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Jenifer’s Journal: Let’s get (meta) physical

The world is, of course, nothing but our conception of it. — Anton Chekov

I’ve often decried the evils of technology in this column. It seems to me, like money, it’s not technology itself that’s evil, but the slavish devotion to it without any thought of the consequences that our wanton investment of time, attention and often money are wreaking on our society as a whole.

It’s occurred to me that the cyber space many of us choose to inhabit for several hours a day is analogous to our notions of religion. To many of us, even those more tech savvy than me, it seems infinite, unknowable and mysterious, a limitless source of answers for questions we haven’t thought of yet.

As far as I’m concerned, we haven’t begun to scratch the surface of our natural universes, the macro one “out there” and the micro one within us, and yet our interest, not to mention allegiance, seems much more focused on this cyber one.

Then I happened to read the article in the May 1 edition of the New York Times Magazine entitled “Metaverse Medicine,” by Helen Ouyang in which she poses the question: “Can virtual reality help ease chronic pain?” All I’ve known of “virtual reality” (VR) is what I’ve seen over someone’s shoulder when they’re playing an often blood-and-guts video game. The Oxford Dictionary defines “VR” as “the computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way by a person using special electronic equipment….” 

And “Metaverse”? According to an earlier article in the Times from July 2020, by John Herman and Kellen Browning, “Metaverse describes a fully realized digital world that exists beyond the one in which we live.” 

But when all these space-age, trompe d’oeil gimmicks are juxtaposed to the crucial matter of chronic pain, all of a sudden my vague notions of a technology-generated pseudo-universe, begin to combine with my conviction about our need to truly explore all the aspects of the real universe.

And I start to realize that maybe they’re parts of the same infinite whole. To understand that cutting-edge technology can be inspired not just by a profit motive, but a people motive, one focused on healing human pain of mind, body and spirit, that’s pretty metaphysical.

Ouyang writes, “Chronic pain is generally defined as pain that has lasted three months or longer. It is one of the leading causes of long-term disability in the world. By some measures, 50 million Americans live with chronic pain, in part because the power of medicine to relieve pain remains woefully inadequate. [According to] Daniel Clauw, who runs the Chronic Pain and Fatigue Research Center at the University of Michigan, ‘there isn’t any drug in any chronic-pain state that works in better than one out of three people.’ He went on to say that nonpharmacological therapy should instead be ‘front and center in managing chronic pain — rather than opioids, or for that matter, any of our drugs.’”

“Virtual reality is emerging as an unlikely tool for solving this intractable problem. The V.R. segment in health care alone, which according to some estimates is already valued at billions of dollars, is expected to grow by multiples of that in the next few years, with researchers seeing potential for it to help with everything from anxiety and depression to rehabilitation after strokes to surgeons strategizing where they will cut and stitch.

In November, the Food and Drug Administration gave authorization for the first V.R. product to be marketed for the treatment of chronic pain.”

Apparently, since 2011, the use of VR has not only been explored as a treatment for chronic pain, but also as an effective therapy for opioid and other addictions. In Frontiers of Neuroscience, an on-line publication of the National Institute of Health (ncbi.nih.gov), an article from January of 2020 says, in part: “Substance Use Disorder (SUD) and behavioral addictions are common and require a multidisciplinary approach. New technologies like Virtual Reality could have the potential to improve assessment and treatment of these disorders … [suggesting] that VR provides benefits in the assessment and treatment of substance use disorders and behavior addictions and achieves high levels of ecological validity … VR is effective across addiction disorders …”


And I had another metaphysical wow moment at the recent Library’s Friday Night Dialogue. The Rev Dr. Stephen Adkison of the Shelter Island Presbyterian Church spoke on “Everyday Pilgrimages” in such an engaging, generous and inclusive way that it laid the groundwork for some important (metaphysical) conversations waiting to be had.  Carl Sagan said, “Science is not only compatible with spirituality, it is a profound source” — and, virtual or actual, that’s the reality.