Dissolving yourself in connection to others: shared experiences of ego attenuation and connectedness during group VR experiences can be comparable to psychedelics
28 May 2021
Computer scientists, chemists, artists, psychiatrists and psychologists including Olivia Maynard and Steph Suddell worked together in this study using virtual reality to elicit states of connectedness and ego dissolution.
With a growing body of research highlighting the therapeutic potential of experiential phenomenology which diminishes egoic identity and increases one's sense of connectedness, there is significant interest in how to elicit such 'self-transcendent experiences' (STEs) in laboratory contexts. Psychedelic drugs (YDs) have proven particularly effective in this respect, producing subjective phenomenology which reliably elicits intense STEs. With virtual reality (VR) emerging as a powerful tool for constructing new perceptual environments, we describe a VR framework called 'Isness-distributed' (Isness-D) which harnesses the unique affordances of distributed multi-person VR to blur conventional self-other boundaries. Within Isness-D, groups of participants co-habit a shared virtual space, collectively experiencing their bodies as luminous energetic essences with diffuse spatial boundaries. It enables moments of 'energetic coalescence', a new class of embodied phenomenological intersubjective experience where bodies can fluidly merge, enabling participants to have an experience of including multiple others within their self-representation. To evaluate Isness-D, we adopted a citizen science approach, coordinating an international network of Isness-D 'nodes'. We analyzed the results (N = 58) using 4 different self-report scales previously applied to analyze subjective YD phenomenology (the inclusion of community in self scale, ego-dissolution inventory, communitas scale, and the MEQ30 mystical experience questionnaire). Despite the complexities associated with a distributed experiment like this, the Isness-D scores on all 4 scales were statistically indistinguishable from recently published YD studies, demonstrating that distributed VR can be used to design intersubjective STEs where people dissolve their sense of self in the connection to others.