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Entheogens, including cannabis, faced one of their most restrictive environments in the 20th century. Now, as attitudes shift, several countries are investing in research using psilocybin mushrooms, MDMA, Ketamine, and other substances previously listed as some of the most dangerous materials in the country. With this shift comes a new wave of technological opportunity, and companies are poised to offer these substances to the public.
Entheogens Experiences Have Historically Been Guided
Countless civilizations have left proof of entheogen use. An entheogen is any substance, often of plant origin, used to induce an altered consciousness for spiritual or religious purposes. Such materials range from cannabis to mushrooms and tobacco. Yet, few have left proof of the use of these substances without any sense of direction or ceremony.
Throughout history, entheogen practices occurred to create social cohesion and internal understanding. One of the modern theories about the Eleusinian Mysteries, ancient Greece’s most famous ceremony, is that they consumed ergot or other entheogenic plants to produce heightened awareness. Meanwhile, across the globe, South American people used Ayahuasca for similarly enlightening ceremonies.
Looking at this history of entheogens, it’s apparent that not only did humans use them to gain insight but that they did so often in controlled and consistent environments. These ceremonies were important for more than ingesting a substance; they also provided a proper sight and setting.
So now that Enosis Therapeutics is pursuing clinical studies to understand the potential of marrying VR and entheogens, there should be little surprise. What their work has found follows from the reality of entheogen use throughout history. Without societies that create a proper ceremony to engage with these substances, the next best option is to create fictional stimuli with the same benefits.
The Human Brain Plays Association Games
The clinical trials by Enosis Therapeutics are the first in the world pairing VR technology with entheogen treatment. This work revealed insights from a trip that can be accessed through VR simulation.
While awe-inspiring VR scenarios could not evoke the same scale of introspective capacity and intensity of emotional responses without prior entheogenic use, something changed after the pairing. Those who received the entheogen-paired treatment first, when they engaged with the VR scenario sober, had the same results as when they were dosed.
These results may prove that the sight and setting are part of integrating lessons learned from entheogens. Just as older societies relied on ceremonies and altered activities to process their experiences, so may VR allow for the atmosphere for these experiences to be anchored. If a mother always lights up eucalyptus candles at bedtime, her children will likely associate the scent with rest. Now, if that habit was set while also giving her children melatonin, the brain could create an even stronger association. Further, if the melatonin was removed, that strengthened association could remain.
Informing action through context and external stimuli is well practiced throughout humanity, so pairing stimuli never seen before other than under the influence of entheogens seems to access that system in the human brain. While the science isn’t settled, it makes sense why this would be such a powerful union as a potential therapeutic strategy.
One of the most challenging aspects of entheogenic therapy is that patients tend to forget their “psychedelic insights” even one day after treatment. This trial showed that VR might be the ideal tool for working against that, as it enabled subjects to reaccess their insights without redosing.
Shaky Science Is Never a Strong Foundation
Just as in the world of cannabis, concrete analysis is the most legitimate path toward medicinal application. Accurate research means proper control and chemical profiling of all products. Thus, the products able to effectively improve public health are slow to release as it takes time to research.
Now, Enosis has now partnered with OVID Clinics and the MIND Foundation to perform the first in-clinic application of this therapeutic treatment. This is unlikely to result in a product immediately or within a year, but this is the best path forward.
What has been revealed by their work so far does not mean that tripping in VR is enough to gain tangible insight into life. Engaging in such activities may work for some, but the philosophy here is about a well-controlled environment in VR, not simply the technology itself.
Either way, the results are not incompatible with what has been seen previously. From the ceremonies of antiquity to modern MDMA therapies, entheogen-based therapies have never been only ingestion. Even today, we know that having the correct sight and setting is the most productive way to administer these substances. VR might be one of the most powerful tools in history for setting that environment. While the technology isn’t public, it may usher in a new era for guided therapy.