A head(set) for heights: How virtual reality can help cure phobias
O brave new world – an Oxford University-funded study has had great success in using virtual reality to help people suffering from a crippling fear of heights.
A YouGov survey from 2014 suggests that people (in the UK at least) are more frightened of heights than they are of spiders, snakes or flying. Daniel Freeman, professor of clinical psychology at Oxford and founder of the company involved in the research (Oxford VR) set out to help serious acrophobics as part of his broader research into how virtual reality might be used in the treatment of mental health problems, specifically paranoia.
Two groups of roughly 50 people clinically diagnosed with the phobia took part in the study. Those not in the control group had six half-hour sessions with a VR headset and a carefully designed simulated environment, after which about 70% of the participants reported that they no longer had a fear of heights. Those in the control group, who did not undergo the VR treatment, recorded no change.
The programme followed the general principles of exposure therapy – a clinical technique whereby patients come into escalating contact with their objects of fear in a controlled environment and under the supervision of a mental health professional. This gentle but emotionally tough approach is designed to break the pattern of avoidance that works to reinforce the irrational fear felt by the sufferer.
The virtual world designed for the study was a tall, open-plan glass building with walkways positioned at different heights. Participants were asked to complete a series of challenges on the different levels and report back their reactions. They were accompanied by a chatbot therapist named Nic (‘Now I can’) who explained the process and asked them to rate their terror levels.
Whimsical elements like hovering brightly coloured balls and a whale swimming through the air remind those taking part that they are not in any actual danger of falling while at the same time functioning as ‘height reminders’ to elicit some of the physical symptoms of fear, like dizziness, sweating and nausea.
The challenges ranged from the everyday to the outright strange: participants were asked to go up to a ledge, look over the edge, throw an object from a height, pick apples, rescue a cat from a tree branch and, finally, ride triumphantly on the nose of the whale (Wilbur).
The results of the study, while limited in scope and reliant on self-reporting, are encouraging for Freeman’s research. It is hoped that VR programmes and virtual therapists like Nic will act as a complement to (not a replacement for) a human therapist’s care. Freeman believes that VR simulations like these can reinforce a therapist’s work outside their office and free up time so that they can help a greater number of patients.
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