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Virtual Reality and Psychedelics are Opening New Pathways to Treating Mental Health Disorders
Virtual reality and psychedelics are paving new paths for treating mental health.
For much of history the discussion of mental health was considered taboo. People simply “weren’t right,” or, in a mystical-psychological take, they might be “touched by spirit.” Indeed, correlation between psychotic states and religious revelation is longstanding. Speculation of the eternal aside, one in four people are expected to suffer from mental health issues every year. An evolving discussion over what that entails and how to treat the range of issues implicated is unavoidable.
Two interventions—one just reaching the mainstream, the other quite old—share a common bond in altering the way we experience reality. Both are showing potentially game-changing results in treatment, which should open the doors to more research.
Throughout the twentieth century mental health had two complementary treatments: talk therapy and pharmaceuticals. Both have had their victories and seen there share of disasters, especially when the latter is implemented to avoid the rigors of the former. Clinical psychology professor Daniel Freeman and his brother, the writer Jason Freeman, argue that talking does not match the experience of problem-solving in the real world:
Counselling can be effective to a degree, but the most powerful changes happen when individuals are presented with the situations that cause them distress and directly learn how to think, feel, and behave more constructively. That means getting out of the consulting room and into the real world, with the therapist acting much more like a personal trainer or leadership coach.
Enter virtual reality. One reason talk therapy is limited is time, while pharmaceutical intervention, while successful in treating certain disorders, also has numerous side effects, including sleep disruption, gastrointestinal distress, emotional seesawing, sexual dysfunction, among others. Strapping on a headset and opening an app that places the participant in a crowded mall (agoraphobia) or on top of a skyscraper (acrophobia) could help rewire their phobias.
Recently I strapped into virtual reality for the second time—the first was a cheap cardboard model that was not all-consuming—and can attest to its overwhelming neurological presence. Even while sitting on the patio of a Santa Monica restaurant I was completely immersed in the robo-technic world of electronic dance music and Anonymous-style lingo of this particular app. In the panoramic virtual world your brain has no choice but to treat it as real regardless of its illusory nature—much the same can be said of life itself in this regard. We all see through the lenses of our illusions.
A second bonus, according to the Freeman brothers, is that, as in dreams, virtual reality is a “safe space” for us to engage in problem solving that we’d normally be reluctant to attempt “out there.”
Understandably, the thought of facing a difficult situation — even as part of a course of therapy — can be off-putting for many people. But because VR is not real that reticence tends to disappear. We’ll do things in VR that we’d be reluctant to try in normal life.
Lessons learned in the unreal world are transferrable, giving VR its therapeutic power. So far the 285 studies published on virtual reality and mental health are encouraging. Sufferers of social anxiety, PTSD, and phobias are finding success. The brothers speculate that other problems, such as depression, eating disorders, and alcoholism, might also be treated in the virtual world. They even foresee VR as being a diagnostic tool, cheaper and more accessible than fMRI machines and talk therapy sessions.
While enthusiastic, the brothers recognize that we’re at an early stage. We should always proceed with caution when considering any treatment to be a silver bullet. Yet the original virtual reality—psychedelics—keeps emerging in new research as a means for treating mental health. While this course of treatment has its own challenges—legality, dosages, individual neurochemistry—the results are favorable.
Phobias and disorders are one thing, but psychosis and schizophrenia fall into different categories. Many of us suffer the consequences of trauma and stress yet are still able to function in society. Beyond that an entire range of mental health issues ravage an under-discussed population.
Psychedelics were thrown into Nixon’s racist power grab in the early seventies, causing a wide range of substances to be taken off the market for research. Enthusiasts and scientists remained on-guard for decades, but the last few years have offered a renaissance in psychedelic research, with positive results in anxiety, nicotine addiction, and depression. As Taylor Beck reports, this has led to even more profound research:
By creating a brief bout of psychosis in a healthy brain, as indigenous healers have for millennia, scientists are seeking new ways to study—and perhaps treat—mental illness.
Identifying the neurological basis of symptoms is necessary in treating the ailment. Since disorders like schizophrenia are comprised of a number of symptoms, targeting each one pharmacologically might yield better results than trying to treat the disorder as a whole.
Beck notes that a range of psychedelics, including psilocybin, mescaline, and LSD all act on serotonin, which is critical in mood regulation. Neuropharmacologist Mitul Mehta believes the exact reason one hallucinates—be it schizophrenia, mania, or Parkinson’s—might not be pertinent if you can target the hallucinatory act itself, giving psychedelics a potentially broad range of disorders to work on.
Which is what a Swiss study Beck reports on discovered. Inducing temporary psychosis and hallucinations with psilocybin in thirty-six people, researchers attempted to block the “deluge of serotonin activation” that occurs in hallucinations. Participants were given the antipsychedelic drugs buspirone and ergotamine to accomplish just that. In this case psilocybin is not treating schizophrenia, but being used to mimic it to discover the efficacy of serotonin-blocking substances.
Buspirone restrained the hallucinations, though it didn't prevent the “anxious sense of ego dissolution or fear of going insane” sometimes associated with psychedelics. In terms of this research, though, it’s a win, with psilocybin working to mimic psychosis in the brains of healthy participants. This itself is progress in understanding such disorders, considering so much of what we’ve learned in the last few centuries was only discovered through the brains of those already afflicted.
Mental health problems are chronic. Causes, triggers, and reasons are too long for any singular substance or virtual reality to address. But these new approaches should be welcomed by mental health specialists, empowering them with noninvasive (or controllably invasive) means of better understanding what’s going on inside of their patients’ heads. We know it’s all chemistry, and no chemical should be denied its therapeutic potential.
Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
The idea of 'absolute time' is an illusion. Physics and subjective experience reveal why.
- Since Einstein posited his theory of general relativity, we've understood that gravity has the power to warp space and time.
- This "time dilation" effect occurs even at small levels.
- Outside of physics, we experience distortions in how we perceive time — sometimes to a startling extent.
Physics without time<p>In his book "The Order of Time," Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli suggests that our perception of time — our sense that time is forever flowing forward — could be a highly subjective projection. After all, when you look at reality on the smallest scale (using equations of quantum gravity, at least), time vanishes.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If I observe the microscopic state of things," writes Rovelli, "then the difference between past and future vanishes … in the elementary grammar of things, there is no distinction between 'cause' and 'effect.'"</p><p>So, why do we perceive time as flowing <em>forward</em>? Rovelli notes that, although time disappears on extremely small scales, we still obviously perceive events occur sequentially in reality. In other words, we observe entropy: Order changing into disorder; an egg cracking and getting scrambled.</p><p>Rovelli says key aspects of time are described by the second law of thermodynamics, which states that heat always passes from hot to cold. This is a one-way street. For example, an ice cube melts into a hot cup of tea, never the reverse. Rovelli suggests a similar phenomenon might explain why we're only able to perceive the past and not the future.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Any time the future is definitely distinguishable from the past, there is something like heat involved," Rovelli wrote for the <a href="https://www.ft.com/content/ce6ef7b8-429a-11e8-93cf-67ac3a6482fd" target="_blank"><em>Financial Times</em></a>. "Thermodynamics traces the direction of time to something called the 'low entropy of the past', a still mysterious phenomenon on which discussions rage."</p>
The strange subjectivity of time<p>Time moves differently atop a mountain than it does on a beach. But you don't need to travel any distance at all to experience strange distortions in your perception of time. In moments of life-or-death fear, for example, your brain would release large amounts of adrenaline, which would speed up your internal clock, causing you to perceive the outside world as moving slowly.<br></p><p>Another common distortion occurs when we focus our attention in particular ways.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"If you're thinking about how time is <em>currently</em> passing by, the biggest factor influencing your time perception is attention," Aaron Sackett, associate professor of marketing at the University of St. Thomas, told <em><a href="https://gizmodo.com/why-does-time-slow-down-and-speed-up-1840133782" target="_blank">Gizmodo</a></em>.<em> "</em>The more attention you give to the passage of time, the slower it tends to go. As you become distracted from time's passing—perhaps by something interesting happening nearby, or a good daydreaming session—you're more likely to lose track of time, giving you the feeling that it's slipping by more quickly than before. "Time flies when you're having fun," they say, but really, it's more like "time flies when you're thinking about other things." That's why time will also often fly by when you're definitely <em>not</em> having fun—like when you're having a heated argument or are terrified about an upcoming presentation."</p><p>One of the most mysterious ways people experience time-perception distortions is through psychedelic drugs. In an interview with <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/14/carlo-rovelli-exploding-commonsense-notions-order-of-time-interview" target="_blank"><em>The Guardian</em></a>, Rovelli described a time he experimented with LSD.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It was an extraordinarily strong experience that touched me also intellectually," he said. "Among the strange phenomena was the sense of time stopping. Things were happening in my mind but the clock was not going ahead; the flow of time was not passing any more. It was a total subversion of the structure of reality."<br></p><p>It seems few scientists or philosophers believe time is completely an illusion.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"What we call <em>time</em> is a rich, stratified concept; it has many layers," Rovelli told <em><a href="https://physicstoday.scitation.org/do/10.1063/PT.6.4.20190219a/full/" target="_blank">Physics Today</a>.</em> "Some of time's layers apply only at limited scales within limited domains. This does not make them illusions."</p>What <em>is</em> an illusion is the idea that time flows at an absolute rate. The river of time might be flowing forever forward, but it moves at different speeds, between people, and even within your own mind.
The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
- Conflict and violence cost the world more than $14 trillion a year.
- That's the equivalent of $5 a day for every person on the planet.
- Research shows that peace brings prosperity, lower inflation and more jobs.
- Just a 2% reduction in conflict would free up as much money as the global aid budget.
- Report urges governments to improve peacefulness, especially amid COVID-19.
The lush biodiversity of South America's rainforests is rooted in one of the most cataclysmic events that ever struck Earth.
- One especially mysterious thing about the asteroid impact, which killed the dinosaurs, is how it transformed Earth's tropical rainforests.
- A recent study analyzed ancient fossils collected in modern-day Colombia to determine how tropical rainforests changed after the bolide impact.
- The results highlight how nature is able to recover from cataclysmic events, though it may take millions of years.