabiola Einhorn, Qualitative Design ResearcherNovember 2019
This pilot study was designed to determine if participating in specific interactive virtual reality techniques can result in significant altered states of consciousness. The results were measured by subjective questionnaires and quantitative EEG analyses and compared to a control condition consisting of a well-known virtual reality guided meditation experience.
Subjects There were a total of 6 subjects; 3 identified as female and 3 identified as male, ages ranged from 22 to 42. 66% identified as White. One subject identified as White/Native American and one subject identified as Asian. All subjects had experience with yoga, seated meditation, and/or breathwork/Pranayama. All subjects reported engaging in meditative practices between 60 and 120 minutes each week.
This VR experience instructs the user to tone out loud with each exhalation. The vocalizations are picked up by the VR headset and used to influence the VR visual surroundings. The images created in the experience are designed to mimic/elicit a psychedelic experience. At the end of the experience, the user is instructed to close the eyes and rest for the final 2 minutes. The main portion of this experience was 10 minutes long.
Control Condition-Guided Meditation
This commercially available application provides a variety of guided meditations in a variety of virtual reality environments. For this study, we used the Focus Series #4 meditation for 10 minutes. This takes place in a computer generated nature scene. The user is guided through a breath-focus meditation by a woman’s voice. Immediately following the VR experience, the subject was verbally instructed to remain reclined in the chair and close the eyes for a brief Savasana.
Photo by Josh Riemer
Subjects were recruited through an advertisement on Craigslist. After completing a brief screening questionnaire, subjects meeting inclusion criterion were invited to participate. Subjects were excluded from consideration if they were younger than 18, and/or had a significant history of mental illness (e.g., schizophrenia, bipolar disorder) or traumatic brain injury. Subjects considered for inclusion had a minimum of 1 year experience with meditation. Each subject was scheduled for 2 sessions. Each session had an identical procedure with the exception of the intervention. In one visit they experienced the SoundSelf experience and in the other visit they experienced the Guided Meditation VR experience. Order of presentation was counter-balanced among subjects.
The primary concern of this study was to determine if the Soundself VR experience resulted in the subjective experience of altered states of consciousness and if the brain demonstrated patterns similar to those observed during the use of traditional psychedelics (e.g., Psilocybin, LSD, etc.). A secondary goal of the pilot study was to determine how this experience is similar or different from other VR experiences designed to induce a meditative state.
As a preliminary analysis, we examined the EEG results of a single subject. After transforming the Pre-SoundSelf EEG into a reference database, this data was compared to the EEG data from the
Post-SoundSelf EEG. These analyses provided z-scores of change for all band waves (e.g., alpha, theta, beta, etc.) in 84 regions of interest. Based on previous research (Collura & Tarrant, in press), any z-scores greater than 1.0 were considered significant.
Subjects participating were provided with a detailed explanation of the research process and the techniques involved in the VR meditations. After questions and concerns were addressed, subjects completed the consent form, demographic forms and the Brunel Mood Scale. They were then fitted with a 19-channel electrocap. Impedence levels were monitored and kept below 10 kOhms. Baseline EEG recordings were obtained in both eyes closed and eyes open conditions in a reclined position using a BrainMaster Discovery EEG system. Following the baseline data collection, subjects were fitted with an Oculus Rift VR headset and ear covering headphones. EEG was recorded continuously during the VR experiences. Immediately following the meditation, subjects were instructed to close their eyes for a 2 minute savasana. Post-meditation EEG was recorded during savasana. After the headgear was removed, subjects were asked to complete a second Brunel Mood Scale as well as the Altered States of Consciousness questionnaire, Toronto Mindfulness Scale, and a brief qualitative interview. Each subject was provided with a $25 gift card at the end of each session.
SINGLE SUBJECT CASE STUDYPRE-POST COMPARISON
A comparison of baseline resting to post-VR showed significant changes (>1.0 z scores) in multiple brain regions, in both slow (delta, theta) and fast brainwaves (Beta3, Gamma). The 3D brain images below demonstrate these changes. Cooler colors (blues) indicate that the activity measured decreased whereas brighter colors (yellow, orange,
red) indicate that activity has increased. Dark blue shading indicates areas that decreased by at least 1.0 z-scores. Red areas indicate areas that increased by at least 1.0 z-scores. Green areas did not change significantly.
When comparing the resting eyes closed results before and after SoundSelf, it is clear that the slower brainwaves (theta and delta) increased significantly in posterior regions, while faster brainwaves (beta, hi beta, and gamma) all decreased significantly, particularly in frontal and right hemispheric regions. Overall, this suggests a significant quieting of normal cognitive functions and perhaps an increased state of
relaxation (less thinking, more being). Of course, our primary interest is examining what is occurring during the SoundSelf experience.
The next sets of images compare before SoundSelf (eyes Open) to brainwave patterns during SoundSelf
These images are quite different than those obtained from pre-post recordings. These images demonstrate that during the SoundSelf experience there was an increase of Delta and Theta activity, particularly in the left hemisphere. This suggests a reduction of language based processing. In addition, there was an increase of Theta in frontal regions, which has been associated with feelings of bliss states during meditation. Alpha activity decreased significantly in posterior regions.
This is the primary finding associated with psychedelics. While psychedelics tend to show a decrease of all frequency bands (with the exception of Gamma), alpha reduction is the most consistent and prominent finding. This will be examined in more detail a bit later. Beta and Hi Beta both showed mixed patterns. There was a slight decrease of activity in the posterior regions (similar to the alpha reduction), but also showed significant increases in left pre-frontal regions. Gamma, the fastest brainwave measured showed significant increases in multiple areas.
While it is possible that some of this reflects muscle tension, it isalso likely that some of this activation is real. As noted above, Gamma is generally the only brainwave that shows increased levels during a psychedelic state. Gamma is also associated with increased blood flow. It is possible that some of this activation is related to the sensory processing from the SoundSelf experience. Specifically, there are dramatic visual and auditory effects in the experience which are likely to activate regions of the brain responsible for auditory and visual processing. Not surprisingly, these areas are represented in the Gamma activation patterns observed in the analysis below (temporal, parietal, and occipital lobes).
To examine the above patterns in more detail, we examined alpha changes specifically in the Posterior Cingulate Cortex and Precuneus, both considered the “hub” of the Default Mode Network. These regions were singled out based on our interest in examining any patterns that may be consistent with a psychedelic experience.
The images above clearly show significant decreases of alpha activity in the specific regions of the brain associated with the “hub” of the DMN.The 3D brain images displayed below shows changes in the brain after the Soma breath meditation. Cooler colors (blues) indicate that the activity measured decreased activity whereas brighter colors (yellow, orange, red) indicate that activity has increased. Dark blue shading indicates areas that decreased by at least 1.0 z-scores. Red and Gray areas indicate areas that increased by at least 1.0 z-scores. Green areas did not change significantly.
This single case study demonstrates that the SoundSelf experience can elicit brainwave patterns similar to a psychedelic state. Specifically, in this case, decreased alpha in the DMN and increased gamma. At the same time, there were other patterns that are not consistent with a traditional psychedelic state (increased delta and theta). After the experience, the subject appeared to show a return to baseline alpha levels, a reduction of fast activity, and an increase of slow activity, suggesting a very quiet, restful state of consciousness. Based on these preliminary results, a full pilot including 6 subjects with a control condition seemed warranted.
6 SUBJECT PILOT STUDY RESULTS
After reviewing the single case study above, it seemed important to determine if the observed results are consistent across subjects and if these results are significantly different than a more traditional VR meditation experience.
After averaging the brainwave activity of the 6 subjects by condition, we compared pre- post Soundself and Relax VR meditation data across all EEG bands, in all brain regions to determine the overall percent change.
In the Eyes Open comparison (eyes open baseline compared to during the VR experience), the overall pattern of brainwave changes is fairly similar between Active and Control conditions with some potentially important differences. While both conditions show a decrease of slow brainwave activity (Delta, Theta, Alpha), only the Control condition shows an increase of Beta. While both show an increase of Hibeta, there is a
dramatic difference between the two conditions. The increase for the Active condition is nominal, while the increase for the Control condition is quite significant. This trend continues into the Gamma band, where both conditions increased significantly, with the Control condition increasing at a much larger rate.
In the Eyes closed, pre-post comparison, the Control condition showed decreases of slow wave activity (Delta, Theta) and increased fast activity (Lobeta, Beta). This suggests an activating response-the brain is more alert and engaged after the guided meditation experience. In comparison, the Active condition showed a decrease or no significant movement across all brainwave patterns. This suggests a quieting of the brain and may also be indicative of a more open, disinhibited state of consciousness. As noted in the individual case study, research with
psychedelics has consistently demonstrated a decrease of brainwave activity, particularly in the alpha brainwave band.
When the brainwave patterns were examined by specific regions of interest, it was clear that there were specific brain regions in specific EEG bands that were significantly different between the two groups. These are highlighted below.
Here, we can clearly see that there was a dramatic difference in Gamma production between the Control and Active group in the Precuneus. This was true in both eyes open and eyes closed comparisons. However, it is noted that Gamma activity actually decreased in the control group during the VR experience. The Precuneus is commonly considered the hub of the Default Mode Network (DMN). This set of structures is critically important in altered states of consciousness, meditation, and mental
health. Because of its role in orchestrating complex cognitive processes related to “the self,” the DMN has become the most examined set of brain structure in relation to psychedelics. As noted earlier, the most common EEG pattern associated with psychedelic states involves a decrease of slow brainwave activity (esp. alpha), especially in the DMN. In addition, several studies have also found an increase of Gamma during psychedelic states.
The Central Executive Network (CEN) is comprised of a variety of frontal and parietal brain structures working together to coordinate inhibition, task switching, and updating. It inhibits the default mode network, engages your conscious brain to think, and maintains attention on a prioritized task. In fact, this network works in opposition to the DMN.
Whereas an active DMN is often associated with mind-wandering, an active CEN is associated with focused attention to a cognitive task. Lobeta is a brainwave frequency at the low end of the beta band. It is suggestive of a state of consciousness that is alert, and “ready for action.” You can think of it as a fast idle. Based on this brief description,
you can see that the Control condition showed significantly more Lobeta activation in both eyes open and eyes closed recordings in relation to the active intervention. Interestingly, there is a dramatic increase after the intervention is over, suggesting a brain that is looking for something to do.
Next, we wanted to explore the subjective experience of the subjects. As noted above, all subjects completed Pre-Post Brunel Mood Scales. This allowed us to examine any changes in how the VR experiences changed feeling states.
BRUNEL MOOD SCALE
The Brunel Mood Scale (Soos et al., 2007) consists of 32 mood descriptors that are categorized into 8 unipolar dimensions: anger, tension, depression, vigor, fatigue, confusion, happiness, calmness. For this study vigor, fatigue, and anger were eliminated due to lack of relevance. Using a response frame of “how do you feel right now?” subjects indicated the extent of their experience of the mood descriptors on a 5-point scale (0= not at all, 1= a little, 2= moderately, 3= quite a bit, 4= extremely). The graph below shows the average changes, reported by the 6 subjects.
Subject responses indicated significant decreases in feelings of tension, depression, and confusion, and significant increases in happiness and calmness. Interestingly, the overall changes between the control (guided meditation) and active (SoundSelf) conditions were very similar. Subjects did report a greater decrease of confusion during the guided meditation (-28% compared to -13%), and a greater increase of calmness in the active experience (40% to 35%)
These results suggest that there may be some common impacts on mood between the two experiences, all of which appear to be positive.
ALTERED STATES OF CONSCIOUSNESS SCALE
The Altered States of Consciousness Scale (OAV) has been in use for nearly 30 years and applied in a broad range of settings to examine a person’s experience during non-ordinary states (Studerus, et al., 2010). The scale contains 66 items, organized into 11 scales, measuring
experiences such as, “Experience of Unity,” and “Disembodiment.” The original scale utilized a visual analogue scale for each item that measured 100 millimeters. This was replaced in the current study with a 0-10 Likert Scale.
Both interventions resulted in a similar level of “blissful state.” Otherwise, the active experience (SoundSelf) was greater than the control meditation experience on all other scales. The difference was most notable on scales measuring disembodiment and impaired control and cognition.
To assess whether these scores were meaningfully related to a psychedelic experience, we compared the scores to data from previously published research with psilocybin mushrooms. Total scores for each subject, for each scale were transformed into a total percentage (0-100) providing a means to compare data from previous studies with data from the current study.
These results, suggest that the SoundSelf VR experience shows many consistencies with the experience of Psilocybin. It is noted that the SoundSelf experience actually scored higher on Experience of Unity than previous research with Psilocybin. When compared to the control
condition, there were similar reports of Spiritual Experience and Bliss. However, SoundSelf clearly separated from the Control condition, moving closer to a traditional psychedelic experience on reports of Disembodied and Impaired Cognition.
After each VR experience, subjects participated in a structured interview. The research read the following questions and the subject verbally responded. Their answers were recorded and then transcribed. The questions were as follows:
Readers are referred to Appendix 1 for a full list of subject responses. However, when the SoundSelf responses were examined for themes the following themes emerged:
Photo by Joseph Gruenthal
The results from this study suggest that the SoundSelf VR experience can produce experiences similar to those of traditional psychedelics. The results of the ASC questionnaire demonstrate this quite clearly, showing the overall trend of all subjects to report “experience of unity” at a level higher than previously published research with Psilocybin. In addition, it is noted that reports of feeling “disembodied” and “impaired cognition,” were approaching the levels observed in research with Psilocybin. Consistent with these findings, many of the guided interview responses appeared to suggest elements of a psychedelic experience. For example, Subject 3 noted, “70% of the way through I became very aware of sensations in my body. It was tingling and pleasurable. There was a feeling of lightness and ecstasy.” Subject 1 noted, “I felt like I was in another world. Being somewhere else in meditation made it feel way more calming and immersive (than normal meditation).”
Importantly, the brainwave changes that were observed in the SoundSelf experience also showed patterns similar to those observed in research with traditional psychedelics. During the SoundSelf experience, subjects showed increased Gamma activation, while all other EEG bands decreased. Immediately after the SoundSelf experience, all EEG activity showed a decrease compared to baseline levels. These patterns were different than those observed with the Guided Meditation VR experience which showed increased brainwave activation in the Beta bands during and after the experience. In addition, some of the specific brain regions most impacted by the SoundSelf experience were directly connected to the Default Mode Network, the region primarily responsible for our sense of identity. In comparison, the Guided Meditation VR experience showed
increased activation in the Executive Network, suggesting an increase of thinking, analysis, or problem solving.
In addition to the above effects, it also appears that the SoundSelf practice has a positive effect on mood states. Overall, subjects in this study reported a significant decrease of negative mood states such as tension and confusion, and a significant increase in positive mood states such as calmness and happy. It is noted that these same patterns were observed in the control condition.
The overall results of this pilot were very positive and suggest that the SoundSelf VR experience may have the capacity to induce states similar to those observed with traditional psychedelics.
Future studies should obviously include a larger sample size. In addition, it would be helpful to examine the impact of a longer SoundSelf session as well as the response to persons with psychedelic experience. Further, it may be valuable to examine individual subjects that have very strong responses to the practice to learn what it was that facilitated the experience for them.
Jeff Tarrant, Ph.D.
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