03.03.16 – Seminar: VR & Phobias

We were once again put into groups and asked to research one VR application and then to share our findings with the class. Our group decided to focus on how VR is used as therapy to help cure fears & phobias.

Exposure Therapy vs Virtual Reality

The conventional way psychologists attempted to cure people with phobias is by what is known as exposure therapy which is a procedure which involved that person being in direct contact with their phobia. So if for example someone had the fear or flying, the psychologist would have to book two plain tickets for himself as well as the patient. This is obviously very costly and time consuming and for some fears, such as public speaking, is not a feasible thing to do.

Therefore, companies such as Psytech are creating virtual immersive environments which trigger a person’s phobia without directly exposing the patient to what triggers their phobia giving the psychologist as well as the patient more control over the situation which can be aborted quickly if necessary.

biofeedVRMCNot only is this cost effective but it is also a more accurate way of finding out about the patient’s condition. By the use of non-invasive physiological monitoring used to monitor brain activity, heart rate, muscle movements, etc. physiologists are able to monitor the patient objectively. According to Dr. Wiederhold this approach “involves showing objective metrics of success” and gives patients the ability to “watch their biofeedback in real-time to see how they are performing”.


Is It Effective?

Some people might think, does this actually work? Does having the patient know that the situation is not real result in a lack of effectiveness?

connectomeAlthough VR environments tend to look unrealistic, it is still a powerful and efficient tool and this is due to a neurological trick scientists uncovered by comparing the brain pathways of phobics and non-phobics.

A non-phobic person would notice subtle details which will “confirm” that the situation/environment isn’t real whereas a phobic would look for specific cues they perceive to be relevant to their survival.

animated-spider-gif-1Let’s take Arachnophobia (the fear of spiders) as an example. The lack of motion a VR spider would have compared to a real spider would immediately tell a non-phobic that it is not real. On the other hand, the mere presence of the spider’s legs and motion is enough to trigger a strong emotional response from a phobic – sufficient to initiate the corrective learning experience. Emotions tend to kick in before you can consider things logically so even though a situation might not be real, you would believe it is.


Future Improvements

The slight downside to curing phobias with VR is the fact that it can only do so much and probability is that the person would still struggle to face their phobia in real life.

Thanks to new technologies such as Google Glass, one therapeutic strategy that will hopefully aid in solving this issue is augmented reality.

insect-exposure-therapy

Integrating and involving realistic elements might help the person deal with phobia better when faced with it in the real world. So if a person is afraid of speaking publicly in an office, they would use a real office as the physical space of the simulation and then simply add in the virtual stimuli which in this case would be the audience. This is also time and cost effective as you would only need to create the stimuli and not the environment.


Conclusion

56160649Although this method has been proven to help people cope with their phobias in a more appropriate and healthy way, it is limited as to how much it can actually do for a person and there is definitely room for improvement.

Its effectiveness might also vary depending on how severe the phobia is and on the person’s individual approach towards the VR therapy. Furthermore, in real life, a particular situation can go many ways and unfortunately simulated VR environments are not fully equipped to help you deal with all situations. However, with the aid of augmented reality, it is highly possible for this technology to advance further and become more efficient.

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