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Virtual Reality isn't just fun and games; it is also used to do some serious good. Research has consistently shown that VR effectively elicits emotional responses and can positively impact behavior. Consequently, the technology has been introduced in various medical treatments, including pain management and behavioral therapy. Welcome to the wonderful world of Virtual Healing.


Chances are that, at one point or another, you’ve seen one of those blooper videos of someone trying on a VR headset for the first time before accidentally walking into a wall or hitting the ground face-first. Hilarious as these videos might be, their importance lies in the fact that they demonstrate just how good VR is at deceiving the human brain. "When you wear a VR headset, you have to work incredibly hard to convince your brain that you are not standing on a tall building because your stomach reacts as if that were the case. That is the power of VR on the emotional brain," says Margryt Fennema, Co-Founder of Reducept, a company specializing in digital pain treatment.


“Virtual Reality therapy has a major effect on the emotional brain.”


Fennema explains that pain treatment in the Western world is highly medicalized: “You get some sort of pill, often with addictive properties, which numbs you to the experience of pain, but the root cause of the pain is not addressed." And that is a problem because pain is sensory and emotional: besides identifiable tissue damage, there is always an experiential component. "Your feelings and behavior towards pain impact the intensity of your pain. Most physical damage takes about three months to heal, but after that time, the experience of pain persists or even becomes more intense," says Fennema. The culprit, once again, is the emotional brain. However, paradoxically, this is also where the solution lies.


Fennema: “Virtual Reality therapy has a major effect on the emotional brain. With VR therapy, you, as a patient, are taken by the hand, or better yet, by the head, and we make you walk through a brain so you can learn and recognize pain patterns. The therapy influences your emotional brain so that you end up experiencing less pain.” So far, the results are impressive, although it’s important to note that VR therapy isn’t for everyone. Fennema: “Some people are more receptive to it than others. Some people like to learn by experiencing things, while others prefer a more theoretical approach. That’s why besides VR therapy, we also offer more traditional therapy in book form.”

Virtual Reality therapy has really taken off in recent years, a fact supported by psychiatrist Wim Veling, who heads the Virtual Reality Mental Health Lab, a research team within the University Center for Psychiatry in Groningen. "VR has already proven effective in treating conditions like acrophobia (fear of heights) and aviophobia (fear of flying): people can board a plane again after treatment.” Thanks to advancing technological developments, more complex social interactions can also be simulated, making it possible to help individuals with more severe conditions like psychosis or paranoid personality disorder.


Veling: "We can place people in various social situations, like in a cafe or bus. In this virtual world, we introduce avatars controlled by the therapist, who watches the session on a second screen and responds to the patient's actions.” This immersive approach allows therapists to create a controlled and safe environment for patients where they can confront and overcome their specific fears.


Positive experiences in the virtual world give people the courage to try things out in real life.


Designing virtual environments is a costly undertaking. And the more realistic the environment, the higher the development costs. Fortunately, research has shown that the virtual world does not need to be lifelike to have a positive effect. Veling: "The simulated world doesn't have to be lifelike; people still feel immersed in the virtual worlds we create and feel like they are experiencing something." Positive experiences in the virtual world give people the courage to try things out in real life, things that, in some cases, they haven’t done in years.


Where Wim Veling's VR therapy takes people to a place they don’t want to be (think of people with agoraphobia or other social phobias), PlaygroundVR's software takes children to a place they love to be: the playground. "VR is the perfect place to be if you’re stuck somewhere you don't want to be," says Jason van Eunen of PlaygroundVR. "Think of children in hospitals: they’re physically in a place they don't want to be. We figured that VR could make their stay in the hospital a little more agreeable." A great idea, but at the time of inception, some seven years ago, the technology wasn't advanced enough to turn this idea into a reality – "back then, we were still working with cardboard and mobile phones." But then, some three years ago, the idea was revived.


Van Eunen: "In VR, anything is possible, which means that if you know what the target audience wants, you can create it! We asked a group of children what their ideal playground looks like. We let them create models and drawings. Almost every model included water and a lookout tower, so we made sure that those elements were also incorporated in the virtual world we built." In this virtual world, children in the same hospital can play together in a virtual playground.


Van Eunen hastens to add that it is not a gaming experience: "Lisette van der Poel, a play therapist, taught us that you can actually play away your fear. So, we simulated that free, aimless play. There are no levels, no scores, or time limits. It’s an outdoor play experience: a virtual playground where we can place objects, like a branch for instance, that the children can then use for fishing or sword fighting.”


While the effectiveness of VR in reducing stress and pain has been demonstrated through various scientific studies, Van Eunen refrains from making claims about the scientific impact of his software: "We see a smile on a child's face, and that's good enough for us. Recently, a girl’s surgery was delayed by half an hour, which is incredibly stressful. But she got to play in the virtual playground for half an hour; time flew by, and when she finally entered the operating room, she had no additional fears or nerves. How amazing is that?” 


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The above article was first published in NOOK, the Digital issue (2021 / #3). 

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