TechnoMysticism: Contemplative meditation in VR

Meditation practices have traditionally been used to promote relaxation and wellbeing; have recently gained more significance among the different communities with the goal of healthy living. TechnoMysticism is an exploration of supporting contemplative meditation practices through technology.  We designed virtual reality experiences corresponding to two practices: Chakra healing and Qigong. Together the experiences are intended to cover the design space of how technology can support such practices. The following post documents the design, user study observations for the chakra healing VR experience.

Chakra healing is an ancient meditation practice from the Buddhist Nalanda traditions (600 – 300 BCE). A chakra healing session typically deals with balancing the energies of the chakras, the seven energy centers of the human body through mind relaxation, contemplation and breath control. Through the VR experience we aimed to support these different elements through technology, to make them easier for novice users.

As part of the experience, the user engaged in a 25 minute chakra healing session in VR; as an exploration the experience was designed on basis of a guided session popular on Youtube (this one). He was asked to sit cross-legged, he found himself looking at his virtual avatar sitting in the same posture. Microsoft Kinect 2 device was used to track his body movements and accordingly adjust the virtual body. During the guided session, the guide asked him to focus his awareness on the body regions corresponding to the seven chakras, to visualize their energies, to cure them through conscious thought (elicited through the guide’s speech) and breath control. As he engaged in this process, he saw the seven chakras appear in his virtual body, their intensity increasing with every breath that he inhaled; their auras becoming cleaner over time. Visualizing the specific dynamics of the different chakras in the virtual body, the user felt them in his physical body. User’s attention was critical to enable this experience and was manifested as feedback in the visual intensity of the virtual body; the body became brighter as the attention increased, became dull when the user became distracted by everyday thoughts.

 

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Embodied experience, Bimodal causation as the basis of Chakra healing

The chakra system is the Indic central nervous system as defined so in Buddhist and Hindu tantra traditions. The seven chakras arranged across our upper body along the spine, from the pelvic bone to the crown of the head influence our experiences. The chakra healing process is targeted at affecting these body systems through conscious thought. The mental and physical elements interact through bimodal causation (mind affects the body and vice-versa) at the interface of mental states and energy patterns.

There is growing agreement in the neuroscience community to support the existence of both embodied experience and bimodal causation, hence strengthening the principles behind chakra healing. This comes in addition to growing empirical evidence regarding the positive effects of meditation practices in general. Given these developments, such explorations of trying to enable chakra healing through modern technology are of great interest; for expanding the outreach of the practice and for scientific investigation.

 

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Body ownership illusion (BOI) and Interoception

BOI’s put the user into a perceptual state of embodying a virtual avatar, creating the illusion that the body is “mine.” Such an illusion has been studied to induce strong cognitive and behavioral effects like altering the user’s perception of his physical body, or to make him empathetic towards other people. We used the body ownership illusion to provide the user with an interoceptive body map for the sensations elicited during the guided meditation process. We hypothesize that the BOI and the interoception processes mutually strengthened one another.

Guided imagery is a technique used in alternative medicine wherein the patients are exposed to visuals of their corrected self like disease-free, healed skin; the conflict between what the patients see and what they feel has been observed to help cure the condition. Similarly, with this experience, the expectation is that viewing the chakras in the virtual body might assist the user in feeling them in his physical body. Synchronous visual and interoceptive stimuli might work together to strengthen the user’s BOI.

 

 

Attention biofeedback

User’s mindfulness and attention play a significant role in enabling the expected experience. Typically, novices with no meditation experience face difficulty in keeping their head clear, their attention constantly diverting to everyday thoughts. Hence we used the attention retention theory (ART) to assist them in this process. Specifically, we sensed the user’s attention using Muse 2 EEG device and utilized it to control the illumination of the virtual body.

 

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The virtual body turns dull when the user’s attention drops, becomes bright when the attention rises back up

 

(Guided) meditation process

The guided meditation audio plays an important role in tying the experience together for the user. As per the Nalanda traditions, the seven chakras represent different areas of our life like relationships, higher-order thinking, and creativity. The guide talks about these associations to elicit specific mental states in the user; Parallelly, he asks the user to focus on the body sensations corresponding to the chakras, hence triggering the mind-body connection. Second to this, the audio from a human actor helps establish the user’s trust on the visualizations in the virtual body, and on the whole intervention in general. Thinking about the design of this guidance paradigm can further improve this experience, but can also have wider implications for the design of human-centered technology.

 

 

User study observations

We tested this experience with 12 participants: all being college students in the age group  18 – 25 years, 7 males and 5 females. We conducted qualitative interviews to gauge regarding the early perceptions regarding different design features like body ownership, interoception, attention biofeedback, and audio guidance. Overall, all participants liked the experience and found it to be relaxing; reports on other attributes like being able to feel the chakras varied. While some participants were able to sense some or all of the chakras in their bodies, some did not, and few felt sleepy. As per expectation, those who did feel the chakras developed a stronger BOI, while the others reported on viewing the dynamics in the virtual body “as a movie.” Breath synchronization with the ball in the virtual body was also reported to assist embodiment. Most participants reported on being able to follow the guided audio; One participant highlighted its importance during the interview saying “its important to not lose the audio if it is lost the connection would break.” Another participant described his experience by saying “I became completely devoted to him; what he was saying I was able to feel.”

We attribute the differences observed in the user study to participants’ varying meditation abilities and to the limitations of the study design. Not all participants could maintain the same level of mindfulness during the session which could have limited their interoception of the body sensations. Many participants experienced backache while sitting in the cross-legged pose for this long while few became uncomfortable due to the heavyweight of the HMD. Moreover, the user studies were conducted all through the day as per the availability of the participants and researchers; time of the day might have also affected participants’ ability to meditate.

 

 

In conclusion, we consider this to be an early effort to explore a paradigm that can prove to be very effective. Beyond the limitations, the study uncovered many interesting insights that can help develop future iterations of this experience, and can provide directions for further scientific investigation in this area.

 

 

References

[1] A perception theory in mind-body medicine: guided imagery and mindful meditation as cross-modal adaptation.

[2] Defining embodied cognition: The problem of situatedness

[3] Over my fake body: body ownership illusions for studying the multisensory basis of own-body perception

[4] The subtle body: an interoceptive map of central nervous system function and meditative mind-brain-body integration.

[5] Meditation research, past, present, and future: perspectives from the Nalanda contemplative science tradition.

[6] Movement-based embodied contemplative practices: definitions and paradigms

[7] A Framework for Interactive Mindfulness Meditation Using Attention-Regulation Process