Virtual Reality and Therapy: A Thought Experiment

Albert Einstien developed some of his most famous ideas through thought experiments. A very famous one goes something like this…..Imagine there was a train that could travel at the speed of light, and imagine you were a passenger on the train and …… or imagine you were on the platform watching that train …….the results of these ‘trains of thinking’ were spectacular.

So let us imagine that there was a technology, and with this technology, we could create (costs permitting) any reality that we like, and what’s more, we could share this reality with others in such a way that they perceived it as their reality. A simulation is indistinguishable in that moment from the real world out there. Spoiler alert: we have the technology.

Virtual Reality and Therapy

So if we could create these realities and for example we had a person afraid of flying or afraid of heights, we could make a flight simulator or take them up in aeroplanes or to cliff tops. Or if they were afraid of spiders, put them in a virtual room full of spiders. Spoiler alert: this is also being done already. Although cheaper and easier than catching twenty flights, or going to the tops of high buildings, or buying a spider collection, these ideas are based on things that therapists already do. However, they are an adjunct to therapy, as is some exposure work being done with people with PTSD who are taken into simulated war zones.

This virtual reality therapy is also being done for relaxation training, and in physiotherapy, taking what we already do and using virtual reality as an enhancement to improve the therapy, replace the therapist or allow large scale remote therapy. Quite exciting, but a bit ho-hum and not exactly a revolution or a disruptor.

When it comes to pain, Virtual Reality (VR) is more exciting. We can create analgesia with VR. People in pain – burn victims and women in labour amongst others – if immersed in a virtual environment, feel much less or no pain while in the virtual environment. This is useful because it allows us to achieve the goal (analgesia) in a drug-free way. It is novel and there are clearly disadvantages to using opioids and other pain killers. Some hospitals are doing this already.

So VR can work as a therapeutic tool, and as an adjunct to therapy.

One of the principles of Neuroplasticity is that the brain cannot tell the difference between the real and the perceived, or perhaps all reality is only known to us through perception. Visual perception is considered the strongest channel of perception. We know that if we imagine a scene in detail – somebody cooking our favourite meal or a cold drink on a hot day – we can generate a physiological response to the image. People respond physically to pictures, adverts for food or sexual pictures. We can also relate to our dreams as if they are real and experience terror or bliss.

So imagine we were able to create an avatar (a virtual reality version) of a person who looked like them and felt like them and moved like them. Imagine that the person identified this person as them – because they helped design it – and imagine that this avatar body mirrored the person’s real-life body. If we could create the illusory experience of a person’s real body in VR, so that the brain could not tell the difference between the real and the perceived, and imagine we could create any reality we wanted for this avatar. What outcomes could we generate – what therapy could we do if we were not limited by the physical constraints. Spoiler alert: at Neurotechnology we have this. We call it The Tranceducer(TM)

Virtual Reality Therapy

Research (not with the Tranceducer) shows that people respond physiologically to VR the same way as they would to reality. Researchers all over the globe are doing other research altering experience, perception and psychology using mini VR experiences to generate therapeutic gains.

If you had such a machine if you could create those experiences, what therapy would you create??

We have developed CognitiVR (TM) as our method for treating chronic pain – a drug-free, surgery-free solution for chronic pain conditions leveraging the power of VR and neuroplasticity theory.

More to come.