The Asklepia Foundation



by Iona Miller and Burt Webb, ©1992

Abstract: The advent of virtual reality technology opens up a whole new dimension for therapy. Psychotherapist and client may enter an electronic simulation which allows them both to occupy a shared imaginal space. The parameters of the system and environment can be programmed to display specific archetypal imagery which is known to influence the deep psyche. The ability to interact with the system provides a means of intervention and transformation.
The therapist, as electronic shaman, either guides or follows the client's process. He chooses from a repertoire of archetypal encounters those images which fit most closely, thus amplifying the "cybernaut's" imagery experience. Distinctions of inner vs. outer become experientially moot. Therapeutic interventions, impossible in consensus reality, become readily available without standard ethical considerations.
The shaman's flight into the netherworld to retrieve a "lost" soul becomes a literal reality experienced as a co conscious journey. The discernment and non directive attitude of the therapist insures that the client will not be traumatized. The perception of universal and personal metaphors is enhanced and amplified, rather than imposed. As in hypnosis, the client maintains the possibility of "escape" back into consensus reality, simply by closing their eyes.


Virtual Reality (VR) is one step beyond computer visualization. Through VR, we can actually "climb into" a synthetic visual and aural environment, or simulated "reality", and experience visceral responses to that world. Mankind has always used symbols, imagery, and metaphor to facilitate changes in consciousness. This is traditionally the realm of the shaman, magician, and more recently, the psychotherapist. In this era of seemingly magical technologies, we may combine both technology and technique for exploring the imagination to create a new modality. "Magician/therapist" is the informing myth of VR Therapy.

Since VR technology already exists, we should consider its application to communication and therapeutic interactions. "Virtual" means to have the same effect but not the substance of physical reality. In terms of psychological impact, virtual reality may be  "as good as" or even better than physical reality. This technology allows us to create whole universes at our fingertips  to improvise "realities".

Synthetic realities are created by generating synthetic visual, audible, olfactory, kinesthetic, and/or tactile input. The 3D effect, scenery altering in relation to the roving point of vision, is created by showing slightly different views to each eye. Bob Jacobson describes the universe inside cyberspace.

A "virtual world" is a unique, intangible but highly designed information environment generated by a computer and transmitted by "virtual interface" technology to a user who "enters" the virtual world via appropriate sensory mechanisms. The virtual world environment can be as complex as a three dimensional "sense surround" comprising seamless visual, aural, and tactile cues; or as simple as a computer conferencing system.

Virtual Reality simulations seem so real because the right hemisphere of the brain makes no distinction between symbols and the symbolic reality they represent. Hypnosis, used to by pass the critical mind, could be very effective in creating an enhanced sense of "reality." This suspension of disbelief is why experiential psychotherapies work. Through the manipulation or transformation of symbols, the emotional brain can experience changes as real as those induced through the external environment.

In Virtual Reality, the map is the territory, even though we may keep reminding ourselves it is still representative of the deeper layers of the psyche. In Virtual Reality, it is axiomatic that "imagination is reality." The possibilities are endless, just as they are in dreams. The participants engagement in the scenario is immediate, and compelling. The seemingly impossible becomes permissible. In VR you do not necessarily even have to have a body anymore. Or, you could turn a knob and become an animal, or even an inanimate object. This could be therapeutic if it broadens awareness. Consciousness, or the sense of being, is liberated from the constraints of normal time and space.

In the near future, perhaps the best metaphor for the Virtual Reality experience is that of a vehicle. While both parties are seated in comfortable chairs, their two points of view will be able to "fly" through a computer  generated space. Emphasis here is on the visual and auditory modes. These sensory inputs constitute about 97% of our information absorption, so this combination can be very powerful. For therapeutic purposes, the program can draw on cross cultural symbols of transformation.

In the mid term, it will be possible to move around in a space with some tactile feedback that will allow the therapist and client to interact with computer "objects". Emphasis here would be on adding physical mobility in a complex space and interaction with small objects to the visual and auditory modes. This will permit participation in physical activities such as "rituals" including "magical implements.

Farther in the future, it will be possible to interface directly with the brain and realistically simulate "reality." Actual motor activity will be prevented by activating the same brain stem block which prevents actual movement during dreams. All senses receive congruent input and virtually all types of experiences become possible.

In order for a clinical system to be practical, one of the critical elements will be an "authoring system". This will be a computer program that a non computer graphic specialist will be able to use to construct "worlds" and interactive scenarios. It will be highly interactive and should contain generic settings, human forms, objects, textures, etc. Initially, it might be sort of a three dimensional "cut and paste" system of elements. The design system should be readily understandable to the therapist in terms of visual "primitives" which would include archetypal forms.

During actual excursions into "therapy space", the therapist would control the "world" with some sort of hand tool. Current work is focusing on a sort of wand which would give the user immediate control over the visual elements in the space. It will function like a sort of super "mouse," or "scepter of power."

Biofeedback would be very useful for registering the reactions of the client to the different elements and experiences in the therapeutic space. Preliminary set up for a particular client might consist of running through pictures of settings, objects, people, etc. which might have significance for the client. The results of the survey would then be used to program the visual experience in the therapeutic scenario.

The therapist could see the space differently than the client. For instance, the gaze of the client could be tracked and the therapist would see a set of cross hairs where ever the client was looking. A colored graphic display of biofeedback information on the client could float in the air next to the cross hairs.

Virtual Reality Therapy is not prescriptive. It merely requires immersion in the flow of the on going imaginal process. Virtual Therapy is not treatment by a computer, but through the computer generated interface. Both therapist and client enter the "electronic dreamtime" of virtual possibilities. Virtual Therapy is a shared journey, which can either be pre programmed much like guided visualization, or an extemporaneous "guided dance" provided by the therapist who follows the client's emergent response.

The psyche employs metaphor as an encrypting system for storing and retrieving many kinds of information. Root metaphors are cross cultural, part of our collective heritage, and sometimes transpersonal. We become aware of these archetypal patterns in our life through our physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual interaction with the outer and inner world. Some experience, especially (pre verbal) trauma, becomes stored as epistemological metaphors. When these are de coded in experiential process oriented therapy, they reveal what the experience was like. They form the foundation for "how we know what we know" about our experience and perception.

Metaphors, like imagery, are subject to transmutation and transformation. They have been widely employed in therapy for a wide variety of purposes. Root metaphors lie at the basis of a person's self image, who and what they perceive themselves to be. In therapy, when we change the metaphor the attitudes, feelings, beliefs, and injunctions of the client are modified automatically. An excursion into chaos and consciousness in the electronic dreamtime could certainly be influential if guided properly.


There are two basic approaches to the use of metaphor in therapy. The first is a "canned" approach, which assumes a beneficial effect from certain imagery or stories for certain types of problems. Ericksonian hypnosis uses the "imported" metaphor for a wide range of diagnoses. The stories relate to the dysfunctions of the client and show a route to healing as a possibility and model. The treatment is essentially pre determined and applied in a "one size fits all" manner.

In process oriented therapy, the metaphors emerge from the client, rather than being imported by the therapist as a quick fix. In process work, the therapist does not assume to have any pre packaged means of healing the client. Rather, the metaphor and meaning emerge organically from within the client, and the therapist merely guides and fosters that emergence. By merely "trusting the process", they arrive at a unique, creative solution. Epistemological metaphors are idiosyncratic for each person, and are the key to individualized therapy. Their experience is encoded in their personal symbols.

Through the amplification and elaboration of root metaphors and epistemological metaphors, VR offers a means of enhancing many therapeutic processes which employ imagination. VR applications could be developed for Transactional Analysis, Gestalt, Transpersonal, and Jungian therapies. Many of the stock in trade techniques of Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) could also be employed. In VR, one could experience even more vividly the "part's party" of conflicting subpersonalities, the "change history," or the process of "re framing."

VR could be used for simple hypnotic regressions, re parenting, the Gestalt two chair technique, or dialogue with figures like the shadow, anima/animus, or wise self. Psychodrama scenarios with role playing and other players could be useful. The other players could be human beings sharing in the therapy space, or computer generated images under the control of the therapist.

For example, in re parenting, the therapist could create an imaginal care giver based on the client's ideal description, or use the client's adult self as the model. The client may be regressed, even to infancy or womb experience, to feel viscerally the nurturing and positive support which were unavailable historically. The new "memory" of responsive nourishing does not change the historical fact, but supercedes it in meaning. The greater the need, the deeper the impact.

In simulating subjective reality, VR provides a wider range of imaginal scenarios than traditional therapy with its ethical constraints. Some pioneers in re parenting were highly criticized for their physical interaction with clients. One example was a therapist who actually breast fed her schizophrenic clients during spontaneous regressions, so that they could internalize that warmth and mature from the most fundamental stages of development. Clearly this crosses the ethical line. However, in VR the therapist has a host of resources available which do not create dependency issues, or violations of physical parameters.

Another alternative is that the client creates his own world and manipulates figures within it, as in sandtray therapy. The story unfolds from the client and is externalized in VR. The therapist can look on or guide. The client can choose to "climb into" his waking dream and participate, or not. One could identify experientially with any character or object.

The high tech shaman/therapist may employ VR to supercharge the therapy process. However, this turbocharged therapy would not be indicated for most sessions. It should be interspersed with traditional sessions. In this way, Virtual Therapy does not become a substitution of symbolic realities for the world. Contraindications would be fairly self evident. The same criteria apply to Virtual Therapy as those for determining any therapy of choice for each client. It might be fine for a systematic desensitization, and sensory overload for a fixed delusion.

VR can be used as a psychological training environment. The experiences are not only simulations, they are virtually real. They are true experiences on the emotional level. VR can be used to enhance our inborn perception and reaction capacities. With the subject isolated from sensory contact with consensus reality, all input comes from the totally fabricated environment. Client and therapist can open a door into any reality or fantasy they choose, for therapeutic purposes.

In the VR environment, we have the means of extending the capacities of both the body and psyche. Symbols and imagery can be used in either an "innoculatory" or corrective manner for balancing the personality. Paradoxically, they can be used for fostering a strong coping ego, or dissolving the rigidities of a personality through "ego death." The dissolving of the outworn, defective personality and the emergence of a new self in a safe environment, under controlled conditions has its model in the ancient psychological prescription of alchemy: "Solve et coagula."

Descriptions of this spontaneous process are found in many cultures. One classical example is the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which describes specific Bardo states, or states of consciousness, which emerge during the psychological re birth process. The varieties of psychological re birth are many. They generally involve rising anxiety on the part of the ego undergoing the experience. The fear comes from dissolving the primary identification with ego as the only means of experiencing Self.

The ego must pass through and beyond the fear, pain, and chaos which invariably lie on the path to inner healing. Typically, after this phase, there is an emergence into the transpersonal realm, where new resources are found, which can be brought back from the experience and integrated. In the modern era, similar experiences were reported in the field of consciousness studies, using psychedelic substances in a therapeutic manner. Most of the parameters of this experience could be simulated in VR Therapy without the use of drugs.

In this quickly evolving field, there are certain developments which would mark greater degrees of freedom within the therapeutic setting. Right now with simple computer conferencing, it is possible for a therapist at point A to interface with a client at a remote location. With a video interface, the nuances of personal observation are not lost. However, there is a definite perception of "remoteness" in the exchange.

The creation of a more tangible common meeting ground in cyberspace or a virtual world, overcomes this initial problem. However, it raises the practical problem of both parties having interfacing gear at their respective locations. Current state of the art involves cumbersome goggles and other apparatus like gloves or joysticks. All this gear is attached to the computer by cables required for power and information flow. Even if both therapist and client were in the same location, merely dressing in this gear creates an initial barrier between them.

The current generation of commercially available helmets deliver a low resolution image with a limited field of vision and a slow refresh rate. The complexity of the computer generated world is limited with respect to the number and complexity of objects, visual detail, movement, etc. There may be an appreciable time lag between head movement and image response. Tactile feedback is limited to the experience of sensations of texture and light pressure on the finger tips. Force feedback utilizes special hand devices which duplicate the resistances experienced during movement of an small object under the influence of external forces. More sophisticated force feedback with complexly shaped objects with mass and forces acting on the whole body are under development but are complex and expensive. Creating the illusion of real solid objects would facilitate the therapy process, even though 97% of human sensory processing normally occurs through sight and sound.

According to Webb, "whole body suits have been created which sense the position and movement of the user's body and generate a "computer simulacrum." This allows the participant to view his own body and it also permits two or more people to see each other and interact. The amount of information needed to track position in space is very small, so it would be simple to use ordinary phone lines to communicate between users in two different locations who would appear to be in the same space."

The body suits from VPL are complex and involve a number of different sensor systems for different types of movement. They have to be individually fitted, which is time consuming and expensive. Current data transfer systems inhibit movement. The person wearing the suit has to have a thick cable physically connected to the computers. Ideally, there should be some sort of wireless link to the computers so the individual would be free to move around in a controlled space. Unlike conventional therapies, many potential applications of VR do not require the presence of more than one person.

This raises the question of self administered therapeutic interactions where the computer program itself actually guides the experience. Many of the same issues come up that arise with self administration of psychotropic drugs. Again, according to Webb, the function of psychotropic drugs is to introduce a new state of consciousness into the brain without regard to specific information content. VR is a new way to introduce specific information content into the brain without a specific state of consciousness. While the presentation of visual and aural information can certainly result in an altered state of consciousness, VR and psychedelics are really profoundly different."

That having been said, the potential for VR to be used to alter consciousness is vast. It could exert an incredible control over states of consciousness for either beneficial or harmful effects. The results could be as trivial as temporary alteration of mood or as profound as a radical alteration of personality. These changes could be voluntary or imposed from the outside. The capability of VR to either liberate or control the mind really needs to be explored and understood.

Artificial intelligence programs are being developed which can form a model of the user including an estimation of the user's belief system. Work is being done on the reading and interpretation of emotional states via facial expressions, gestures, voice tone and inflection, word choice, statements and even biophysical variables. Such a system could spontaneously change a virtual world based on the actions and reactions of a user.

VR is not immune to the possibility of abuse. Much like video games have become a form of addiction which limits the availability of the individual for real life experience, VR has an escapist, addictive potential, because it could conceivably even create pleasure or ecstasy states on demand. In a therapeutic situation, theoretically the therapist is in control of the parameters of the experience. The reality of VR will probably include self administration for a variety of goals, including the possibility of virtual sex.

When sophisticated control languages are designed which permit the individual to have real time control over the design of the virtual world, there will be a real possibility of the projection of internal psychological instabilities into the virtual world, creating dangerous feedback and feedforward loops. There is also the question of involuntary immersion in a virtual reality designed to disorient and torment. In the information age, not all computer use is benign.

Most discussions of virtual reality assume that the virtual world will be constructed explicitly by the human operator. However, the computer could use fractal mathematics to construct a realistic landscape complete with plant life. There are a number of systems under development for creating artificial mobile life forms as well. The computer could generate a complex ecosystem without human intervention, which could be explored as if it were a newly discovered continent.

A typical hypnotic technique is for the client to create their own special place. This island of serenity, or sanctuary, could be explicitly programmed to suit individual desires and creativity. The juxtaposition of favorite elements would be possible, even if they are widely separated in the normal world. These "sacred spaces" would serve as havens of refuge, and also provide spiritual nourishment. The concept of temenos, an enclosed precinct, is relevant here. The customized cyberspace can function as a cocoon for the process of transformation or metamorphosis.

These VR experiences also offer the possibility of safe adventures which could be used, not only to relieve stress and anxiety, but to promote self confidence and self esteem. They would function as a psychological training ground, because there are real experiential consequences of immersion in cyberspace. The emotional changes could be profound, including the spiritual insight that our consensus reality is highly conditioned by the nature of our perceptions. We experience an image synthesized by our visual and neural systems triggered by stimulus from the physical universe. Our relationship with and attitudes toward physical reality may be profoundly altered by our development of VR.

Specific symbols could be introduced into this "brave new world." This could provide a backdrop for creating state specific alternities. Therapy could draw its cue from the ancient magical practice of pathworking. Magic or Hermetic science was the closest ancient art to psychology. It preceded psychology in much the same way that alchemy preceded chemistry. In pathworking, the aspirant "journeys" to the imaginal location of an archetypal Form, and returns by the same route. Jung alleged that archetypes can be found everywhere, the universal embodied in the specific. In cyberspace, archetypes could be presented in a more abstract, fundamental and profound manner as "pure" ideal forms.

Such consciousness journeys have a transformative effect. Like the shamans of old who could "fly" to the moon or descend into the underworld, one's consciousness is set free from the bounds of empirical reality. The pathworking technique is much the same as that we have come to know as "guided visualization." It is pre programmed. It could be used to prepare a client for more spontaneous interaction in the inner realm of mind. These experiences produce tangible outer effects on the behavior, body, emotions, and thoughts of the cybernaut.

In Jungian psychology, it is known that certain symbols cluster together. They seem to share a common nature, an affinity, or to have a natural sort of correspondence. Many of these correspondences are chronicled or codified in the lore of the occult, myth, and folklore. The image of a god or goddess presides over the entire cluster of related symbols. Thus the god Apollo is associated with the astrological force of the sun, the color gold, healing and certain specific scents, colors, sounds, events, plants and animals. Synthetic "gods" could be created by artificial intelligence programs to populate a virtual world. They would be capable of engaging in conversations with VR participants.

Like cures like in psychosomatic relationships to disease.  Jung said there are gods within our diseases. That energy can be transformed from a dysfunctional form to a transpersonal resource. It requires building a conscious relationship with the primary archetypal force. Jung encouraged a kind of meditative dialogue he called active imagination. It was patterned after an old alchemical procedure. In active imagination the ego actively engages the flow of imagination directly as a willing participant.

We can immerse ourselves in the living stream of consciousness and interact with that spontaneously creative imagination. VR could enhance this perception, eliminating years of training to develop visualization skill. It is not pre programmed, nor introjected from the therapist.

Traditionally, pathworking is a mediating act which occurs in imagination. The imaginal world is known to psychologists as the realm of the psyche, or soul. Pathworking and VR could be used to gain access to specific resources and qualities associated with the archetypal symbol clusters. During the excursion, the participant enters as his ego oriented self, complete with its values and goals. This is not idle daydreaming nor self gratifying fantasy.

The subject maintains this perspective even while exposed to and influenced by the evocative power of the archetype. Unlike a dream, there is the possibility of exercising intent and choice, as both the conscious and sub conscious work together in a way that may never have been experienced before. The symbols create an atmosphere which permits the development of a direct relationship of the ego with the transpersonal force.

This spiritual application of VR creates direct experience of personal and transpersonal interaction. The I Thou relationship is made manifest in a non physical reality. The experience is unique for each individual in both content and meaning.

We foresee the time when we will be able to dispense with the clumsy goggles and gloves and tap directly into the human brain. This would allow the creation of all the sensory and motor experiences of the "real" world. It is the ultimate goal of virtual evolution. Because the sensory systems are not passive detectors, but active processing subsystems, it would require the creation of active computer analogs of the sensory apparatus that could interact with the brain in the same way.

It may become almost impossible to distinguish Virtual Reality from Reality Proper! This raises an obvious ethical concern. If we succeed in creating a computer "dream time", it will have a profound impact upon our sense of personal identity and reality. Many options will be explored because of strong psychological, social, and economic demands, regardless of any individual researcher's opinions.

When The Whole Earth Review (Winter 1987) covered the VR revolution, they made an important point:

We can interpret a new tool as we would a dream, for what it tells us about the psyche of its creator. For with all their ostensibly practical aims, tools are also displays of fantasy, tangible metaphors  poems. They are the stories we tell ourselves about who we think we are, or wish to be. And the scary thing is that they help these stories to come true.

The word "technology" is derived from the Greek "techne" which means "the manner of accomplishing a task". This is also the root of the word "technique". As the quote implies, technology originates in the mind; without the concept of hammering, a hammer is just a strangely shaped piece of metal on a round piece of wood.

In the world of VR, man literally gets to play God, at least for a local universe. WER says,

We see in these images, for example, an uninhibited celebration of the separation and transcendence of mind over body: a disembodied intellect hovers over a barren and regular landscape, the clear line of thought being all that is necessary to create and control.

It is the ultimate control fantasy:  "the images of supreme and effortless power from a distance."

This is a very glib and powerful image but it does not tell the whole story. There will be interactions with other human beings in virtual reality and we all know how quickly visions of control and perfection evaporate in the heat of interpersonal interaction. There is also the prospect of virtual worlds created by chaotic and fractal algorithms which will yield novel landscapes filled with strange plants and animals.

Virtual worlds will have their own laws which will restrict the control of the individual over circumstances. There is also the prospect of artificial intelligence creating entities and environments with their own agendas. The initial vision of VR may be accurately captured in the WER quote but the actual experience of VR will quickly replace it with a more complete understanding of the new realm.

Psychologically, the current interest in VR might be viewed as one expression of the goal of spiritual ascensionism  disembodi-ment to free the trapped spirit. A compulsion in this direction undermines the sense of wholeness which involves holding the tension of the opposites between corporeality and spiritually.

It presents a new challenge to the conundrum of mind body split, the primary psychic wound of modern western man. Grandiosity or inflation may be a natural side effect of this new technology. The new awareness this technology brings us requires grounding, integrating, and digesting.

The inevitable interpenetration of the virtual world with the physical world will tend to heal this division of the electronic mind and the physical body. This will occur in a number of ways. Most intimately, there will be the looping of body performance into the virtual realm. The computer representation of the body could change color as the person performed a particular physical task such as a tennis serve or a martial arts movement.

The virtual representation would accelerate the learning of a physical skill. The internal physical processes such as blood circulation, muscle exertion, electromagnetic brain activity, blood chemistry, etc. could be detected and externalized so that a person could walk around inside a visual representation of their own body. These applications would lead to a whole new level of self awareness.

Beyond an individual's self explorations, the physical world will be imported into virtuality and computer generated objects will be exported into external physical reality. Video windows driven by cameras will bring external scenes into virtual reality. Robotic manipulators/vehicles will be able to translate activity in virtual reality into actions in the external world.

Transparent glasses which can display computer graphic "overlays" will be able to show an individual virtual objects superimposed over his normal visual image of the world. With appropriate sensors, physical actions with respect to these computer objects will be converted into control information for computer devices. While it may be simple and easy to envision a hermetic seal between virtual reality and physical reality, that is not what the future will hold.

Even with a mind set that denies the body primacy, the body is affected. It doesn't matter what external forces influence the patterned firings of nerve cells. The body cannot help but be profoundly influenced by its experience in virtual reality. Its biochemistry and electromagnetic field are influenced, as well as glandular activity. This has tangible results like any emotional experience. But VR Therapy has the potential to be much more impacting than, say, a trip to Disneyworld; or a movie.

The bottom line to the degree of influence exerted by the experience is the meaning which the participant attaches to it. It remains to be seen whether the net result of VR experience will be life enhancing or diminishing in regard to intra personal and inter personal communication.

Psychology is investigating the common ground between itself and spirituality. Most psychologies see the value for well being within some kind of spiritual quest or perspective. Different experiences condition our worldview and our view of ourselves. Our image of our relationship to the universe, and optimal conduct within that realm is the province of philosophy. It involves the primary questions: "Who am I, why am I here, and where am I going?" VR experience could affect an individual's response to these questions, opening a broader reality.

We know that the new computer technologies such as virtual reality are here to stay, whether they get used for positive or negative purposes. In principle, it conforms with the basic definition of magic: "Magick is the art and science of causing change in conformity with the will," according to Aleister Crowley. VR certainly brings us a giant step toward literalizing that notion. But to what end? If not to aid ourselves and our fellow human beings, what is the purpose?

Speaking of the philosophical implications of the new technology, Frank J. Dyer reminds us that eastern philosophy has long recognized the virtual nature of existence. The marvelous universe of discrete objects is an illusion. It is a veiling of the true transcendent nature of Reality through restriction of our consciousness to the world of apparent form. This illusory aspect of the manifested universe is termed maya in the yogic philosophy and in Vedanta. In yogic philosophy, all of this manifestation exists for the purpose of providing certain classes of experience to consciousness, individualized as the Self at the core of each person's being.

This could be the ultimate application for Virtual Reality, to enhance and accelerate that process.

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