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.

Distinguished Magazine - - CONTENTS - PRATIK ROY CHOUDHURI

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.

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