Using VR to Detect Psychological and Neurological Conditions

NewPathVR spends the major portion of its time conducting research and development. We read and follow as much research as we can about the psychological, neurological, psychoacoustic, and affective scientific behavioral changes that can be made using immersive technologies. Simon Chandler at Wired recently wrote in an article titled “Virtual Reality’s Latest Use? Diagnosing Mental Illness” that VR is a promising diagnostic tool, researchers say, because it generates scenarios and experiences that can’t easily be produced in a traditional clinical setting. The question the article asks “What is it about VR that makes it a promising technology for detecting neurological and psychiatric conditions?”

Early applications of the technology were in designing vehicle simulators. The technology was mainly used for training military personnel, pilots, and astronauts; but largely remained out of the public eye. The first applications of VR in medical teaching occurred in the 1990s with colonoscopy and upper gastrointestinal tract endoscopy simulation. Today, VR is being used to detect and treat psychological and neurological conditions and the questions are why and is it better than current methods. The answer is yes, and here’s why.

First, VR simulates real life very “convincingly”, so convincingly that your brain remembers VR as if it were real life. A notable 2009 Stanford study showed that preschool students surveyed 5 days after a VR experience of them swimming with whales believed that the experience was a real memory. They believed they actually swam with whales. Younger minds tend to be more impressionable but this begins to show you how powerful VR is.

Jeremy Bailenson’s Four Reasons to Test in VR

Jeremy Bailenson, founder of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab and author of “Experience on Demand”, states four reasons for testing something in virtual reality. He says you should build something in VR if otherwise, it would be:

1. Dangerous
2. Expensive
3. Impossible
4. Counterproductive

If something were dangerous like spiders or the plank experience, VR would make sense. To address the fear of flying, or reproducing an auditorium of people to practice speaking in front of would be quite expensive compared to a VR experience you could do again and again. To create a game where you shoot frogs in space would be impossible. Finally, it may be counterproductive to recreate role-playing between domestic abuse partners.

However, there are many other reasons to build in the immersive environment and many reasons why you would diagnose psychological and neurological conditions using VR.

VR for Real-Time Observation and Modification

One of the benefits of virtual technologies is that of the therapist’s ability to monitor the patient’s activity. Some systems can be used to identify emotional facial expressions in patients with psychosis, or how to pick up other visual cues by watching the user or using heat mapping software. In this way, the therapist can be responsive to the patient and adjust the therapy in real-time in some cases.

VR for Testing Consistency

Virtual reality allows one to create a consistent, error-free environment or environments that can be customized for your assessment conditions. In the VR environment, you have complete control and can repeat simulations with finite accuracy and consistency. This combined with the real-life likeness of surroundings and objects provides control in order to make assessments.

VR for Privacy and Removing Fear of Personal Judgment

There is some evidence to show that people will divulge more information to an AI or scripted avatar than they will to one embodied by a person or to a person directly. They also prefer to interact with an avatar of their own sex. This has to do with the feeling of being judged, which patients feel less of when dealing with an AI avatar.

VR for Gamification During Research

VR can provide patients with added motivation by adding gaming factors. This motivational aspect can lead to more accurate results and deeper engagement by participants. Gamification in VR is especially compelling, again because of the realism. For generations, game theory has been developed and refined and this psychology can transfer to VR, particularly in the dynamics surrounding how to keep the user engaged through each step or stage and for gathering emotional feedback.

VR for Safe Psychological Activation

There are other reasons, too, ie many therapeutic methods in vivo encourage you to put yourself in a state of stress, anxiety or PTSD, such as exposure therapy for agoraphobia or fear of crowds which include actually exposing yourself to crowds of people, perhaps activating a panic or anxiety attack you can’t escape easily. If you were doing this therapy in VR, you could immediately remove the headset and address the emotions.

Creating Specialized Scenarios in VR to Detect Psychological or Neurological Conditions

To answer more on detection, Greek researchers in 2015 built a cognitive training game for patients with mild cognitive impairment, something that comes before Alzheimer’s. This can detect memory loss by presenting scenarios that are increasingly complex such as financial planning.

When compared with existing cognitive tests, VR is showing great promise in helping to diagnose and help with memory. Cambridge University’s Dr. Dennis Chan tested participants’ spatial navigation and memory by having them don an HTC Vive headset, follow an L-shaped path in a virtual environment (initially mapped out by cones), and then trace their footsteps back to their starting point without the help of any markers. Chan’s team reported that the VR-based navigation test was more accurate in diagnosing mild Alzheimer’s-related impairment than traditional “gold-standard” cognitive tests, such as figure recall and symbol tests.

Here at NewPath we are also inspired by Adam Gazzaley’s work at UCSF’s Sandler Neuroscience Center. Some of this research says that essentially as we get older, we lose the ability to ignore distractions. Adam’s research has shown that you can train the elderly brains to concentrate and focus, through gaming mechanics, improving memory. His research has also shown that video games can increase cognitive ability.

VR and Biometrics to Determine Psychological and Neurological Conditions

Both neurological and psychological conditions may present themselves physically, hence the warranted excitement about biometrics and certainly those are being utilized for detection, but there are many issues to consider in this area.

Cubicle Ninjas used the heart rate tracking in concert with their VR meditation application called Guided Meditation VR. Users would attempt to lower their heart rate while using their app and a biometric headband. Some of the issues with using these devices together become evident right away — privacy, user education, sizing, consistent results, and shared data across both apps. Well, it’s not a closed loop, right? The VR application is not integrated, not HIPAA-compliant. Companies need to think these things through. Cubicle Ninjas removed this feature in 2018 due to “increased regulation around biometric data.” they said. Another problem is the specificity to the hardware. An app that is specific to a headset, specific to a biometric device for the app? That’s like a spoon that only works for hot carrots.

Detection of Psychological Conditions Through AI

NewPathVR is working on an AI-enabled AR/VR product that assesses your depression level upon intake of your therapy session. Currently a cold, numeric assessment, we’ve taken an avatar, meant to be one of many you could choose from, who asks you questions using natural language and a more personable interaction that we believe will generate more accurate answers and engaged patients, helping patients and clinicians and decreasing healthcare costs.

We also just held our 2nd Annual VR Wellness Hackathon, and one team created a prototype for an app that allows you to externalize and identify visually your anxiety or depression or the emotion you are experiencing with colored and textured brushes in VR and then interact with it by lighting it on fire, pushing it far away, erasing it, or just giving it a hug. By seeing your emotions as external notions rather than as ourselves, as we sometimes say “I am anxious”, and that is an identifier, but by seeing the emotion outside of ourselves, we are better able to act upon feelings.

Many people are excited about facial recognition. The problem with facial recognition at this time is that the VR headsets inhibit recognition of the full face. Eye tracking is something that you might see come out now incorporated into some of the headsets, but again, we’re edging into the business of your bodily health information. Pupillary dilation, for example, says a lot about people and we are definitely headed into Minority Report territory — it’s the merging of these two that is a delicate weaving we’re seeing.

VR Compared to Other Methods of Research Recording Methods

VR is certainly more accurate than human recording methods, because of pilots errors and more. But beyond that, beyond say a computer program, why is a VR environment better at diagnosing than a mobile app, for instance? It’s because of the touch points. It has the potential to be a better diagnostic tool because of this, a better education tool, a better change tool.

Put it this way. If TV was a seal, and computers were maybe an octopus, VR is a jellyfish. It can touch you everywhere!

Because you are PART of the experience of VR, VR can connect to you in so many more ways. You are IN it. VR is experiential.

The reason we believe that VR is such a powerful tool for psychology is that memories and behaviors are formed from experiences. And VR is the first “experiential” medium. We can present experiential environments and present experiences for people and form memories, writing neural networks to change behaviors once people remove the headset. That’s a major driving principle and theory for us at NewPathVR.

Our team built an app here for role-playing in which you choose actors and scenes and role-play past memories to do just this. Users record dialog and then role-play conversations from those memories to reform memories and change narratives in their lives to which they may have formed maladapted behaviors and coping mechanisms that don’t suit their present-day relationships and healthy behaviors.

Dr. Brian Chau, a physician who writes about new medical technology, says, “The key here is data — we need validated measurements” to show VR is comparable to or better than traditional methods, he says. Continued partnerships between clinicians and VR developers are needed to move the technology” from the lab bench to the clinical bedside. NewPathVR agrees.

Why Psychological and Neurological Conditions Go Undiagnosed

Mental Health is a silent epidemic. For example,1 in 5 people have depression, 70% of these are between the ages 18–25 per the CDC in 2018. Eight (8) million people die each year due to mental illness. Mental health is not spoken about or given as much funding as physical illness, so it is harder to find research and support and find new more effective, ways to solve problems for this area.

Traditional techniques do not always work. It is difficult to diagnose mental illness due to issues of stigma, lack of mental healthcare workers, expense, and the nature of the illnesses themselves which pose inconsistencies and challenges. Individuals vary in responses to traditional treatments and for some people it is a lifelong commitment (e.g. there are many patients who cannot afford to keep up long term therapy, especially people who are more disadvantaged, most at risk and most in need, and government counseling services cannot possibly reach everyone) and although through community outreach programs it is possible to deliver these services to many more people, some people tend to be more closed off and find it difficult to connect with traditional processes or it can take them a while to do it.) In these situations, VR could offer a better solution as it addresses issues such as expense, accessibility, and stigma.

The Psychological Dangers of VR

Yes, there are dangers to consider. As one example, I mentioned the strategy of “activation” in order to practice skills during your stress state so you will readily be able to call up those skills during your next stress state. This is often done under the supervision of a therapist. Developers need to consider how to contain a user’s experience in this regard when a therapist is not present.

When subjecting individuals to tests intended to bring out symptoms associated with panic or psychosis, there is a danger that VR could provoke or cause these symptoms in people who would have otherwise never exhibited them. In other words, there is, in fact, the risk that VR could cause psychiatric symptoms, such as PTSD, in healthy individuals.

There are several other important things to consider when adding VR to a clinician’s toolkit. Practicality, privacy, safety and more. NewPathVR teaches courses on these topics precisely. We are the only company approved to teach accredited courses on VR Psychology for the practical and clinical use of VR with patients. We teach practitioners about the guidelines for the different headsets, the research behind conditions being treated with VR successfully and areas that are still gray. VR applications available for each headset, pricing and options and solutions that suit individual or organizational scenarios are also covered. We teach safety, what population will be using the technology, app insurability, sanitization, we cover all of this. Importantly, which applications are for use with a clinician and which apps people can use at home on your own.

We also believe that standards and guidelines need to be developed for XR across the board, usability, and ratings, for example, and we are familiar with some associations working on this.

I wrote an article about the responsibility of VR developers in 2016 to try to shed light on this topic. This indicates that the tool has to be used with care and caution, particularly with the entering and exiting of an application (the “handling”, I call it, or “containing” some people say) however, the fortitude of the platform also translates to its positive effects, and when using it to treat and enhance mental health, it can have enormous benefits for an individual.

In summary, VR provides an excellent opportunity for optimized testing and detection of psychological and neurological conditions. There are important things researchers and clinicians must keep in mind with this incredibly powerful technology when doing so, and working with experienced professionals is a good way to avoid some of the pitfalls inherent in this newly emerging, but very promising, technology.

Virtual Reality for Mammograms and Annual Exam Anxiety

Virtual Reality for Mammograms and Annual Exam Anxiety

Kaiser Permanente has retrieved its poor reputation from the clenches of the 80’s and now boasts many accolades and awards of recognition for its leadership in healthcare and programs, leaders, and in places to work. Patients no longer complain regularly about mishaps, insurance nightmares and long office waits. Kaiser ranks top in member satisfaction and has invested billions in electronic records and modernizing medical department and administrative equipment for the benefit of practitioners and patients alike. I, myself, am a Kaiser patient, and credit the payer-provider organization for saving the life of both myself and my husband when we were each faced with life-threatening diseases — him with a heart attack in 2009 and me with breast cancer, 5 years ago in 2013.

I found out about my breast cancer on my 43rd birthday at 8 am. The phone call woke me up. I thought it may have been my dad, calling to sing me happy birthday. “This is Kaiser. We’re calling to tell you that your test showed that you are positive for cancer in your left breast. We recommend a mastectomy We have an opening on Thursday. Would you like to schedule it?”

Um, can I get a second opinion?

“You can,” she responded, “but you don’t want to wait long, it’s very aggressive.”

After a second and third opinion, I took the Thursday appointment and had a mastectomy. I would love to tell you how brave I was, how quickly I recovered, and what a poster child I am for how to approach breast cancer as a patient. But the story is the exact opposite. I went in totally uninformed. I went in with cringed eyes and phenomenal stress. There was no time, and no one there to explain it adequately. It was terrifying. I had barely enough time to search Google to determine which kind of breast cancer it was and what my chances were for surviving. I didn’t know how to find information about what the process was going to be, what my options were, what recovery would be like, or how this would impact me or my family. I was completely in the dark.

The whole process was so quick, there was no time to think about the decisions I was making. We were given pamphlets and a page with checkboxes and if we needed more time to decide, we were left alone in a room to discuss it (and look things up on Google), but I mean, Jesus. Both breasts, just one? Reconstruction or not? Saline or silicone? Tummy tuck add-on (for real, yes, no charge)? Is 11 am good for you?

“You’re so brave,”

“You’re so brave,” people kept saying. That’s a nice thought. I want to be someone that others can look up to, someone who weathered the storm with a stiff upper lip, but I’m afraid I let everyone down on that count. I was in a panic most of the time, I cried after sometimes in confusion about what was happening to my body, sometimes just out of fear of what would happen next. I was a total nuisance to the nurses and doctors, calling on them constantly with questions and concerns and escalating my issues to their supervisors when I didn’t like the answers or treatment I received.

When I got home, I couldn’t stand to look at the scars so I showered in the dark for months. The PTSD from the surgery and procedures afterward did not fade really. I didn’t want to be touched. My self-confidence started to suffer. My very understanding husband was doing whatever he could to support me in my healing, but I kept falling into despair and self-loathing, I didn’t feel whole anymore. Year after year I would watch the breast cancer walk on TV and wonder why I hadn’t bounced back so effortlessly they way the spokeswomen had, in their bright pink t-shirts with ribbons pinned to them. I looked for breast cancer survivor support groups and found two within an hour’s drive. One was for young women under 40. I was 43. The other required that you leave a voice message so I did and no one called me back.

3%

Statistically speaking, there is a 3% chance that I will have cancer in my right breast in the future. Doesn’t seem like a lot but….the chances of winning the National Lottery are 1 in 45,057,474. And I’ve played that, probably, 20 times in my lifetime. Every year since the surgery, when I receive a call from my Kaiser nurse telling me it is time for my annual mammogram and women’s exam, an anvil drops into my stomach. Time to play again.

I schedule a day that I have no meetings because I know that I will be so psychologically and physically triggered that I shouldn’t plan anything else. I usually plan to get cupcakes or ice cream afterward so I have something to look forward to and reward myself (something leftover that my mother used to do for me, I still do for myself).

When cupcakes aren’t enough

We promised you the technology is evolving and this year Oculus came out with a phone-free, tether-free headset with a nice resolution that runs apps that ran on the Samsung Gear VR, which required an expensive phone. I’ve been singing its praises for months, suggesting patients use it in hospital beds, waiting rooms, and doctor’s offices. We even built an Oculus Go application called the Prostate Procedure Guide for patient education and anxiety reduction. I imagine you’re beginning to see some of the origins of our motivations.

At previous exams, I premedicated with anti-anxiety medications and/or recreational drugs. Yes, I’m (not) the portrait of strength and fearlessness, as mentioned. Yet these solutions somehow made me more sensitive to the experience in many ways and that wasn’t productive. This year I am convinced by the extensive research and people I have witnessed and their healing experiences with VR. I have seen and reviewed hundreds of wellness applications on RenewVR and have read hundreds of articles and research papers on the mental health benefits of VR. So I decided to load up my Oculus Go and take it to my appointment.

First was my mammogram. I sat in the waiting room and started an app called Kaleidorium.

I paired the app with my Spotify playlist I use while I make art made up of some current favorite songs (Hearts and Bones, Paul Simon; Let You Love Me, Rita Ora; Wild Things, Alessia Cara; What About Us, Pink) and I watch the beautiful colors change and fly by.

I hear the nurse call my name and forget that I was supposed to be worrying about this procedure. I quickly disrobe and step into the room with the radiologist to perform the mammogram. She does her thing. I resist the urge to look at the screen but wait for her response. She sees these all day, she knows what’s up. She says it looks good but they’ll contact me in a few days to confirm. I notice that overall I am not so freaked out. Now it’s time for my pelvic exam.

Ladies. Let us speak frankly. One really can’t equally compare a prostate exam to a pelvic exam. I’ll take one of those any day of the week, in fact, well nevermind. Could we more fairly compare it to an alien abduction with a non-consensual probe? Yes, see, several hands just went up in agreement. In a prostate exam, the doctor uses a finger. In a pelvic exam, they start with this.

Wait, you are wondering, are we not past the 1700’s? Why yes, that’s true, but we still use steam-punk, friggin’ ice-cold, torture-looking devices and this is just so the doctor can get inside our lady bits, I’m not going to go into what they do once they get in there.

Think cupcakes. Think cupcakes. Think cupcakes.

So, you still get to lie in the same cold slab of weird, paper-covered, stirrup-equipped bench of the 1920’s, thank GOD, thank you SO much! I was left alone to undress and my anxiety started to rise. This procedure can be as brief as 5–15 minutes, but my knees are often times left shaking afterward for hours. This time, when the doctor came in with her assistant, I said, “Give me a moment,”

“I brought my VR headset to help me relax,”

This time I put on an app called Azul. It’s a meditation and mindfulness app that helps you focus.

Instead of looking at the foam panels in the office ceiling and fluorescent light bulbs, I selected a scene, a field with birds in the sky, and I selected the music and laid back. I watched the birds fly in circles.

Before I knew it, she was done. It was that fast. Time flies when you are in VR, people often recount that they thought less time had gone by while they were using it. But in this case, shorter perceived time, no pain, very little discomfort, and no PTSD as I usually have had after this procedure.

As the CEO of NewPathVR, I spend my days evangelizing the psychological benefits of virtual reality. Taking it into my own life is a natural step but one that surpassed my expectations still. I didn’t actually need those cupcakes or meds after all. Virtual reality is a powerful state change tool and remains the most evolutionary force to meet so many industries in years, particularly emotional wellness.

The great news is that I received a clean bill of health. 5 years cancer free!

I recommend the Oculus Go this winter for you, your kids, your friends, and family, believe me, you’ll find uses for it. This spring, you’ll want to grab the Oculus Quest too, for full room-scale VR and higher resolution apps. Here are links to the apps I used but there are hundreds more on renewvr.com.

Kaleidorium: https://www.oculus.com/experiences/go/1700720009953361/

Azul: https://www.oculus.com/experiences/go/1274880599305742/

Garden of Emotions

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I visited the Floating Garden of Emotions at the Village Artist Corner (corner of Larkin and Fulton) last weekend with friends.

Inspired by The Eckmans’ Atlas of Emotions, the public was invited to explore their own personal journey of emotions through a whimsical participatory experience. It started with rolling a large-scale ‘emotional die’ to reveal what emotions to explore; this corresponded to a spectrum of Anger, Sadness, Joy, Disgust, or Fear. We were then asked to write on three labels 1) what is something in our life that could prompt an emotion (a trigger), 2) how it feels in the body (a physiological response), and 3) what we might do as a result (action).

Then, our labels were attached to a color corresponding balloon in the Floating Garden of Emotions. At any point, visitors could explore the emotional episodes represented throughout the space and learn how others experience their emotions. There was also a station in which people could pinpoint where in their bodies they felt sensations during an emotional episode so they could learn to listen to their bodies through life. By better understanding their own and others emotions through this creative exercise, the hope is that the community will become more compassionate beings.

Awakening from the American Dream: The Return to a Virtuous Reality

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Guest Post By: Dr. Michelle Wang, PsyD

What a year it’s been. Precarious, strange, extravagant, horrific, real. It is staggering to know we are at once capable of feeling disillusion and awe, love and suffering, stillness and chaos. Where one ends and another begins is hard to tell. In times like this we are tempted to lose focus, but it is exactly this time that our full presence and participation is required.

Our participation is our awareness and our willingness to ask the important ‘whys.’ We’ve been roused from the American Dream and awakened to a new American story. When we are lost and without direction isn’t it our nature to return to the basic, that which is simple, and turn to those whose kinship we can rely on? It’s what I call the return to a Virtuous Reality.

Life, as it always has been and continues to demonstrate, is truly a remarkably complicated journey, taking us on the ride of our lives, and demanding our capacity for both intrigue and sobriety.

“From Sea to Shining Sea”

The intrigue is what drew my Chinese-Korean immigrant parents to this country in 1985 with $250 USD in one hand and the sweet promises of the American Dream in the other. I heard the familiar lines immigrant parents say sometimes – of needing to work three times as hard to get half as far, that great things will happen to you as long as you work hard, and if great things aren’t happening you haven’t worked hard enough. Dreams of becoming an artist or musician were quickly funneled into a box labeled “Hobbies,” and I was summoned to pursue more serious vocations – you know the type.

Growing up we had a straight row of white picket fences and a very effective home alarm system. I tagged all my school supplies with my name written in cursive for more grades than I can count. Warnings of “stranger danger” and poisoned Halloween candy were well-versed mantras. “The Country of Beauty” is also the literal translation of “America” in Chinese so the vigilant guarding of personal property, the blatant racism my parents and I encountered, and the arbitrary nature of authorization confused me as a young child. Perhaps the beauty was in the possibility of raising free-thinking children in this country or in the promised equal opportunity for those who could exhibit hard work, determination, and initiative. A few others might have been missed: nepotism, segregation, privilege, misogyny, discrimination, competition, etc. But who’s to say? Maybe in the back of their minds they secretly understood hard work and determination can get you places, but first-world standards of success usually require an extra shot of moral concession. The Dream was a temporary solution to a deeper wound and my parents really needed a salve.

““The Country of Beauty” is also the literal translation of “America” in Chinese”

The Sojourner Experience

Within 17 years my parents grew to experience the sobriety of what quickly became referred to as “The American Dream” in air quotes and often accompanied by a deep sigh. After almost two decades of paving a successful path for themselves in spite of being treated like second-class citizens, no amount of opportunity no matter the price tag could convince my parents to remain in the States any longer, confirming once again that financial wealth is a terrible predictor of happiness. When I graduated high school in 2002, the 3 of us boarded a plane to Urbana Champaign, IL where I would embark on the next chapter of my newly adult life; my parents were to jet back to Beijing where my father had a cushy tenure position waiting at Beijing University and my mother did not have to feel humiliated on a daily basis for her accent.

Now, the American Dream wasn’t a failure for them – far from it. They had simply come to realize that it was more of a single paragraph on a page out of a much longer novel. It was not the destination they hoped it would be but it was an important and necessary leg of a much larger journey. I too give it as much credence as I would any dreamy enterprise. My parents traversed the great unknown, carried largely by their faith and determination to do the right thing. And for them, the right thing was to assimilate, acculturate, and acclimate. I cannot underscore my gratitude enough for the foundation and stability they provided. I could earn a doctorate in clinical psychology – a career that seems frivolous to many of their peers – and I have the luxury to explore the depths of my consciousness and garner a real sense of self-assuredness about my place in the world. A success by all accounts, just, not the end of the story.

The New American Story

My parents gifted me the luxury to question. Their preoccupation with safety gave me the luxury to question the value of it. They created the sandbox, and I was allowed to play freely, but as is the case with human nature, in due time I began kicking at the boundaries wanting more than what security and containment could provide. I questioned my parents in ways they never dared to question theirs. And I found this to be a sentiment shared by many of my peers. One by one we all heard ourselves exclaiming at one point or another, “This can’t be all there is to life!” We quickly familiarized ourselves with the parameters of safety and then began the search for courage, because we knew it was courage, not safety, that will take us deeper, higher, wider, and ultimately beyond our dreams and certainly that of our parents’. We felt empowered enough to disrupt status quos, reconfigure beliefs that have gone unexamined for too long, and challenged systems that were never designed for growth but the preservation of stasis.

“My parents gifted me the luxury to question. Their preoccupation with safety gave me the luxury to question the value of it.”

We began asking more questions. What was all the fear mongering really about? How do our picket fences interfere with community and trust building? How can we combine all of our 1.5 bathrooms, 1.5 children, surveilled units into one shared living space? Can we share more of our resources and avoid feeding into a hoarding culture of possessions and ownership? Is working hard for a lot of money really all that rewarding? And might we consider redefining “work?” Or “work-life balance for that matter?” And will there even need to be a balance as more and more of us feel wedded to work, self, and romantic interests with equal vigor and devotion, what David Whyte refers to as “The Three Marriages?”

We began to ask how we can better address the concerns of the rightless: the working class, immigrants, refugees, the displaced, and the stateless. We allowed ourselves to admit that we don’t have any tidy answers but we are trying. We began re-enlisting members into the humanities, the arts, trades that address not only the intellect but the corporeal, no longer “wishy-washy” careers but perfectly viable ones for a soulful life. We embraced technology, albeit with conflicting measures, as a compelling inflection point that holds so much potential for good. We started to redefine what constitutes a “family” as more of us feel we can belong to many tribes and communities that feel no less kindred than those related to us by blood and no less meaningful than traditional nuclear family units. We began re-exploring the ideas of marriage and romantic partnership since so many of us witnessed the archaic paradigms simply, truly, repeatedly not work or demonstrate relevance to our present-day values.

Friends, we’ve woken up from this American Dream and now it’s time to reimagine The New American Story – of tearing off concealing draperies, of repatterning and retelling, of countering the blistering “over-politicized and under-moralized” culture David Brooks claims to have been our country’s problem for the last century and guiding ourselves gently back to grace and morality, of bringing back lost virtues. The New American Story is the creation myth of the ever-evolving, steadily-unfolding of our prodigal return to a more Virtuous Reality.

“Friends, we’ve woken up from this American Dream and now it’s time to reimagine The New American Story”

A Virtuous Reality

One glance at Burning Man culture, festival culture, the tribal revival movement, and the rise of intentional communities, and it becomes glaringly clear the kind of Virtuous Reality more, and more of us hope for, and for some, return to, for this way of living is not new even if it is revelatory. A Virtuous Reality offers opportunities to meet our fullest potential, to courageously move with and beyond our fears, to find communities in support of our psychological and spiritual growth (and with whom we may consider co-parenting our young), for the sowing of social consciousness seeds around matters of space, ownership, ecosystems, and disparities, to foster wisdom in knowing how to meet human suffering with compassion and quiet stillness, and for the allowance of our collective weakness, fragility, and failures because those qualities are what drives evolution.

We may differ in how we imagine this Virtuous Reality, but most of us would agree that a virtuous one, however defined, is vital to a life well-lived. So I’ve started a Virtuous Reality Manifesto, intended to open dialogue, be edited, and begin setting a framework for our New American story.

The Virtuous Reality Manifesto

Virtuous Reality as a Nondual Space

Anyone who’s ever experienced a non-ordinary or altered state of consciousness – be it through daydreaming, a meditation practice, flow state, REM sleep, floatation tanks, entheogens, or immersive virtual experiences – can understand what it’s like to be in an elevated or expanded state. That feeling of expansion in our physical bodies that allow for deeper exhales; of feeling bigger than our worldly concerns; of being struck with awe and gratitude at the simplest things we’ve grown accustomed to overlooking; of not being limited by our physical bodies and intellectual capacities; and perhaps my own personal favorite, the unlocking of our creative genius – a treasure trove of ideas and concepts we can sometimes hardly believe are our own.

In these states we find ourselves holding multiple realities, states of mind if you will. One reality is our ordinary consciousness, and at least one other is our expanded one. They may often feel like seemingly opposing realities and yet they co-exist. An example is Virtual Reality (VR). VR floored me the first time I experienced it. There was the bizarre phenomenon of at once feeling emotionally affected and intellectually robbed as my body responded to stimuli my intellect was fully aware wasn’t there. Underscored in this state was the process of my brain indiscriminately registering all subjective perceptual input as valid and real, regardless of the version of reality.

That there are co-occurring truths was not what floored me. What floored me was how, for the first time I had encountered a technology, an actual piece of hardware, that serves as a tool to show me (not tell me) that the stubborn Cartesian dualism of “subject” vs. “object,” “good” vs. “bad” was indeed far too simplistic and frankly insulting to the intelligence of profoundly complex humans living in an even more complex tapestry that is the phenomenon of life. I no longer needed to imagine nonduality, it was available for me in first-person, cutting through all intellectual and egoistic disbelief and filtered through my body’s somatic knowing. What floored me was the existence of a platform that offers the experiential knowing of nonduality, which I view as the acknowledgment and willful acceptance of multiple realities and multiple truths; the essential oneness of everything – a worldview much more compelling and with far greater reaches into the human potential than the alternative.

“…the stubborn Cartesian dualism of “subject” vs. “object,” “good” vs. “bad” was indeed far too simplistic and frankly insulting to the intelligence of profoundly complex humans living in an even more complex tapestry that is the phenomenon of life…”

As a practicing Emotional Intelligence Coach I see people clinging onto old narratives that no longer serve them, and of course, this makes complete sense if the belief is that there can only be one story and the hand dealt at birth is the only story available. No matter how much we may want to give up our narrative, as long as the belief is in either/or’s and zero sums, our attempts will be futile. The moment we let go of the idea that our stories are fixed is the moment we begin inviting in new ones. We may no longer look to define ourselves solely by a Meyers Briggs type or an astrological sign; we may see ourselves as both an introvert and extrovert under very different conditions; our partners saying “you’ve changed” may not be a sign of a doomed relationship, rather, an evolving one because we are all many things at once.

In a Virtuous Reality, there is a belief that everything is interconnected and many narratives exist at the same time. Nonduality begets liberation.

Virtuous Reality as a Possibility Space

Since my first VR experience, I have explored a wide range of others. One of my favorites is Fantasynth, a VR experience where the player leisurely glides through a hypnotic array of colorful backdrops and light shows synchronized to electronic beats. There is no need for controllers, and the experience does not require an avatar, so in the virtual world, I am quite literally without a body. Staring down at the empty virtual space where my brain expects my body to be, I considered this might be what it feels like to be without consistent form and disembodied. As you might’ve guessed disembodiment is not part of my repertoire either as a coach or Chief Psychology Officer. In fact, disembodiment has become such a rampant present-day concern that embodiment and mindfulness have become household names and digital detox and meditation commonplace practices.

And yet, I never fully bought into the idea that embodiment could only be learned through locating our physical bodies. I imagined if we placed intentional awareness on the sensation of being disembodied, we might find cues that teach us how to (re)embody. But I wasn’t quite ready to prescribe that to anyone. So every Friday, for four consecutive months, I very intentionally explored the relationship between VR and my corporeal awareness. What I found was a strange, beautiful, and surprising assortment of states and contradictions – disembodiment and embodiment, empathic transcendence, amplified awareness of consciousness, and an uncanny ability to suspend disbelief, which freed me from judgment and afforded me the psychic spaciousness to wonder and wander much as I would as a child. I was simultaneously the creator and the creation, the object and the subject, philosophically and neurologically the differences all collapsed and I had never been more aware of my own consciousness, at once distinct and imperceptible.

“What I found was a strange, beautiful, and surprising assortment of states and contradictions – disembodiment and embodiment, empathic transcendence, amplified awareness of consciousness, and an uncanny ability to suspend disbelief, which freed me from judgment and afforded me the psychic spaciousness to wonder and wander much as I would as a child.”

But I also noticed I had very few people with whom I could process these wonderments because in the larger community still, very few people have tried VR let alone own headsets, and in the clinical psychology community the numbers are even fewer. While I hear so many espouse the healing potential of VR, meditation, therapy, entheogens, etc., what I don’t hear being discussed but might be the most integral element to the sustainability of transformation: the formation and maintenance of in-person communities to balance out our media ecosystems. We don’t need research to tell us that in order to reach our highest potential we need in-person communities operating in real time to physically hold and nourish us with touch, food, witnessing and acceptance. After we’ve experienced other truths we need spaces where we can share those realities; this is where we derive courage and a sense of ground.

Without the support of one it is unlikely anyone will embark on the path towards awakening. This is why I think so many people enthusiastically download meditation apps but immediately stop using them when they realize they have no idea what to do with this newly heightened awareness and there’s no one qualified or trusted enough to guide them.

Enlightenment, after all, comes with responsibility and anyone who’s ever taken on a heavy knapsack without support knows, we simply don’t get very far. In a Virtuous Reality I envision community-generated, peer-facilitated, in vivo and virtual meet-ups for people exploring contemplative and consciousness expansion practices. Communities will gather regularly with the intent of exploring the elusive self and rooting insights garnered through these expanded states in meaningful ways relevant to our daily lives. Over time I imagine the process of integration will be internalized and become the default mode by which we approach all of life’s significant experiences whether in community or in solitude, virtual or analog.

And then there’s the fear of a Virtuous Reality, as counterintuitive as it may seem to some, it also makes a lot of sense. Most people I talk to are still very afraid of mind expansion tools such as psychedelics and VR and while I do not share the same fears I can understand more generally the anxiety towards any unknown medium. My guess is there are deeper, more subconscious forces fueling this anxiety. The limiting of human consciousness is not just reserved for “evil” institutions to bestow upon us, we do it to ourselves all the time. I believe the fear of our own possibility and potential far exceeds our fear of our own bondage and demise. Abraham Maslow describes this as the “Jonah Syndrome,” the fear of our own greatness and actualization –

“It is precisely the godlike in ourselves that we are ambivalent about, fascinated by and fearful of, motivated to and defensive against. This is one aspect of the basic human predicament, that we are simultaneously worms and gods.” – Maslow

The fear is of our highest possibility. In any Possibility Space, be it a Virtuous Reality or a virtual reality, we will notice resistance to possibilities and we can often trace the resistance back to ourselves. As I like to ask my clients, if you knew the view from the penthouse was breathtakingly spectacular but the inevitable plummet would be equally so, would you still want to visit the top floor? Or would you consider the 4th floor where the view isn’t very impressive and neither is the fall? Our fear of being morally shattered by our experiences – high or low – is often what keeps us stuck, smack dab in the middle.

Like any tool, technology, or human, Virtuous Reality has the possibility for both “good” and “bad.” Of course it does. It has the capacity to be as remarkably favorable as it does severely distasteful because it is simply a reflection of our collective humanity and we are capable of everything. And that’s what I like about this Virtuous Reality – it is a Possibility Space that can surprise us, delight us, and teach us. I think the next level of this game will require us to collectively move beyond our desire to be safe and the illusion that we are distinct organisms separate from everything else. We’ve got to possess a voracious appetite for truth and exploration so that we can reweave another narrative that can dance alongside all the other ones, no one more or less important than the other. Our challenge is to step on the path of nonduality and devote ourselves to the practice of radical inclusiveness.

Possibilities of a Virtuous Reality have always been there and it is not outside our scope, our brilliance, or our humanity. The question is, do we have the moral imagination, the courage, and the responsibility to choose it?

Dr. Michele Wang, PsyD is also Chief Psychology Officer of my company, NewPathVR.