Over the past few years, VR has exploded in popularity. Initially inhabiting a relatively niche gaming subculture, Virtual Reality eventually skyrocketed to practically every mainstream domain in our culture – from healthcare, to education, to entertainment, to retail.
There are hundreds of millions of active users around the world who own a VR headset. And as the ever-reducing cost of this hardware continues to lower the barrier to entry, millions (if not billions) more will join the virtual revolution in the coming years.
Alongside VR, the mindfulness and meditation industry has too exploded in popularity. The once labeled woo-woo, new-age practice is now viewed as a legitimate, science-backed method adopted by world leaders, Fortune 500 CEO’s, and the government agencies. There are hundreds of meditation apps available on the Google Pay and Apple app stores, and meditation has become a billion-dollar industry in 2015 according to Forbes.
The two technologies have many shared characteristics: both transport you out of normal waking consciousness, both can lead to neurobiological changes in the brains, and both have the power to disrupt culture. The intersection between the two movements is an inevitability, as dozens of VR meditation, mindfulness, and mind-tech apps are already hitting the market.
After personally experimenting with many of these apps (and even making one myself), I find myself beyond excited with the ways VR can potentiate the effects of meditation. In this article, I outline what these consciousness hacking possibilities are, and how you can take advantage of them.
1. Immersive, Relaxing Environments
It’s not an accident that most meditation centers are found in quiet, natural settings as your environment plays a direct role in your ability to still the mind.
This is one of the reasons meditation apps like Calm have exploded in popularity. No matter where you are in the world, the app can quickly whisk you to a soothing setting, allowing your mind to follow suit.
VR takes this to the next level.
Relax VR immerses users inside beautiful, serene locations such as powdery white-sanded beaches, hidden forests at sunrise, or a snow-filled cottage with the northern lights above you.
Lumen was created by Stanford research scientists to help children ease anxiety heading into surgeries. The experience sits inside a magical, luminescent forest. As you hold your attention to elements such as seedlings or tree branches, grow before you.
Clip from Lumen
Modifying colors of one’s environment is another mind hack VR gives its users. For thousands of years, cultures around the world have recognized how color affects physical, mental and emotional systems of the body (known today as chromotherapy). Although there have been a number of studies confirming this ancient wisdom, the legitimacy of these studies has been questioned due to the difficulty in fully immersing participants in a target color.
The VR agency Liminal is working with The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health to study how color affects emotion inside of virtual worlds. Unlike non-VR color tests, participants will fully be immersed in specific colors, something difficult to achieve in the real world. After being introduced to 40 different colors in various VR environments, participants will undergo psychometric tests.
Imagine pinpointing the exact colors that evoke specific emotions associated with advanced states meditation (love, contentment, serenity), then reverse engineering the process by immersing your entire world in such color.
2. VR Meditation Communities
I once interviewed Christopher Plowman, the CEO of Insight Timer, one of the most popular free meditation apps in the world with over 3.2 million users. I asked him why he believed the app was so wildly popular, and one of the reasons he pointed towards was the app’s active community.
There’s something about being a part of a meditation community (whether physical or virtual) that seems to enhance the development of its individual members. Maybe this is one of the reasons the Buddha himself stressed the importance of the Sangha – an environment where fellow seekers can come together and support one another towards their path to enlightenment.
VR will have the potential to connect people around the world, bringing to life virtual meditation communities. Vincent Horn describes this opportunity:
“Over the next several years, we’ll see sanghas integrating and adopting virtual reality technologies. Instead of meeting online in two dimensions, these cloud-based sanghas will gather in three-dimensional virtual environments. No longer reaching locals only, brick-and-mortar sanghas will become what I call ubiquitous sanghas, able to bring people into their “space” from all over the world. Fixed in neither analog nor digital space, they will exist everywhere, attracting people of different backgrounds and lowering the barrier of entry into communities dedicated to the practices of awakening.”
3. Ecstasis Engineering
Meditation is famous for putting users in a state of consciousness which Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal refer to as “Ecstasis”. In their book Stealing Fire, they describe this ancient concept as the act of “stepping beyond oneself.” This elusive state is associated with four characteristics:
Whether entranced in a psychedelic trip, lost in a flow state, or experiencing deep states of meditation, these four underlying traits can be shared between them all.
Ecstasis has been shown to upgrade health & immunity, improve creativity, enhance focus, and lead to peak mental/physical performance. At its most basic level, Ecstasis feels incredible, and many set up their lives to enter the state as much as possible.
VR experiences can reliably place users in Ecstasis.
One of the best examples of this is from artist Android Jones, who has created an awe-inducing VR app called Microdose VR. In their book Stealing Fire, Jamie Wheal and Steven Kotler describe the experience:
“Zooming through that digital world, surrounded by deep trance music and the actual “molecules of desire,” the simulation is more than enough to knock you out of regular awareness.
“That’s probably the real value of these experiences,” explains Jones. “They take us out of our conditioned world. They open a realm of everything else we might never have experienced and only dreamed of. You think you know where the boundaries are, but you see this stuff and think, if this thing I’m looking at is possible, what else might be possible?”
Clip from MicrodoseVR
Tree by the MIT Media Lab takes you outside of yourself by literally transforming you into a tree nestled in a lush rainforest. With your arms as the branches and your body as the trunk, you’ll watch yourself grow from a tiny seedling into a towering tree overlooking the Peruvian jungle.
A common occurrence during a state of Ecstasis (whether meditative or psychedelic) is that of synesthesia, the phenomenon where one of the brain’s sensory systems automatically triggers another – think seeing sounds or hearing colors. SoundSelf allows users to tap into this phenomenon using VR. The experience sits users inside a strobing tunnel of light, where their voice creates fractal-like shapes and colors encapsulating the space around you.
Visual hallucinations are another side effect of entering Ecstasis. Researchers at the Sackler Center for Consciousness Science at England’s University of Sussex have combined Google’s DeepDream with VR to create what they’ve dubbed the Hallucination Machine. The experience plays panorama videos of natural scenes of Sussex campus, and uses Google’s DeepDream algorithm to simulate effects of biological hallucinations.
Clip from the Hallucination Machine
4. Boosting Biofeedback
One of the common credos you’ll hear from meditation teachers is just how connected the mind and body are. The activities of the mind, directly affect systems of the body. And the systems of the body, directly affect the activity of the mind.
There are numerous ancient traditions harnessing the body as a tool to gain greater control over the mind – from Yoga, to Tai Chi, to Qigong.
In today’s age of technology, modern meditators are turning towards biofeedback training. In her book The High-Performance Mind, Anna Wise describes biofeedback in its simplest terms:
“Biofeedback is simply the feeding back of one’s biology. You cannot consciously change something of which you are unaware. If you can be made to be aware of a certain body function, then you can learn to alter it.”
The idea is to pinpoint what the body undergoes amidst a peak spiritual experience. Then use biofeedback tools such as EEG headsets, Heart Rate Variability (HRV) monitors, and Galvanic Skin Response devices to reverse engineer the process. VR takes this idea to the next level.
PsychicVR by the MIT Media Lab combines VR with brain-computer interfaces (BCI). Users wear an HTC Vive alongside a Muse headband that measures electrical activity of the brain. This data is then used to control various elements of your virtual world. Imagine being able to levitate, move objects, or generate fireballs from your palms, just by focusing the mind.
Clip from the PsychicVR
IntelliSense HRV and Unyte works off the same idea, but uses heart rate variability (HRV) which is central to the body’s autonomic nervous system. By learning to calm your nervous system through HRV, various elements of your environment begin to shift and change, giving the user a positive feedback loop.
5. Brainwave Entrainment 2.0
I’ve written ad nauseam about brainwave entrainment, which is an excellent method to enter deep states of meditation at a fraction of the time. If you aren’t familiar with how it works, here’s a quick and dirty explanation.
Entrainment is a physics principle where one rhythmic system falls in synchrony with another rhythmic system. This could be:
- Fish in the ocean coming together to swim in synchrony.
- Your circadian rhythm synchronizing to the rise and fall of the sun.
- The human heart beating at the same beat of a pacemaker.
The neurons in the human brain communicate through electrical rhythms (which are called brain waves). And just like any other rhythmic system, brain waves can be subject to entrainment. For example, if you stare at a strobe light flashing at a consistent and slow enough rate, your brainwaves will eventually begin to fall into that same rate. This is how you can take someone with little to no meditation experience, and within a few BWE sessions, tap them into similar brainwave states as seasoned meditators.
There has been an industry built around entrainment. From audio entrainment (such as binaural beats), to sound and light machines (which are the most effective form of BWE as multiple areas of the brain are activated at once). The problem with sound and light machines are the cost, where devices can range from $200 all the way up to $700. VR disrupts this hardware limitation.
Our team has created an app called Waves.fm that allows anyone with a smartphone and a $10 Google Cardboard to access the same capabilities as a $300 dollar sound and light machine. You’re able to use your phone to deliver pulsing sound and flashing light at target frequencies linked to deep states of meditation.
And instead of delivering static flashes of light, we’ve created magical VR worlds where elements of your environment pulse at target frequencies. Imagine stepping inside an ever-changing psychedelic kaleidoscope, where light pulses off the structure at 10hz, allowing you to synchronize into a meditative state.
6. Empathy Engineering
One of the positive side effects of long-term meditation is that of compassion. The deeper and longer you can sustain a meditative state, boundaries between self and other begin to dissolve, leaving you with a profound sense of unity with the world around you.
You may no longer see the challenges of your peers, community, and even the Earth as external problems, but collective internal problems shared by all. Greater feelings of selflessness arise, and you may feel the tug to help the world around you. VR may be a way to accelerate this process.
With Notes on Blindness, you’ll step into the world of John Hall – a man who lost his vision in the 1980s. The creators of the experience took audio diary excerpts from old recorded cassette tapes, and created VR worlds that mirrored his notes. Experience first hand the challenges living in a world gone dark, relying on senses such as hearing to make sense of your environment.
Waves Of Grace immerses you inside the story of Decontee Davis, a Liberian woman who survived one of the largest Ebola outbreaks in history. You’ll live in her reality, watching the challenges she endures while caring for orphaned children living in her village.
6×9 places you inside a 6 foot by 9-foot solitary confinement jail cell. You’ll see first hand what it feels like to live inside such socially isolating quarters. You may walk away with a greater understanding of how the experience leaves many psychologically damaged.
With Kiya, you’ll experience an incident involving Zakiya Lawson, who was killed by her then partner Peter Cenel Williams. The creators took audio from Zakiya’s sister’s 911 call, and recreated the fatal scene through VR, aiming to give users a better understanding of the realities of domestic violence.
Clip from Kiya
Unlike images on a screen, these VR experiences allow you to immerse yourself in the world of another, intimately seeing the world through their unique set of eyes. Jason Silva talk about this idea in this mind-expanding video:
“Imagine the intimacy that becomes possible when people meet and they say hey, do you want come visit my world? Do you want to see what it’s like to be inside my head? What kind of intimacy? It’s like turning ourselves inside out.”
For a brief period of time, your individual consciousness is almost layered on top of theirs, feeling first hand the struggles they may go through. This “empathetic engineering” may leave you walking away with a slightly shifted, more compassionate perspective.
What’s your experience with VR as a consciousness hacking tool? Have you tried any of the VR experiences outlined in this article? What future applications excite you most about VR? Let us know in the comments below.