In these overwhelming—and in moments, dystopic-feeling—times, the negative aspects of developing technology like virtual reality can seem endless. At its worst, it can intensify the discomfort of living in an especially uncanny, alienating moment in history. However, psychologists are discovering that, at its best, augmented reality can strengthen an individual's empathy, both for others and themselves.
In a Medium post from September 2021, University of Bergen Ph.D candidate Joakim Vindenes explores how innovative VR programs could benefit clients and psychiatric workers in the midst of a mental health crisis.
Vindenes focuses on a 2015 paper from Scientific Reports by Sofia Adelaide Osimo, Rodrigo Pizarro, Bernhard Spanlang, and Mel Slater. In this study, the scientists create a therapy game where a player can have a virtual session with Sigmund Freud. The player's virtual body resembles their own and responds to their movements, so they can recognize their virtual avatar as themselves. The player responds to virtual Freud's invitation to elaborate on a specific problem, and the screen fades to black after they finish speaking. When the scene restarts, the player views the scene from virtual Freud's point of view, allowing them to witness their own response to the problem. The study found that "this form of embodied perspective taking can lead to sufficient detachment from habitual ways of thinking about personal problems, so as to improve the outcome, and demonstrates the power of virtual body ownership to affect cognitive changes."
Many people can't afford therapy, plenty of mental healthcare workers are overbooked, and a number of tech-based solutions like Betterhelp have only served to exacerbate their burnout. With this in mind, Vindenes proposes these virtual reality programs as just one potentially helpful approach to our burgeoning mental health crisis:
"While it certainly doesn't sound very cozy with our sci-fi references close to mind, researchers should explore the potential of designing wholesome and warm therapeutic relations to AI agents in VR. Potentially, such applications could be a source of empowerment and an important tool in our toolbox as we try to solve the increasing mental health problems in the world. What is important in such user-environment relations is not necessarily that who is guiding us is a real person, but that they can help to us break up the bad patterns and open up new perspectives towards [ourselves] and the world."
Learn more about these studies in Joakim Vindenes' blog post.