Metaverse and Psychedelics: A New Frontier
Everywhere you turn you hear “metaverse”and “Web3”, but what do these terms mean? And importantly for psychedelic medicine - do they have a place in the future of therapy?
Despite being in its infancy, the metaverse is regarded by many entrepreneurs as the next big thing for marketing and customer engagement. The platform has the potential to disrupt many industries simultaneously - similar to the dot.com technology rush in the 1990s.
"Metaverse isn't a thing a company builds. It's the next chapter of the internet overall” - Mark Zuckerberg (Carlson, 2022)
Much like the psychedelics hype of 2020, the Web3 movement has proselytizers who envision the blockchain as the foundation for a new era of art, information, finance and community-building.
Do these new platforms have a place in psychedelics?
Let’s start with the basics - what is the metaverse?
In the early days of the internet, most online interaction was text-based, similar to sending a message to a friend on WhatsApp nowadays. As the internet progressed, short and long form video content gained traction, connecting people in a way not possible before. This opened up a whole new frontier, not just for social interaction, but for industries such as healthcare as well. It was no longer necessary to see your doctor face-to-face - a breakthrough which has been crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now the next frontier of the internet has arrived - fully immersive, 3-dimensional interaction between people online.
The metaverse is an immersive digital reality that combines aspects of social media, online gaming, augmented reality, virtual reality, and cryptocurrencies to allow users to interact virtually. Imagine a future where instead of carrying your phone everywhere to keep in touch with your friends around the world, you instead put on virtual reality goggles and went on adventures with them.
This future seems both exciting and scary. It also presents interesting possibilities for many industries, including healthcare.
What Would Psychedelics Look Like in the Metaverse?
Just as video-conferencing for doctors appointments has become commonplace, 3-D interaction may become available in the near future. For psychedelics, this technology may mean that virtual therapy sessions could be completed between a patient and a therapist in a 3-D world.
3-D virtual therapy has the potential for huge cost savings, increased access to care for rural and low income populations, and potentially improved patient outcomes.
And some companies are already leading the charge.
Emotional Intelligence Ventures is looking to utilize virtual reality to perform psychedelic assisted therapy in a virtual world (Wright, 2022). They hope to overcome the geographical and economic barriers that would keep many people in the future from accessing this therapy.
“The reality of being able to give a billion people a psychedelic experience [is that] not everybody’s going to be able to fly to Maui or Peru and have a $100,000 experience” - Nikzad, Founder of Emotional Intelligence Ventures
As more domestic therapy clinics are opened in North America and Europe, psychedelic therapy will become less costly. For now, the upfront cost of psychedelic therapy remains prohibitive for most people. This is especially true in the United States, where there is limited healthcare coverage. In Emotional Intelligence’s idea of virtual reality psychedelic therapy, they envision patients wearing virtual reality headsets and embarking on a virtual journey. Each experience could be tailored to an individual's preferences, with different cultural aspects and set ups depending on personality.
“Not everybody’s going to have the same comfort zone. I might like beaches and waterfalls, somebody else might want to be in the Swiss Alps. We can fine-tune that experience” - Nikzad
To overcome the problem of unsupervised psychedelic experiences with hallucinations, this company is restricting therapy to microdosing - a dosage that is yet to prove efficacious in rigorous studies.
Another company, Revitalist, announced it would launch “Revitaland” in the metaverse. Patients would be able to access mental health sessions with professions in real time. Kathryn Walker, CEO, said, “ in the past we were 100 percent focused on brick and mortar … clinics, … [now] technology allows us to span our offering around the globe.” This opens up the possibility for psychedelic therapy to reach populations previously inaccessible due to geographical barriers.
Potential Therapeutic Benefits of the Metaverse
This metaverse could allow access to therapy for people who do not live near trained therapists or who may not be able to afford an in-person visit. Additionally, the experience could be personalized to the individual’s personal preferences and needs - a trend becoming more widely adopted in healthcare.
But will virtual therapy be efficacious?
The short answer is that we don’t know and won’t know until rigorous controlled studies have taken place. However, given existing literature, we can anticipate the potential benefits that therapy in a virtual setting could bring. For instance, virtual reality has previously been shown to improve healing from paranoia symptoms by as much as 50% in one sitting (Freeman et al., 2016). A study from Oxford found that by using virtual reality, patients saw a 38% decrease in anxiety symptoms following 6 weeks of sessions (Freeman et al., 2018). An exciting potential for virtual reality therapy is that the environment can be easily changed. This is important given that “set” and a person's perception of their experience can impact brain neuroplasticity (Alan et al., 2020). Interestingly, it has been found that in a comparison study, a “fake” forest was shown to be more efficacious for wellbeing than a “real” forest (Mattila et al., 2020). Additionally, the ability to create a relaxing virtual environment could overcome challenges in existing healthcare such as “white-coat” hypertension, where patients' blood pressure and anxiety increase in a clinical setting (Cedars Sinai, 2022).
Several potential benefits exist in regard to virtual therapy that are currently not possible in the current healthcare delivery.
At present, the vision of psychedelics in the metaverse is just that, a vision. However, given the tendency for new technologies to disrupt industries, especially healthcare, it’s an important concept to explore. A soft launch for virtual psychedelic therapy will be in Oregon and Jamaica sometime in 2022, so the shift is already underway.
In a world where many are excluded from basic healthcare and there is a growing mental health crisis, it is of paramount importance that treatments are available to as many people as possible. The metaverse could provide a safe, supportive and affordable space for psychedelic therapy. As the psychedelic industry continues to develop in the coming years, look for virtual therapy to become an increasingly more important concept.
- Wright, W. (2022, March 21). Psychedelic Assisted Therapy Coming to the Metaverse. The Drum. https://www.thedrum.com/news/2022/03/21/psychedelic-assisted-therapy-coming-the-metaverse
- Freeman, D., Bradley, J., Antley, A., Bourke, E., DeWeever, N., Evans, N., Černis, E., Sheaves, B., Waite, F., Dunn, G., Slater, M., & Clark, D. M. (2016). Virtual reality in the treatment of persecutory delusions: randomised controlled experimental study testing how to reduce delusional conviction. The British Journal of Psychiatry : the journal of mental science, 209(1), 62–67. https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.bp.115.176438
- Freeman, D., Haselton, P., Freeman, J., Spanlang, B., Kishore, S., Albery, E. (2018). Automated Psychological Therapy using immersive virtual reality for treatment of fear of heights: a single-blind parallel-group, randomized control trial. The Lancet, Psychiatry. 5(8), 625-632.
- Alan K. Davis, Frederick S. Barrett, Roland R. Griffith. (2020). Psychological flexibility mediates the relations between acute psychedelic effects and subjective decreases in depression and anxiety. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science. 15. 39-45. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcbs.2019.11.004
- Cedars Sinai. White Coat Hypertension and Masked Hypertension. https://www.cedars-sinai.org/health-library/diseases-and-conditions/w/white-coat-hypertension-and-masked-hypertension.html
- Mattila, O., Korhonen, A., Pöyry, E., Hauru, K., Holopainen, J., Parvinen, P. (2020). Restoration in Virtual Reality Forest Environment. Computers in Human Behaviour. 107. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2020.106295.
- Joshi, S. (2022, March 15). What is the Metaverse? An Explanation for People Who Don’t Get It. VICE. https://www.vice.com/en/article/93bmyv/what-is-the-metaverse-internet-technology-vr
- Carlson, K. At SXSW, Mark Zuckerberg says metaverse is 'Holy Grail' of social experience. Austin American-statesman. https://eu.statesman.com/story/business/2022/03/16/sxsw-facebooks-mark-zuckerberg-says-metaverse-future-internet/7051230001/