VR Effective in Helping Patients Address Personal Issues

Virtual reality (VR) has recently been used to help people work through their personal problems in life by embodying a third-person perspective. This system involves the patient controlling a look-alike VR avatar in describing their problems to a virtual copy of the renowned psychologist Sigmund Freud. The user then embodies Freud and gives their own avatar advice on their issues in life, allowing users to talk to themselves as if they were another person.

A study recently published in Nature Scientific Reports found that using this system worked better to improve patients’ moods compared to just talking to a virtual therapist with pre-written comments. The authors feel this approach could be used by physicians to help patients with minor personal issues. This work was conducted by researchers from the University of Barcelona (UB), IDIBAPS, Virtual BodyWorks, a creation of these two organizations, and ICREA.

Viewing your Problems from Another Perspective

This concept was inspired by the fact that most people are better at giving advice to their friends than they are at dealing with their own issues. This phenomenon has been dubbed “Solomon’s Paradox”, named after a biblical King who made wise decisions for others but could not do the same for himself. The researchers hypothesized that VR could be used to enable users to hear their own issues and give themselves advice from the embodied perspective of someone else.

The project was led by Mel Slater and Solène Neyret of the Experimental Virtual Environments Lab for Neuroscience and Technology, a research group at UB. Additional guidance was provided by Guillem Feixas, clinical psychologist at the UB Department of Clinical Psychology and Psychobiology and the school’s Institute of Neurosciences (UBNeuro).

Using VR to Deal with Personal Problems

Previous work from this research team has shown that we change our attitude, behavior, and perception when we embody a different person through VR.

“We showed earlier that it is possible for people to talk to themselves as if they were another person, body swapping to two different avatars, and that participants’ mood and happiness improved. However, we didn’t know whether this was due to simply the participant talking about their problem or whether the virtual body swapping really made a difference,” said Mel Slater, who is also a member of the UBNeuro.

To test the efficacy of this VR body swapping, the team compared a group who received this treatment to a control group. The treatment group first embodied their own avatar in discussing personal issues, then swapped to a virtual version of Freud to give themselves advice. The control group spoke to the virtual Freud in their own avatar but only had Freud respond with pre-written questions and responses with no body swapping.

This immersive scenario was created by first scanning the participant to create a very life-like avatar. In the VR simulation, the user can look down at their own body and view a mirror to truly feel that they are embodying the character (whether they are embodying their own avatar or Freud’s). When the participants move in real life, the VR character moves in the same manner.

Initially, the participant is in their own body sitting across from Freud. They describe their minor personal problem to him and are then switched to Freud’s body. At this point, they hear and see their avatar describing this issue then respond with advice or feedback. They then swap back to their body, hear this advice in a disguised voice, and continue to go back and forth. In this manner, the user can have a conversation with themself but feel that it is occurring between two different people.

“They will see and hear their own likeness explaining the problem, and they see their virtual self as if this were another person. Now they themselves have become the ‘friend’ who is listening and trying to help,” said Slater.

Efficacy of this VR Therapy

After one week of using this therapy, over 80% of the participants reported a change regarding their personal problem, compared to only 50% in the control group.

“We found that those in the body swapping group got better knowledge, understanding, control, and new ideas about their problem compared to the control group,” explained Slater.

The researchers note that because these participants were guided by clinical psychologist Tania Johnston in formulating their problems, they are unsure whether this technique could be used without this clinical assistance. They do, however, feel that this method could be useful for clinicians in providing their patients with therapeutic techniques to employ remotely.

“Now that virtual reality is available as a consumer product, with high quality at less than the cost of a good Smartphone, this method could be widely used by clinicians, for example, by giving ‘homework’ to their clients to carry out this type of method at home,” said Slater.