Therapeutic Potential of Virtual Reality

The budding virtual reality market has already begun to bloom, sweeping industrial, gaming and entertainment applications. The revolutionary empathetic experience possible through immersive technology provides us the perfect template for expanding research-based therapeutic practices, as well. It is enthusiastically being applied and studied for treatment of phobias, anxiety disorders, PTSD and pain. Therapists advise and oversee Virtual Reality programming to create controlled environments and stimuli with the hopes of verifiable benefits in patient’s physical, mental and emotional states.

Phobias and PTSD

A National Institute of Medical Health study of over 9000 Americans found that phobias afflict nearly 18.1% of the population. Despite the frequency of this psychological plague, current methods are still not fully sufficient to treat the more severe cases of phobia. The prevailing method of Systematic desensitization, according to the Guide to the Practice of Psychology, has a few major problems: subjects don’t imagine their fears vividly enough, and therapists are struggle to tailor graduated levels of desensitization stimuli. Simply imagining the scenario may not elicit a strong enough fear response and full exposure may lead to trauma, exacerbating the original fear.

Virtual reality solves both of these issues. Computer graphics (CG) have the capability to construct intimately vivid worlds, and they can be tailored to a virtually infinite number of possible scenarios. This allows psychologists to create progressive, customized therapies that dramatically reduce phobic reactions by desensitizing the subject in a controlled and effective process. The new method is already offering significant promise in peer-reviewed research: a meta-analysis of 24 studies on the effectiveness of virtual reality therapy for treating social phobias found that it was consistently more potent than conventional therapy. This simulated activity has been especially successful in reducing fear of bodily activities such as falling — perhaps because these experiences are difficult to simulate in the real world, but easily accessible through immersive technology.

Depression

Excessive self-criticism — a massive factor in depression — is being overcome through therapeutic digital worlds. In an ingenious experiment, female undergraduates were first placed in a virtual world in which they comforted a crying child with extremely low-self esteem. Then, they went through the same situation again from the perspective of the child, seeing and hearing themselves comfort their own simulated self. Subjects demonstrated increased compassion and reported reduced self-criticism.

Mindfulness and Altruism

There are even more radically innovative applications of virtual reality to therapy, being applied to meditative sciences to create self empowerment leading to greater altruism. One study put subjects in a digital world and granted them the superhuman ability to fly with the goal of increasing altruism, and it worked: “The superpower of flight leads to greater helping behavior in the real world, regardless of how participants used that power.” Several individual and occupational therapy demos are emerging and gaining attention. Guided Meditation by the Cubicle Ninjas and Floating Euphoria from AlteredScapes VR, offer guided meditation through calming, symbolic landscapes, providing respite and relaxation through your mobile phone or Virtual Reality setups including Oculus, Vive and Gear VR. The potential for personal growth and peaceful respite within VR are just as promising as the expansion of the industry itself.

These new digital worlds have the potential to change the world of therapy and medicine. They have the potential to change us rapidly and significantly, for better or worse. Where will this groundbreaking method of transforming our psyches lead us? Application of evidence-based mental and emotional therapy can provide an unprecedented number of individuals access to therapy which was previously unaffordable or inaccessible. Are we on the brink of a cognitive leap in human consciousness?

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