Virtual Reality Enhances Meditative Experience
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“It seems that a technology that pries your eyes and ears wide open to absorb as much sensory input as possible is working at cross-purposes with a discipline that asks you to forgo distraction, to close your eyes and direct your attention inward.” – Michael Gollust
Over the last several decades, research and anecdotal experiences have accumulated an impressive evidential case that the development of mindfulness has positive benefits for the individual’s mental, physical, and spiritual life. Mindfulness appears to be beneficial both for healthy people and for people suffering from a myriad of illnesses. It appears to be beneficial across ages, from children to the elderly. And it appears to be beneficial across genders, personalities, race, and ethnicity. The breadth and depth of benefits is unprecedented. There is no other treatment or practice that has been shown to come anyway near the range of mindfulness’ positive benefits. With impacts so great it is important to know how to promote the development of mindfulness even in individuals who dislike or avoid the discipline of practice.
Technology has recently been applied to training in mindfulness. Indeed, mindfulness training carried out completely on-line has been shown to be effective for as number of conditions. But, now virtual reality (VR) devices are improving and becoming readily available. Previously it has been shown the virtual reality (VR) can be helpful in treating phobias. and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). But, can VR enhance the development of mindfulness?
In today’s Research News article “Meditation experts try Virtual Reality Mindfulness: A pilot study evaluation of the feasibility and acceptability of Virtual Reality to facilitate mindfulness practice in people attending a Mindfulness conference.” (See summary below or view the full text of the study at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5699841/ ), Navarro-Haro and colleagues had mindfulness experts who were attending a conference on mindfulness evaluate a Virtual Reality system that was designed to enhance the instructions of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). They had the experts wear a VR helmet that presented a scene of floating “down a calm 3D computer generated virtual river while listening to digitized DBT mindfulness skills training instructions.” They listened to one of three 10-minute DBT instructions on “Wise Mind, Observing Sound, or Observing visuals.” Before and after the VR experience they were measured for mindfulness, state of presence, their emotional state, including happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, anxiety, relax/calm vigor/energy, previous experience with technologies and the acceptability of the method.
They found that in comparison to their pre-VR state, after the session the participants had significantly higher levels of mindfulness and relaxation and lower levels of sadness, anger, and anxiety. The system was acceptable as the participants gave high ratings to it and the experience. This acceptability was also significantly correlated with the changes in emotions. These results suggest that in the eyes of experts on mindfulness, using Virtual Reality to enhance mindfulness instruction was a good thing and made them feel more mindful and emotionally better.
This is a good start. Of course, the next step will be to determine if VR is acceptable and can enhance mindfulness instruction in individuals who were not adept at, or practiced mindfulness. Additionally, this was an extremely short-term experience. It will be necessary to determine the effects of longer-term use of VR. Since, mindfulness training involves quieting the mind, it is possible that the VR stimulus environment may work counter to the goals of mindfulness practice. Finally, it will be necessary to try VR enhanced mindfulness training with individuals with physical and/or psychological problems.
Nevertheless, VR is an interesting technology that has been shown to help in treating some forms of psychological issues; phobias. and Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) and holds promise for further applications. It may be a method that can help train mindfulness even in resistant individuals.
“As I continued my exploration of this virtual world, at some point I noticed my mind had gone completely still. The monkey-mind, that great enemy of meditation, mindfulness, and really, of life, had all but vanished. I’d gone from zero to zen and the stillness that followed was glorious.’ – Mind Prana
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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Navarro-Haro, M. V., López-del-Hoyo, Y., Campos, D., Linehan, M. M., Hoffman, H. G., García-Palacios, A., … García-Campayo, J. (2017). Meditation experts try Virtual Reality Mindfulness: A pilot study evaluation of the feasibility and acceptability of Virtual Reality to facilitate mindfulness practice in people attending a Mindfulness conference. PLoS ONE, 12(11), e0187777. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0187777
Regular mindfulness practice benefits people both mentally and physically, but many populations who could benefit do not practice mindfulness. Virtual Reality (VR) is a new technology that helps capture participants’ attention and gives users the illusion of “being there” in the 3D computer generated environment, facilitating sense of presence. By limiting distractions from the real world, increasing sense of presence and giving people an interesting place to go to practice mindfulness, Virtual Reality may facilitate mindfulness practice. Traditional Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT®) mindfulness skills training was specifically designed for clinical treatment of people who have trouble focusing attention, however severe patients often show difficulties or lack of motivation to practice mindfulness during the training. The present pilot study explored whether a sample of mindfulness experts would find useful and recommend a new VR Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT®) mindfulness skills training technique and whether they would show any benefit. Forty four participants attending a mindfulness conference put on an Oculus Rift DK2 Virtual Reality helmet and floated down a calm 3D computer generated virtual river while listening to digitized DBT® mindfulness skills training instructions. On subjective questionnaires completed by the participants before and after the VR DBT® mindfulness skills training session, participants reported increases/improvements in state of mindfulness, and reductions in negative emotional states. After VR, participants reported significantly less sadness, anger, and anxiety, and reported being significantly more relaxed. Participants reported a moderate to strong illusion of going inside the 3D computer generated world (i.e., moderate to high “presence” in VR) and showed high acceptance of VR as a technique to practice mindfulness. These results show encouraging preliminary evidence of the feasibility and acceptability of using VR to practice mindfulness based on clinical expert feedback. VR is a technology with potential to increase computerized dissemination of DBT® skills training modules. Future research is warranted.