Meditating in Virtual Reality

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How about a 15-minute meditation in Ko Samui beach in Thailand right now, right here? – Yes, it’s possible.

Virtual Reality (VR) is a modern technology that can “fool” the user to think that he is physically in a different place. With VR technology you can travel anywhere in the world, any time, from your home couch or like me in this picture, from the Island of Grinda in Stockholm.

Meditation is a many thousand years old mental practice that has been shown to increase attention, problem-solving, calmness and focus in the modern scientific studies.

The combination of old, internal practice of meditation and modern VR-technology allows anyone to experience something truly unique and special. For example, gaining a peace of mind while standing at top of the Mount Everest – and this is exactly what Tristan Gribbin, the CEO of FlowVR App wanted to do when she first traveled to the highest point of the earth in VR. From that moment on, she started to develop FlowVR meditation App, so that anyone could experience this beautiful freedom and meditation experience anywhere.

In this post, I will tell how meditation can be made easier with VR, and what other applications VR technology has. I will also introduce FlowVR – the meditation App by Tristan Gribbin.

 

“All of life’s treasures are inside us”

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– Tristan Gribbin, FlowVR

 

 

Meditation

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Meditation is a many thousand years old practice with its most historical roots in the philosophies and religions like Buddhism, Yoga, Jainism, and Christianity. Within the past decades, researchers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Richard Davidson, Sharon Salzberg and Barbara Fredrickson (to mention a few) started studying the effects of different types of meditation in clinical and healthy populations in placebo-controlled research trials. Ever since, there have been recorded data to show how meditation can increase many aspects of psychological, social and physiological well-being (R) and so it can be regarded as a modern addition to daily health behaviors with physical exercise and balanced diet.

 

Meditation has many health benefits based on neuroplasticity

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The effects of meditation are based on the fact that your brain can change in structure and function. This is called neuroplasticity. (R) It means that your brain is constantly creating new neural connections depending on what you do, and more importantly, what you repeat. Memories are consolidated over time and repetitions and based on that, the brain can be “taught” calmness in a very same way that it can be taught to learn a new language or a dance. For example, even a single session of meditation has been shown to increase blood flow to insula (R) (R), which is a brain area linked to perception, motor control, self-awareness and cognitive functioning. In addition, meditation can change the default brain connectivity and function (Default Network Mode) increasing present moment awareness also when you are not meditating (R)

Since 1950 thousands of participants have been tested on meditation using psychological questionnaires, EEG, fMRI, and other physiological measures such as HRV, GSR, and plasma inflammation markers and stress hormone levels. 

 

Biological, psychological and epigenetic benefits of meditation and mindfulness: 

  • Better task switching (R)
  • Better attention and focus (R) (R)
  • More calmness
  • More positive emotions (R)
  • Lower plasma inflammation markers and reported sickness (R)
  • Lower perceived stress and plasma stress markers (R) (R)
  • Decreased expression of inflammation-related genes (R)
  • Lower anxiety and depression (R)
  • Lower PTSD symptoms (R)
  • Lower chronic pain (R)

The benefits depend on the type of the meditation, time and duration of the practice, and the person doing the meditation. Styles of meditation include, for example, breathing meditation, open monitoring meditation (OM), focused attention (FA) meditation, Loving-Kindness meditation (LKM) and vipassana meditation.

To conclude, modern research has been able to find very interesting short-term and long-term improvements in physical, psychological and social well-being from a regular meditation practice and even from a single meditation session. 

 

Virtual Reality 

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Virtual reality (VR) is interactive technology, that allows you to experience another reality by using headsets that cover your whole visual and auditory field. Oculus is one the most known VR headsets at the moment. The headset is connected to a computer, using the device’s own screen to create VR. Other devices allow you to insert your smartphone into the device and play a video from VR App or Youtube while the technology transforms the video into a 3D experience. VR is a fun and interesting way to use the combination of hardware, software, and sensory synchronicity to create the experience of traveling to another space or in creating a vivid educational experience. It can also be used in fields of gaming, medicine, arts, architecture, design or entertainment.

Note, that most VR technologies don’t allow you to see your body in VR. This may cause some dizziness. I explain why, and share my experience with this in “Movement in Virtual Reality”

 

What Virtual Reality can be used for?

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I got my first VR gear last summer and ever since I have experimented with different applications for it. I especially like to use VR for educational or relaxation purposes. For example, in dark times of the year, I like to take a virtual reality trip to the beautiful beaches of Thailand or go to see a sunrise while in bed just before falling asleep.

When I was studying for my biology exam, I took a virtual reality trip to inside a human cell and saw cell organs like mitochondria and ribosomes in action.

In addition, a company called VisitFinland has made a beautiful 360 video of my home country Finland, where I sometimes like to take my friends to see the northern lights in VR.

 

Movement in Virtual Reality?

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One day I got an idea to take my morning yoga practice to a beach in VR. I put on my VR gear, chose a beautiful beach in Thailand as my destination and started to yoga. I got extremely dizzy, which is easily explained with how the human vestibular system works. The problem was that I could not see my body in the space. If your body is moving but the image you are seeing is staying still, there is a mismatch between the visual input and proprioception, which means that the information from two different sensory systems doesn’t match. So I ended up quite dizzy and also accidentally hitting my body to the furniture.

Even if you keep your body still, but the image moves, you can get vection – illusion of movement while you are staying still. This sensory misalignment between visual, vestibular and cognitive systems confuses the brain and also in this case, may cause dizziness and nausea.

These issues are constantly being developed. In the future, VR technologies will allow the user to see their body in VR. In addition, in the future, the user can use a treadmill in VR gear and thus actually walk in the VR world.

 

Meditating, traveling and relaxing in Virtual Reality 

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Despite the problems with Yoga in VR, I liked the idea of “training” something in VR, so I decided to try something more stable. I founded that meditation worked extremely well. In addition, it brought another dimension to my regular meditation routine – traveling to another space somehow primed my mind to detach from my daily routines and life. Seeing natural landscape felt like a useful way of starting a practice of stillness and present moment awareness. Actually, there is plenty of data showing that just viewing nature images increase the PNS-activity and relaxation (R) which mediates lower stress and better psychological well-being. Thus, VR meditation as its best is a combination of two strongly powerful practices for mental health and physical health.

In my experience, the combination of VR and meditation makes the practice very easy to approach and offers a very pleasant way to practice.

 

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Currently, I travel to VR every now and then for my breathing meditation, relaxation or trataka meditation. I concentrate on my breathing while watching a beautiful sunset and listening to the mellow sound of sea waves hitting the rocks. I find it amazing that all this can be done just by sitting on my living room floor.

I also use VR when I am having difficulties to sleep. I place my VR headset on when laying down, put on a nice video of sunset and soon I am able to let go of the day and relax. In addition, there is a great VR video of my home country Finland, where I like to take my friends to see Northern Lights while in my other living country, Scotland.

 

FlowVR – A Virtual Reality App for meditators

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Last week at the Biohacker Summit I met Tristan Gribbin, the mindful CEO of FlowVR App. Somehow we have had the exact same idea about meditating in Virtual Reality about at the same time. Her path to meditating in VR was sort of an enlightenment initiated by the experience of standing at the top of the Mount Everest in VR. At that moment, all she wanted to do was to meditate. You can hear her full story in her TEDx talk.

She has now developed an App that provides 4-minute long guided meditations in VR. I had the chance to test the App and I found it great.

The App has 6 meditations. They are all 4-minute long and each has a different focus/topic. Every practice has their own beautiful landscape and a soothing voice to guide you through the practice. In addition, you can choose to meditate only for 4 minutes or take all 6 meditations in a row, which gives you the freedom to choose the practice timing between 4-24 minutes.

FlowVR is a good App for anyone who already has Oculus or Samsung Gear VR-set. Unfortunately, at this point, the App cannot be used in separation from Oculus Go and Samsung Gear VR, but she is looking to develop this option in future. Also, In FlowVR App, the landscape cannot be seen in separation with the meditation or vice versa, but again, in the future, this might be possible as well.

Tristan is very mindful and authentic person, and so I asked her about her favorite quote or life advice. She told me:

The only solution to the problem is to go deeper” a quote from Gourasana and it means that meditating and going within can always lead to finding answers to life’s toughest questions!

It also points to the reality that what we truly desire comes from within; courage, strength, inspiration, love, peace, humility, determination, action… all of life’s treasures are inside us.”

“The only solution to the problem is to go deeper” – Gourasana

 

 

Virtual Reality glasses from Oculus to other options

If you want to try out meditating in VR, and have Oculus GO or Samsung Gear, FlowVR App is definitely a good solution. Nevertheless, you can also do VR meditation with another VR gear. You can put on VR or 360 videos on from Youtube and use your earphones to listen a different audio from the laptop. This requires a bit more effort but according to my experience, is equally good in VR experience and meditation. The cheapest VR gear starts from approximately 25 dollars; some come with earphones, others without, and the quality is obviously not comparable to Oculus GO that costs 300-500 pounds in Amazon. Nevertheless, VR technology develops at a such a rapid speed that the price will probably come down rapidly with increased quality. In addition, I always recommend to physically go to a store to test out the VR headset and make sure the gear is at least ok-quality and compatible with your phone and eyes. 

 

Oculus Rift –  £470 in Amazon

(affiliate link)

Oculus Rift

 

 

Oculus go – £319 in Amazon

(affiliate link)

Oculus Go 32GB – Standalone Virtual Reality Headset

 

 

Samsung Gear Gen 2 – £25 in Amazon

(affiliate link)

Samsung Gear Gen 2 Virtual Reality (UK Version)

 

 

Final thoughts and a question for you

This post was about meditating in virtual reality. I told what is meditation and Virtual Reality (VR) and how I hit myself to my furniture when I tried yoga in Virtual Reality, but found meditation and traveling in VR amazing. I told about a problem sensory misalignment with current VR technology. I also told about FlowVR meditation App and how Tristan, the CEO, found meditating in VR.
I still hope that one day I could take my morning yoga practice to Ko Samui and that will probably happen soon when VR technology develops and more devices allows the user see their body in VR. In future, VR will definitely have great applications not only in entertainment but also in healthcare.

Have you ever tried VR and would you be up for trying meditation in VR? I would love to hear your thoughts about VR and meditation! 

 

 

References:

Autonomic Nervous System Responses to Viewing Green and Built Settings: Differentiating Between Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Activity. (n.d.). Retrieved May 24, 2018, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4690962/

Creswell, J. D., Taren, A. A., Lindsay, E. K., Greco, C. M., Gianaros, P. J., Fairgrieve, A., … Ferris, J. L. (2016). Alterations in Resting-State Functional Connectivity Link Mindfulness Meditation With Reduced Interleukin-6: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Biological Psychiatry, 80(1), 53–61. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2016.01.008

Cushing, R. E., & Braun, K. L. (2018). Mind-Body Therapy for Military Veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Systematic Review. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (New York, N.Y.), 24(2), 106–114. https://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2017.0176

Fredrickson, B. L., Cohn, M. A., Coffey, K. A., Pek, J., & Finkel, S. M. (2008). Open Hearts Build Lives: Positive Emotions, Induced Through Loving-Kindness Meditation, Build Consequential Personal Resources. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1045–1062. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0013262

Goyal, M., Singh, S., Sibinga, E. M. S., Gould, N. F., Rowland-Seymour, A., Sharma, R., … Haythornthwaite, J. A. (2014). Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Internal Medicine, 174(3), 357–368. https://doi.org/10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13018

Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S., & Walach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 57(1), 35–43. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0022-3999(03)00573-7

James, P., Banay, R. F., Hart, J. E., & Laden, F. (2015). A Review of the Health Benefits of Greenness. Current Epidemiology Reports, 2(2), 131–142. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40471-015-0043-7

Janssen, M., Heerkens, Y., Kuijer, W., van der Heijden, B., & Engels, J. (2018). Effects of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction on employees’ mental health: A systematic review. PloS One, 13(1), e0191332. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0191332

Lutz, A., Brefczynski-Lewis, J., Johnstone, T., & Davidson, R. J. (2008). Regulation of the Neural Circuitry of Emotion by Compassion Meditation: Effects of Meditative Expertise. PLoS ONE, 3(3). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0001897

Singh, N., & Telles, S. (2015). Neurophysiological Effects of Meditation Based on Evoked and Event Related Potential Recordings. BioMed Research International, 2015. https://doi.org/10.1155/2015/406261

Tang, Y.-Y., Lu, Q., Feng, H., Tang, R., & Posner, M. I. (2015). Short-term meditation increases blood flow in anterior cingulate cortex and insula. Frontiers in Psychology, 6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00212

Taylor, V. A., Daneault, V., Grant, J., Scavone, G., Breton, E., Roffe-Vidal, S., … Beauregard, M. (2013). Impact of meditation training on the default mode network during a restful state. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 8(1), 4–14. https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsr087

The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the … – Norman Doidge – Google Books. (n.d.). Retrieved May 24, 2018, from https://books.google.fi/books?hl=en&lr=&id=Qw7qj5nXSPUC&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=the+brain+that+changes+itself&ots=NbOneTx8NY&sig=Xt-D-Jzk5xQsVt1YgxcAg-Ap-Gc&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=the%20brain%20that%20changes%20itself&f=false

 

Author: Inka Immonen

Science blogger, yoga teacher, biohacker and a psychology student at the University of Aberdeen; upgrading mind and body health with fitness, nutrition, and mindfulness

2 thoughts

  1. Dear Inka, thank you for this informative article about meditation in VR. I really love your insights about the potential benefits of meditating in VR. The new Oculus Go headset is a standalone headset that does not require a computer and it much more affordable so this will make meditating in VR much much easier! ❤

    Like

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