Face your fears, without fear! - The rise of Virtual-Reality Treatment
Virtual reality has been in existence for over six decades, however its use in psychotherapy is still being explored.
In the 1999 sci-fi blockbuster, The Matrix, Lawrence Fishburnes’ character asks a very interesting question to the films’ protagonist: What is real? How do you define real? In the same breath, the fictional character explains that the human mind perceives reality through the basic sense organs. Whatever the mind believes to be true, it perceives to be real. While the movie provides an interesting portrayal of Virtual Reality, its application in the real world has been less sinister. And unlike the fictional scenarios that depicted enslavement, there are those who are using the technology to free the mind instead.
Virtual reality has been in existence for over six decades, however its use in psychotherapy is still being explored. In a virtual interface, users can experience various environments that can be specifically controlled to stimulate responses. This allows psychotherapists to place their patients in a controlled environment to study their mental behaviour in specific scenarios. Over the years, recreating events or situations through various stimuli like smell, touch, and so on, have made the simulation very realistic. As the patient starts to re-live their past and react accordingly, experts can gauge in detail, the various triggers of emotions and reactions.
Even though the concept seems futuristic to many, the idea of treating patients suffering from various kinds of mental health problems using Virtual Reality or VR is almost three decades old. In 1992, Dr. Max North, a computer scientist, coined the term Virtual Reality Treatment or VRT in his doctoral dissertation. His research showed that the use of VR was safe and successful in psychotherapy. The next advance came from researcher Dr. Ralph Lamson. Lamson conducted various tests and claimed a success rate of about 90% from the use of VRT. Over the years, as the technology advanced, more resource was spent on VRT application.
VRT has many dimensions and levels. The most common use of VRT is the form of exposure therapy. Patients are exposed to traumatic stimuli in a controlled virtual environment. In the early 90’s, scientists and researchers invented the Cave Automatic Virtual Environment or CAVE. CAVE became one the earliest forms exposure therapy where patients would be left in a controlled environment. In it would be sensors to map the patients’ exact positions, and computer generated 3D images would be projected on active shutter 3D glasses. The glasses are specifically designed to record the viewers’ perspectives so that therapists can view what the patient is seeing at any given time. This has now been replaced with VR glasses with additional variables such as sound and smell being incorporated to help map the brains’ responses to each. Exposure therapy has been known to have been an effective treatment for various forms of phobias as well as PTSDs or post-traumatic stress disorders.
The use of VRT has opened the doors for the future of psychotherapy. Whereas conventional methods have been somewhat successful in analyzing a patients’ mental health, it is limited in its uses. Use of personal computers or such devices to simulate a real-world environment has often helped identify certain problems but its’ effectiveness has been often questioned. Conventional exposure therapy in which patients are shown visual depictions of a certain situation has proven to be even less effective. Treatment and analysis of cognitive behaviour is one such barrier that is slowly being overcome with VRT. In a VRT exposure setup, a therapist can place a patient in various environments and detail the behavioural responses. Additionally, therapists can guide patients to take the next step and overcome their mental barriers.
The mental health of most people around the world is at an all time low. According to the World Health Organisation, around one in four suffers from some form of mental disorder or another. The success of VRT is slowly being realised although it has a long way to go before it is normalised in everyday life. VR is slowly becoming one the most sought after technologies as corporations try to profit from the vast range of its uses. The high cost of a VR set up is enough to deter patients as well as therapists for using them. Although VR has caught the imagination of the millennial generation, yet its true usefulness is still being realized. As for VRT, it is set to replace conventional therapy in the near future as it becomes more and more affordable.