Photo: kennykiernan/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Recently, I went to a virtual reality showroom in midtown to try out “Ayahuasca, Kosmik Journey,” a 13-minute virtual reality experience that “lets visitors take a hallucinogenic trip guided by their reactions.” Ayahuasca is the psychedelic brew made from plants native to the Amazon basin, and it’s traditionally been used as a mind-opening spiritual and therapeutic stimulant, known for causing vomiting after ingestion. Many who take ayahuasca do so in the rainforest, near where the plants grow, or at least in groups with some sort of shaman or guide, and I was curious to see how virtual reality might try to replicate this. (A representative for the showroom had invited me to come try it out.)
Virtual reality has begun to be used not just for recreation but as a tool for pain management and psychological growth. As health writer Jane E. Brody put it in a recent column for the New York Times, virtual reality can so “totally immerse the patient in an entertaining, relaxing, interactive environment” that the brain “has no room to process pain sensations.” In a 2018 story about the psychologically therapeutic potential of virtual reality, The New Yorker’s Jonathan Rothman described a virtual therapy session he had with “Sigmund Freud”: “When I took off the headset, I was moved,” Rothman wrote. “From his perspective, I’d seemed different: sadder, more ordinary and comprehensible. I told myself to remember that version of me.” Virtual reality is also now being used as a method for helping users acclimate themselves to public speaking.
The “Ayahuasca” virtual reality experience wasn’t billed as specifically therapeutic or pain-alleviating, but it sounded unusual enough to be worth trying. Virtual reality games hadn’t tempted me, but the idea of using virtual reality to tinker with my thoughts and emotions was intriguing. (And actual ayahuasca does tempt me.) Where would a “virtual drug trip” fall on the pain management/psychological growth continuum?
The VR World showroom was huge, and after I spent a few minutes watching the mind-melty videos being projected on the walls, as well as watching some other customers playing various VR games, I was ushered upstairs into a dim private room hung with fake ivy and designated for the “ayahuasca” experience. There was a cloth circle on the floor, and the host (a VR World employee) guided me to a small beanbag on one side of it. She brought a headset over and told me that if I felt sick, which had apparently happened to a couple of her co-workers, to just take the headset off. Then she strapped me in, with the headset over my eyes and ears, pressed play somewhere, and I was off.
“Ayahuasca, Kosmik Journey” debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this month, and it will be available at VR World through July 3. When it started, I found myself sitting on the ground somewhere in a rainforest, several feet away from an older man, also seated on the ground. (It was kind of wild the way the “screen” wrapped all the way around my field of vision, distinct from a regular movie.) I wasn’t a character so much as an observing entity. The man began speaking about how he hoped that the journey he was about to take would heal him. And then he drank from a small wooden cup, filled with what was presumably ayahuasca. At this point, he (or a voice similar to his) began to chant, and the scene shifted into a more hallucinatory realm. At first it reminded me of the Tunnel of Terror scene in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory: The man and the rainforest faded away as close-up images of writhing bugs, scorpions, and snakes filled the screen.
Eventually I was riding along, floating among a fleet of snakes. After a while we (I?) floated into another snake’s mouth, into a deeper world of snakes. It felt hot and close, until the snakes made way for a giant, airy cathedral studded with bright and distant stained glass windows. I kept floating forward (later I learned I could have turned my head and floated in whatever direction I looked), through the cathedral and into various other kaleidoscopic grottoes and realms. Some spaces felt like pure geometry, icy and snowy, and one seemed to be a dungeon made of human skulls. I was surprisingly moved by the final scene, which involves being absorbed into a bird’s eye. I wished that part had lasted longer.
Halfway through the experience, I smelled incense and realized that the host was burning some in the room while I watched. I’d never tried virtual reality before, and the reminder that my mind wasn’t in quite the same place as my body was jarring, and I felt a little embarrassed that someone was watching me do this, and that I couldn’t see her watching me. I felt self-conscious and a little absurd. Does she think I’m an idiot? I wondered. Do she and her co-workers make fun of people who do this?
I hadn’t specifically been trying to distract myself from pain, but one thought I did have, a few minutes into the “trip” (maybe when we had entered the first snake grotto) was that the experience was so weird and novel that there was no way I’d be able to dwell on a particular situation in my life that had been bringing me stress. The film was too dazzling and strange to think about anything else. Then I fast-forwarded to imagine myself as a VR addict, plugging into various experiences all day long to distract myself from pain. Would that be good? Bad? I don’t know. I suppose it depends. It felt like a nice vacation, anyway.