Even if we have not had a “spiritual experience,” we are probably familiar with stories of these experiences. While Virtual Reality (VR) is being used to create greater immersion in video games and as a tool used by therapists for exposure therapy in treating phobias, SpiritualVR is leveraging the unique properties of VR to create emotionally powerful spiritual experiences that can have a positive impact when you return to the real world. These experiences are being developed to help people change their thinking and, as a result, change their behavior.
How does that change happen? It is helpful to look at the research done on awe by Dacher Keltner, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. His work in awe helps us to understand the nature of spiritual experiences and how they can have a positive impact on how people live their lives. “...[A]we involves a challenge to or a negation of mental structures when they fail to make sense of an experience of something vast.” Encountering something vast and surprising evokes feelings which cause the self to feel small, powerless, and confused. In this state of confusion, the self is faced with the challenge of either dismissing or negating the experience, or accommodating the experience. Accommodating the experience involves accepting the feelings of power, wonder and fear, which can create feelings of timelessness, selflessness, humility, and a greater sense of connection with the world around us. This is similar to the sublimation of the ego (and conditioned belief systems) required for all spiritual transformation. In simpler terms, you cannot have a spiritual experience without letting go of preconceived notions of being in the world.
Predictability prevents change. We do not change in situations which are predictable. “Fleeting and rare, experiences of awe can change the course of life in profound and permanent ways.” Awe involves a need for accommodations. If such an experience is not negated or dismissed, feelings of enlightenment and rebirth can occur when mental structures expand to accommodate truths never before known. It is these “peak experiences,” as described by Abraham Maslow, which have the ability to create transformative, or spiritual, experiences.
What does this have to do with Virtual Reality? It is the immersive quality of “presence” in VR that makes it so powerful. At a basic level, VR creates an alternate reality in a virtual world with props to increase its reality. Adding sound and touch greatly enhances the virtual world to the point where it can be indistinguishable from the material world that we inhabit. The props used in VR are capable of “tricking” the brain to make the virtual world indistinguishable from the real world. It is in this virtual world that “reality” can be manipulated to create desired change. With awe, change occurs as a result of successful accommodation to an unexpected and overwhelming experience. In VR, change can be created by manipulating this environment and providing predetermined stimuli to cause a desired change in behavior.
Virtual reality gives us the capability to manipulate reality in ways that can be therapeutic. In one of SpiritualVR's prototype applications where we are testing the powerful properties of psychology, we examine "self-criticism". The user/subject appears as an avatar (a figure representing an actual person). Another avatar appears and begins to criticize the subject. The subject is next greeted by a third avatar who releases a large quantity of bubbles from above. Some of these bubbles contain “gifts” which are captured and held by the self. The self then gives these gifts to three new avatars who are expressing discomfort. Each gift is a compliment to counter the criticism received by the self. It is this act of altruism in giving the gift of compliments to the distressed avatars that creates the experience of compassion. This modeling of behavior in expressing compassion to others is meant to counter feelings of self-criticism. If we can learn to treat others with compassion, we can learn to treat ourselves with compassion.
Keltner concludes his discussion of awe by stating that “Awe can transform people and reorient their lives, goals, and values” making “awe-inducing events ... one of the fastest and most powerful methods of personal change and growth.” The same can be said of SpiritualVR.