A collaboration between psychologists and tech geniuses at Limbix in Silicon Valley has consolidated 20 years of research into the development of Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy. Exposure therapy, a technique that was developed to help soldiers in the 50s cope with cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), has been revolutionized by introducing the virtual reality component. This helps psychologists gradually expose their patients to their sources of distress in a controlled environment, simultaneously working with them to develop coping techniques.
Author: Siphilele Magagula
Image: Courtesy of PBS
My first brush with a virtual reality headset was in 2016 (late, I know) at a Google pop-up store in Soho, New York City. My brother had been visiting from Swaziland and I was on a quest to ‘show [him] the world’ in a week. While waiting in line for our turn on the ‘Fantastic Beasts’ experience we tried to envision what the experience would be like.
Image courtesy of Neonbrand via Unsplash
With experience building 3D spaces and animating them as an interior designer, I figured the experience would be no different from a walk-through animation, but nothing had prepared me for that transformative and frighteningly realistic experience. All my senses were engaged as I was virtually transported into the world of Fantastic Beasts. I found myself on a quest to help the wizard as I swung my wand around, oblivious to the unsuspecting bystanders I could injure. The experience felt so real that I was disappointed to have to remove my headset and detach from the magical world. I was so engaged with the wizarding world that I momentarily disconnected from reality.
What if there was a way to be as immersed yet not disconnected from reality? A way to make virtual reality not just recreational, but a tool for healing. Imagine being taken into a real world environment, perhaps from your own past, an environment so realistic that it forces you to face those emotions you had locked away, in fear of being triggered.
Confronting Your Trauma In A Virtual Space
Exposure therapy involves exposing a patient to the source of their anxiety without the intention to cause any danger. Doing so is thought to help them overcome their anxiety or distress.
Ordinarily, psychologists would treat such conditions by helping patients use their imagination to re-create situations that brought on their fears and anxieties, which was effective, yet quite limited as one’s imagination has a threshold. Virtual reality allows the patient to be fully immersed and feel present in a scenario in a way one’s imagination cannot.
Image courtesy of Limbix
Limbix, a Silicon Valley based start-up, backed by Sequioa Capital has been working together with psychologists to develop just the tool to enable patients to vividly revisit the sources of their distress using virtual reality. This allows psychologists to gradually help their patients overcome their trauma in a safe and controlled space. Limbix has used real-world footage to create a library of environments and scenarios that psychologists can guide their patients through, there is also the option to customize an environment to a patient’s specifications of a memory.
Image courtesy of Limbix
This technology provides content for: fear of driving, flying phobia, public speaking, anxiety, fear of heights, agoraphobia (think of Sheila in the critically acclaimed drama series ‘Shameless’), PTSD and more. Like Sheila in ‘Shameless’, with the help of the virtual reality component, a patient is able to teleport into a digitally built environment which resembles a space that may be a trigger - a busy highway, an alleyway where they got mugged, or like Sheila - a street that leads to a neighbourhood grocery store. There is no limit to what context or object patients can be exposed to. With little effort, patients can also be virtually transported to specific locations with the integration of Google Street view.
This is a culmination of 20 years of research and experimentation through clinical trials with exposure therapy and virtual reality. It has been said that as far back as the mid-1990s, clinical trials showed that this kind of technology could help treat phobias and other conditions, like post-traumatic-stress disorder.
Using VR Exposure Therapy to Treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Image courtesy of USC BraveMind VR via Flickr
Throughout the years various forms of exposure therapy have been used in armies to address cases of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as an alternative to drug therapy, however findings of a study on combined multi-sensory exposure and virtual reality exposure therapy revealed significant reductions in severity of PTSD symptoms in active duty combatants who had failed to respond to other forms of exposure therapy. Several patients in the study reported significant improvement following only five Virtual Reality Graded Exposure Therapy (VRGET) sessions, however there were considerable differences in the rate of reduced symptoms so some patients may have taken longer.
The Future of Psychology with VR Exposure Therapy
With the development of the practice of Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy, you may no longer have to be imprisoned by fear. With the virtual reality component you can be transported to the scene of a horrific accident from your past without having to risk your life or that of others. Remarkably Limbix is free for licensed psychologists as the founders believe that providing broad access to treatment tools is the fastest way to improve the quality of mental healthcare. They are going further and building Limbix on an open, HIPAA compliant platform so that in the future anyone can post content or create apps that help psychologists treat their patients. Soon Limbix may be available to you!
Limbix is available for research projects that leverage their existing VR content and are open to projects that require new VR content, however projects requiring custom VR content are done at a fee. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more.