Virtual reality: a clinically useful tool for psychologists

By Phyllis Hanlon
November 1st, 2017

Middle-school children from a rural school in Vermont recently “connected” with peers in South Sudan. Some younger students studying ancient civilizations “traveled” to Mayan ruins where they witnessed sacred ceremonies firsthand. Both of these groups engaged in virtual reality (VR) experiences that immerse the individual in a scenario through sight and sound.

VR is slowly becoming part of the educational process, not only imparting academic lessons but also fostering a sense of empathy for and understanding of others. Katy Farber, Ed.D., professional development coordinator at the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont, explained that these immersive experiences “put students in the context” of a situation. “Traditional education fosters detachment. We attempt to remove the barriers,” she said.

Farber said that using VR helps to engage the students in personal learning. “The virtual reality experience creates a scaffolding in their minds,” she said. “Following the experience, I ask them, ‘How can virtual reality increase empathy and why? How does seeing where students live help you better understand them?’”

Once the students have taken part in the virtual reality experience, they have insight into the lives of those who reside in different parts of the world. Farber pointed out that virtual reality creates a “social and emotional connection with others” and prompts students to “…interrogate their own private need to do things as a society.”

Farber explained that schools in this region are not particularly diverse, so it’s important for students to gain insight, acceptance and understanding of those from a variety of backgrounds, cultures and ethnicities. “Virtual reality can take us to the next level,” she said. “It’s a robust research platform.”

Robert S. Astur, Ph.D., associate professor in the department of psychological sciences at the University of Connecticut, uses VR as a research tool to study the brain. He said, “We are trying to find ways to develop brain function. We’ve learned you can grow new brain cells so could we use virtual reality intervention to increase hippocampus function.”

The major area in which Astur hopes to apply his research is in dementia and Alzheimer’s disease where the hippocampus is the first area to be affected.

But the field of VR has much broader applications, Astur said. He noted that VR is a viable treatment option for people who have depression, anxiety and psychological dysfunction.

For instance, fears – of dogs, flying, etc.– may be better treated with virtual reality versus traditional talk therapy. “When you bring reality to the treatment setting where the clinician or researcher can control and modify the situation, it seems to have a better effect,” he said. “Virtual reality has been really successful with anxiety disorders.”

According to Astur, VR can sometimes be more successful than traditional talk therapy, which requires dialogue between therapist and patient. “Depending on the trauma, people might not want to talk about it,” he said, citing specifically male mentality.

He related a scenario in which a veteran was placed in a virtual Iraq, driving down the road in a Humvee. “We found that the patient responded really well when no response to therapy is required.”

The tool has also been used successfully for social skills training, in physical rehab and for pain management in burn patients, Astur reported. “Virtual reality distracts the patients and is preferred over the use of opioids,” he said. “In a clinical setting, if someone gets frustrated with their progress, they might be willing to try virtual reality.”

Astur pointed out that any psychologist already clinically trained to deal with patients is capable of offering virtual reality therapy. He does caution clients interested in “self-treating” with VR to do so in cooperation with the clinician to ensure a positive outcome.

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