Monday, April 20, 2015

Healing minds with virtual reality

Virtual reality, more often than not, seems to aid more in preparing for war than healing its after effects.

That has changed.

An article on PBS' Nova website describes how the Red Sox Foundation at Massachusetts General Hospital is using virtual reality to simulate the sights, sounds, and smells of combat incidents for veterans. It might seem counter-intuitive for a vet with PTSD to relive their experiences, but that, as the article describes, is actually part of the healing process. Coming to terms with the reality of their experience helps them to move past it. Virtual reality helps get the details of the experience out more quickly.

“It brings back that muscle memory,” said one participant. “You get right back into that mode. You put on the headphones and start hearing that radio chatter and it just comes right back to you.”

A virtual reality headset provides the visuals while concomitant odors of rubber and cordite accompany the experience. As the veterans talk through their trauma while immersed in the virtual world, counselors can add virtual avatars or modify the pixelated environment, tailoring it to the patient's description.

Intriguingly, the article points out that PTSD is not the only malady that virtual reality is treating. There are also simulations for those afflicted with autism and schizophrenia. Even pedophiles are being studied through simulated conditions. Before the advent of such systems, it was difficult for psychologists to study exactly how and why pedophiles get aroused without placing a child in danger. Therefore, such research was not attempted. The downside of is that it makes it that much more difficult to ascertain what is going wrong in the mind of the offender and then treat...and hopefully prevent...such conditions. A virtual reality avatar does not incur danger. That has already allowed researchers to determine unique hand and eye patterns that are common to offenders.

To cop the atticism of the article, "virtual reality is not a panacea." It has its downsides. Not everyone responds to virtual reality treatment and there are no longitudinal studies that a) demonstrate how a patient does in the long run and b) how the treatments stack up in the real world. Additionally, VR technology is expensive. That latter point may be subject to change over time, however. Oculus Rift is an example of how VR tech is entering the consumer market and there is talk of a VR app available for smartphones that would run about $500. In terms of therapeutic value, more time will be needed to assess the efficacy of the virtual reality method.

While this is important for the afflicted (and our veterans who have suffered through so much certainly qualify), I can see a real benefit for their families, friends, and people in general. Traumas, psychic scars, and mental illnesses still carry stigma and are still difficult for many to understand. Through a virtual reality experience, maybe someone could learn just what it means to be forced to live with such things or perhaps to experience the moment that created them. If VR could lead to not only healing but greater empathy, that what be worth the cost alone.

Of course our entire living experience could be virtual reality, but that's a whole other story.

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