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VR for Spatial Navigation Training

Capacities of VR

Virtual reality (VR) is a computer-generated technology that creates immersive and interactive experiences transcending physical boundaries. Currently used by clinicians and therapists alike, VR can assist many types of physical and mental rehabilitation programs. This includes the clinical assessment, training, and feedback on performance for spatial navigation challenges.

VR helps scientists measure the strategies different age groups and primate species use for navigation. In evolutionary psychology, it is used to test spatial cognitive abilities such as learning, memory, and spatial navigation. Studies examine navigation through mazes and environments with various 3D and 2D landmarks and sometimes track neural activity.

Researchers use VR in one of the most challenging areas in neuroscience: the investigation of cortical mechanisms. It is technically challenging to perform neurophysiological recordings on people who move freely and navigate various scenarios throughout the day. So, VR offers control over landmarks, distractions, and spaces to assess attention and behavior.

Treatment and Rehabilitation

A study shows that VR can help neurologically assess and rehabilitate conditions such as spatial disorientation. Spatial disorientation is a severe case of difficulty navigating all types of environments, new or routine, commonly caused by brain damage. A verbally-guided VR-based navigation training program improved route finding for 11 participants with spatial disorientation.

VR training could also help treat landmark agnosia, a condition where patients cannot locate landmarks in the real world, impairing their navigation. Trials were even successful with more common conditions such as amnesia. These simulations have shown to have ecological validity, as virtual representations of real-life environments have successfully trained individuals to navigate real-life environments.

One key benefit to spatial navigation training is protecting the hippocampus against age-related changes during early and late adulthood. With VR, training can be done from anywhere in the world and with fewer physical barriers to accessibility. Since there are over 171 million VR users worldwide, implementing spatial navigation training in VR games could also achieve widespread preventative success.

Foretell Reality

Foretell Reality is an inclusive social VR platform where up to 15 active users can meet for live therapy and support groups. In the app, users can walk or teleport around open spaces, exploring private and public environments. Some spaces also provide navigation simulations such as mazes that allow for real-time spatial navigation training with professionals.

References:

Virtual reality in neurologic rehabilitation of spatial disorientation – PMC (nih.gov)

VR Training with Spatial Knowledge and Navigation (1library.net)

Spatial navigation training protects the hippocampus against age-related changes during early and late adulthood – ScienceDirect

Virtual reality in neurologic rehabilitation of spatial disorientation – PMC (nih.gov)

Landmark Agnosia: Evaluating the Definition of Landmark-based Navigation Impairment | Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology | Oxford Academic (oup.com)

Landmark Agnosia: Evaluating the Definition of Landmark-based Navigation Impairment | Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology | Oxford Academic (oup.com)

The Hippocampus in the Limbic System (thoughtco.com)

23 Amazing Virtual Reality Statistics [2022]: The Future Of VR + AR – Zippia

experiencing awe in VR
VR-Related

The Therapeutic Power of Awe in VR

Awe In VR

Virtual reality offers a powerful, novel method by which awe can be experienced in almost any setting. Creating an authentic sense of presence among vast and complex stimuli, VR is reported to be awe-inspiring by users alike, from first-timers to VR fans who regularly play VR games, socialize, or do business in VR. While research identifies that awe is one of the most powerful emotions we feel, its current therapeutic utility is limited by the practical problem of bringing awe-inspiring environments into therapy settings.

VR, however, has the capacity to bring us into vast and immersive environments within seconds. It can therefore reactivate the transformative utility of awe by presenting carefully crafted 3D environments and lifelike social simulations. Awe is a reaction to stimuli characterized by two features: perceptual vastness, and the need for cognitive accommodation. In other words, awe tends to be evoked by stimuli that are large, either physically, or by their cognitive implication, and which challenge one’s existing understanding of the world. It is an emotion that we feel when we see a breathtaking landscape or listen to rich and moving music.

The Therapeutic Power of Awe

The psychological effects of awe have important implications for promoting well-being, including dampening the body’s stress responses, and drastically changing how people process information. After experiencing awe, people have a more communal sense of self and adopt more inclusive values. Likewise, experiences of awe increase openness to experience, reduce the need for cognitive closure and reportedly challenge one’s worldview. So, when multiple people are experiencing awe together, the foundations for community, care, and compassion are laid out immediately.

Inducing awe during therapy sessions in VR could also help people open up and be more comfortable, shifting their preconceived notions about therapy when there is resistance to treatment or healing. VR therapy has the power to change what we see, and the emotional and cognitive state that we find ourselves in. However, unlike any other therapy, it offers clients and therapists much more immersion and control. It can therefore be used as a therapeutic tool for psychological intervention at home, in workplaces, and in clinical settings within sessions starting from a mere 3 minutes.

Foretell Reality

Foretell Reality leverages the power of virtual reality to create environments and experiences that induce intimacy, and a shared sense of awe. From sitting around a campfire and playing the guitar, to watching the rain fall and drinking hot cocoa in a cozy room, users can meet in different settings and discuss matters that are close to their hearts. But it does not stop there, you can travel across the world, see 360 videos of places you have never been, and interact with the virtual world in a creative and collaborative way.

To read more about awe in VR and see experimental results, click here.

References:

ASU News. (2019, January 3). Research that takes your breath away: The impact of awe. ASU 

News. Retrieved November 25, 2021, from https://news.asu.edu/20190103-research-takes-yourbreath-away-impact-awe.

Bai, Y., Maruskin, L. A., Chen, S., Gordon, A. M., Stellar, J. E., McNeil, G. D., … & Keltner, D. 

(2017). Awe, the diminished self, and collective engagement: Universals and cultural variations 

in the small self. Journal of personality and social psychology, 113, 185.

Campos, B., Shiota, M. N., Keltner, D., Gonzaga, G. C., & Goetz, J. L. (2013). What is shared, 

what is different? Core relational themes and expressive displays of eight positive 

emotions. Cognition & emotion, 27(1), 37-52.

Chirico, A., Yaden, D. B., Riva, G., & Gaggioli, A. (2016). The potential of virtual reality for the 

investigation of awe. Frontiers in Psychology, 7. 

https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01766

Keltner, D., & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. 

Cognition and Emotion, 17, 297–314. https://doi.org/10.1080/02699930302297 

Lindner, P. (2020). Better, virtually: The past, present, and future of Virtual Reality Cognitive 

Behavior therapy. International Journal of Cognitive Therapy, 14, 23–46. 

https://doi.org/10.1007/s41811-020-00090-714

Shiota, M. N., Keltner, D., & Mossman, A. (2007). The nature of awe: Elicitors, appraisals, and 

effects on self-concept. Cognition and Emotion, 21, 944–963. 

https://doi.org/10.1080/02699930600923668

VR during surgery
Industry News, Other, VR-Related

Virtual Reality as an Alternative to Anesthesia and Painkillers

Hospitals across the UK are embracing virtual reality (VR) as a tool for pain distraction during surgery and are finding that the benefits extend even beyond minimizing pain. 

A recent article published in The Irish News takes an in depth look at the impact VR  is making for patient populations. By using VR, the elderly are sometimes able to avoid anesthesia, which can result in serious side effects for older patients, including postoperative cognitive dysfunction. VR is also being used for children, as the sensory experience helps anxious and fidgety young patients to sit still during complicated procedures.  And VR’s benefits extend to all patients as it has been shown to reduce anxiety before, during, and after procedures.  An additional important use is the treatment of chronic pain as an alternative to addictive painkillers, which can result in long-term substance abuse disorder. The article cites a 2020 review from Health Technology Wales, which concludes that VR is actually more effective at reducing pain during and immediately after procedures than standard care, such as painkillers. 

Beyond improved patient care,  hospitals experience the added benefit of reducing overall costs. Anesthesia itself is expensive, and it often requires an overnight stay. Many patients (not just the elderly) are adversely impacted by anesthesia and experience symptoms like vomiting and chills, which extends their hospital stay. 

So why are the VR simulations, from a roller coaster ride to a wildlife safari, so effective? According to Jordan Tsigarides at the University of East Anglia, “VR is immersive. It floods the brain with audio-visual signals, engaging the senses and diverting the brain’s attention from processing pain signals…by putting someone in a situation outside of their normal environment, VR can be relaxing. And if you add in an engaging task such as a game, then it’s not hard to grab their full attention.”

Body transfer
Industry News, Soft Skills, VR-Related

VR Body Transfer for Animal Empathy

As environmental catastrophes are increasing, Daniel Pimentel at the University of Oregon wondered whether Body Transfer using virtual reality (VR) would help humans to identify with other animals and increase the empathy required for strong conservation efforts.  

Body Transfer, sometimes referred to as body ownership, is an illusion that tricks the mind using visual and sometimes haptic input into experiencing the embodiment of another human or animal. Through an immersive 15-minute VR simulation participants in Pimental’s study experienced the plight of an endangered loggerhead sea turtle as it navigated (often man-made) hazards from birth to adulthood, including treacherous obstacles like fishing nets. Participants were given a firsthand perspective through a specially designed chair that mimicked a sea turtle’s paddling posture (they perceived their own arms as flippers), and through haptic vibrations along their spine when they encountered motor vibrations of nearby boats.

Through a series of four experiments, Pimental and fellow researchers concluded that virtual embodiment of a sea turtle can offset compassion fade, which is an inverse relationship wherein empathy actually decreases as the (human or non-human) casualty victim count increases. Moreover, Body Transfer allowed participants to see other turtles in the simulation as part of their in-group, thereby facilitating reciprocal altruism, and that embodiment of the sea turtle increased the threat perception, influencing the amount of money that participants donated to hypothetical conservation efforts. 

Virtual Reality Reminiscence Therapy
Mindfulness, Therapy and Support, VR-Related

The Power of Virtual Reality Reminiscence Therapy

Cognitive decline can lead to social isolation and many older people suffer from dementia-related anxiety. In a recent article, The New York Times took a look at a practice to help minimize the effects of the disease using virtual reality (VR) reminiscence therapy. Traditional (non-VR) reminiscence therapy has been practiced for several decades and allows older generations to reconnect with joyous and meaningful events of their youth through photographs, videos, and music. Along with positive feelings, nostalgia can help cultivate confidence and long-term perspective, at a time when many are grappling with the instability of short-term memory loss. For those who do not experience a significant improvement in well-being from traditional reminiscence therapy, the addition of virtual reality elements can be a dramatic turning point. 

The immersive experience of VR reminiscence therapy is helping patients to socialize in their daily lives, reversing the pre-treatment pattern of isolation. The article focuses on John Faulkner, a seventy-six year old resident of Central Parke Assisted Living and Memory Care in Mason, Ohio. Mr. Faulkner was withdrawn and showed no discernable improvement with reminiscence therapy by simply viewing photos until the center used an immersive virtual reality experience that allowed him to virtually walk along Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher where he had once visited in person with his wife. Over the course of his weekly 45-minute VR sessions, Mr. Faulkner not only became more sociable with other residents, he now requires less medication to treat his anxiety. A senior administrator at Central Parke stated that residents who engage in VR reminiscence therapy have experienced up to a 70% reduction in their usage of antipsychotics.

The article emphasizes the substantial shift the population will experience over the next forty years, as the 65+ age segment is expected to double in size. Technological tools will likely be very impactful to aid younger generations in caring for the elderly. In addition to VR reminiscence therapy, virtual reality is being used to treat elderly patients who suffer from chronic pain as well as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Recent research at MIT has also shown that VR can decrease depression and social isolation in seniors. And a study is currently underway at the University of Santa Barbara, California using VR technology that allows families to take trips with their elderly family members. Not only can a senior revisit places where meaningful events took place, they may soon be able to bring along their grandchildren to experience the exuberance of the jazz age, for example, or to visit the town they grew up in.

Foretell Reality focuses on bringing people together in VR to enhance human interaction and facilitate social connection, often guided by mental-health professionals. 

VR for Agoraphobia
Therapy and Support, VR-Related

Virtual Reality to Treat Agoraphobic Avoidance

As defined by the Mayo Clinic, agoraphobia is “a type of anxiety disorder in which you fear and avoid places or situations that might cause you to panic and make you feel trapped, helpless or embarrassed.” This can range from using public transportation to standing in line in a grocery store. Most people diagnosed with agoraphobia fear public spaces and crowds, thus they confine themselves to their home in order to avoid having a panic attack. Treatment involves psychotherapy and medication, but it takes time for symptoms to improve. Cognitive behavioral therapy is the most widely used treatment because it gradually exposes patients to anxiety-inducing situations, teaching them how to manage their symptoms and overcome their fears. 

A recent study out of England analyzed the effectiveness of virtual reality therapy to treat agoraphobic avoidance and patients with psychosis. Researchers analyzed 346 patients who were clinically diagnosed with psychosis and “had self-reported difficulties going outside due to anxiety.” Over the course of 26 weeks, researchers conducted “a parallel-group, single-blind, randomized, controlled trial across nine National Health Service trusts in England.” They split patients into two groups – a VR therapy group and the usual care alone group (control). The VR group was immersed in several different environments over the course of treatment. Whether it be visiting a coffee shop or entering a waiting room, patients were coached the entire way through and encouraged to let go of defensive behaviors. Compared to the usual care alone group, the VR therapy group showed “significant reductions in agoraphobic avoidance and distress” in everyday situations. VR therapy “particularly benefited patients with severe agoraphobic avoidance, such as not being able to leave the home unaccompanied.” 

The results of this study indicate VR therapy as a powerful adjunct to cognitive behavioral therapy. This means that, with the use of immersive technologies such as VR, therapy will become much more widely accessible and affordable to patients, especially those who may be too anxious to leave their homes for treatment. Foretell Reality is a social VR platform that provides safe spaces for therapy and support, soft skills development, and other interpersonal activities like real time collaboration and group events. Please visit our website for more information or to schedule a demo.

Therapy and Support, VR-Related

VR for Treating Anxiety and Depression

If you live in the U.S. where the combined rate of anxiety and depressive disorders among adults is approximately one in three, you likely know someone who suffers from the disorders’ crippling symptoms such as hopelessness and guilt. Perhaps you yourself have experienced a depressive episode and were encouraged to seek help, but for a multitude of reasons that we will touch on later, you didn’t. Virtual Reality (VR) reduces the barrier to engagement in mental health treatment and recent research shows that it can be used as a powerful tool against anxiety and depression.

The focus on anxiety and depression is relatively recent, but the relationship between VR and mental health is decades old. The first mental health breakthrough occurred in the 1990s when VR exposure therapy was used to treat war veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). VR exposure therapy simulates life-like stimuli in a controlled environment. Under the supervision of a mental health professional, patients confront the object or scenario they fear, thereby diminishing their anxiety over time. VR exposure therapy treatments were also developed for phobias such as claustrophobia, arachnophobia, and fear of flying. Additionally, early VR therapies focused on cue reactivity for addictions like nicotine. Because VR makes the scenario feel real, patients are able to practice their behavior when confronted with stimuli (e.g. a crowd of people smoking) that trigger their arousal and anticipation.

Early VR treatments like exposure therapy and cue reactivity were one-on-one. And often the therapist was not immersed in the space with the patient, but rather was guiding the session from the outside. More recent technological developments have enabled multiple participants to interact in a shared environment, which has made VR  support groups and group therapy a reality. 

In one example, Yale School of Medicine partnered with Foretell Reality to study the viability of VR support groups for adolescent cancer patients. VR allows something that other types of therapy (e.g. tele-health via video) do not – anonymity. If you’ve experienced depression or know someone who has, you’ll be familiar with the heavy burden of social interaction. If you’re losing your hair due to cancer treatments or your depression has taken a toll on your hygiene habits, you can understand why some would avoid group therapies altogether. Because VR is avatar-based, patients do not feel judged as they are not physically “seen.” At the same time, they can still interact with other avatar patients through body movement and gestures as if they are in the same physical space. 

Anonymity helps solve the burden of stigmatization regarding physical appearance, but that isn’t the only barrier that VR addresses. Those suffering from depression and anxiety may experience challenges focusing. With a VR headset on, it isn’t possible to look at your phone or be distracted by the television. A patient is fully immersed in a virtual supportive environment: chairs in a circle, the cushy pillows… everything looks… real. And the possibilities are endless. Perhaps your support group is meeting by the ocean or on a serene clifftop nestled in the clouds. You are there – and you didn’t even have to leave your home. You can use different settings for a daily meditation or mindfulness practice, walk on the beach with your guide while discussing your feelings, or play a virtual ball game with your peers. 

And that brings us to another barrier to mental health treatment: the physical one. Some patients are disabled and literally cannot leave their homes. Others live in a rural area with no accessible support group within hundreds of miles. And depressed patients may at times not feel physically capable of leaving even their beds. A $300 headset and internet connection is all one needs to connect socially from anywhere in the world. 

VR technology has been evolving for over two decades, and has greatly accelerated in the past couple of years. This evolution comes just in time for using VR effectively for various (tele) mental health purposes. In less than ten years, the World Health Organization predicts that mental health disorders will be the leading burden of disease worldwide. We must use every available tool to treat mental health disorders, and VR is here to help.

Soft Skills, VR-Related

Three Examples of Virtual Reality (VR) in the Courtroom

An increasing number of educators and attorneys are bringing immersive virtual environments (IVE’s) to the courtroom in different ways. Below are three examples of how VR is being leveraged in legal settings.

Moot Court

The law school at The University of Ottowa is among the first programs to conduct moot court sessions in VR. Moot court simulates a court hearing in which students argue to appeal a case. They must prepare legal research, write briefs, and complete oral arguments in front of a panel of judges. Although these simulations are typically held in classrooms made to look like courtrooms, the COVID-19 pandemic halted all in-person trials, forcing the university to explore other options for holding moot court. They decided to implement VR into their curriculum to solve this problem, but as physical courtrooms became available again, faculty pushed to continue using the technology. According to Ritesh Kotak, a third-year Juris Doctor student, virtual reality “includes everything you can imagine from customizing a courtroom” to “doing training, and getting students excited.” Kotak asserts “The metaverse is here to stay so, from an educational perspective and a judicial perspective, there’s a lot of merit to using it.”

Crime Scenes/Evidence Viewing

In a recent study at the University of South Australia, researchers measured the discrepancy in jurors being shown a crime scene through a series of photographs versus being immersed in the same exact crime scene in virtual reality. Two groups of 15 participants were asked to come to a verdict on a deadly hit and run scenario. Not only were the VR participants “significantly more accurate in remembering the correct placement of evidence items”, but they came to a nearly unanimous decision, while the other participants were completely divided in their decision. Overall, 13 of the 15 participants who viewed the crime scene in VR ruled “death by dangerous driving”, while 8 of the 15 people who only viewed photographs voted on a more lenient “death by driving without due care.” Because more information can be presented in VR, participants were able to better understand the situation at hand, and thus were 9.5 times more likely to choose the “death by dangerous driving “ verdict. Although some people may be hesitant to implement VR due to its high price tag, the cost would be negligible juxtaposed to the immense cost of organizing on-site crime scene visits. Between transporting the jury and scheduling the trial to work with everyone’s schedules, it can cost thousands of dollars, whereas recreating a crime scene in VR is relatively inexpensive. If virtual reality presents the evidence of a crime in a more accurate manner, thousands, if not, hundreds of thousands of trials could reach different, more just verdicts. Dr Andrew Cunningham, from UniSA’s Australian Research Centre for Interactive and Virtual Environments, believes that this study “provides unequivocal evidence that interactive technology leads to fairer and more consistent verdicts, and indeed could be the future of courtrooms.”

Pre-trial Exposure for Lawyers and Those Taking The Stand

From a preparation standpoint, VR offers benefits to both lawyers and those taking the stand. Lawyers typically practice their cases in front of other experts to test their performance under the pressure and stress that they will most likely face in the courtroom. With the help of virtual reality, lawyers can practice arguing their case in front of a virtual crowd, which is proven to simulate a similar emotional experience to that of a real courtroom. Furthermore, if lawyers view a crime scene in VR, they will have a better understanding of the witness’s perspective pre-trial and may even increase out of court settlements. With VR, witnesses can also prepare themselves for questioning and depositions. By running through a trial beforehand, they will be better prepared to tell their story, be questioned by lawyers, and avoid experiencing the emotional rollercoaster that many witnesses face.

Foretell Reality is a VR platform for simulations and role play training including features like personalizable avatars, realistic environments, and 360 video viewing. Visit us today for a demo.

Coaching, Soft Skills, VR-Related

Virtual Reality (VR) Provides Unique Opportunities for Coaches

Role-play is an integral part of a child’s development and a potent tool for the continuation of skill acquisition and honing long into adulthood. Because it allows participants to learn, not by reading a book or listening to a lecture, but by actually doing and practicing, role-play is experiential learning – an accelerated learning method. Medical students, teachers, and in more recent years, managers, have all benefited from role-play scenarios. Coaching managers using role-play scenarios helps them to build skills through rehearsal and direct feedback. 

Effective managers require competence in many areas with communication as the common denominator across the skillset. Considering that the number one reason employees cite for leaving a position is the relationship with their manager, investing in management coaching is paramount for retention. All types of communication can be rehearsed in role-play scenarios, but of particular significance is navigating difficult conversations, such as delivering a negative performance review. Difficult conversations are inherently uncomfortable for most people, and thus are often avoided or rushed in order to minimize discomfort. Role-play is a type of exposure that desensitizes the participants’ fear and anxiety to engage in conflict, thereby facilitating more productive conversations. 

Given the global nature of modern companies, it often isn’t feasible for an executive team or for regional managers to gather in one place for management coaching. This difficulty has been further exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. And there is an evolving trend of companies offering employees a work-from-home or hybrid (remote/office) model to attract sought-after candidates. Virtual Reality (VR) coaching offers a unique solution: through multi-participant VR simulations, teams can gather in an immersive space, such as a boardroom, without needing to leave their homes. 

Coaching in VR is not just logistically convenient, but it offers features that are not possible with in-person coaching. Foretell Reality’s platform allows users to build their own avatars. This can be an empowering experience but also allows participants to switch roles easily. By choosing a different avatar and playing the role of the employee on the receiving end of a negative performance review, managers can stand in the (virtual) shoes of the employee, thus increasing their capacity for empathy. They can understand what it feels like when feedback is indirect and vague, for example. 

Another unique feature Foretell offers is a playback “hologram”. Role-play scenarios can be recorded and participants are given the opportunity of observing their avatar following the exercise. Rather than a coach giving feedback regarding lack of eye contact, for example, the participant can actually observe her avatar avoiding direct gaze, perhaps by looking down or to the side. In fact, Foretell’s software can even measure the amount of eye contact during conversations. Through  watching the hologram recording, participants can more objectively observe their behavior. They might be surprised to observe that they came across as rather aggressive through their hand gestures or tone of voice. Having these epiphanies through direct observation is more powerful than hearing the feedback second-hand from a coach. Of course, the coach can play an instrumental role by helping the participant process their observations and imparting helpful guidance for the next practice round.  

Recording and playback in Foretell Reality.

Additional features include a personal tablet for each avatar that is not viewable by other participants. This creates a potential for dynamic role-play scenarios wherein each participant has an objective that they need to achieve during the exercise. The tablet may contain information about their role-play partner, perhaps related to their background and performance issues. The coach has the ability to change an objective at any point during the scenario. Additionally, Foretell’s VR software includes a “whisper” feature that allows a coach to speak to one of the participants, and only that participant can hear the feedback. In the middle of a heated scenario, a coach might whisper a tactic to help diffuse tension, for example. 

The potential for virtual reality coaching is limitless. It does not require travel or other logistical hurdles. Rather, managers can be instantly transported to a shared space with a coach, to build the confidence and skills needed to be more effective managers. Foretell Reality’s features create the perfect environment for creative role-plays and instant feedback. 

Mindfulness, Therapy and Support, VR-Related

Four Real World Examples of VR for Mindfulness and Meditation

According to a Harvard Health, mindfulness is “a key element in stress reduction and overall happiness” and is known to “help relieve stress, treat heart disease, lower blood pressure, reduce chronic pain, improve sleep, and alleviate gastrointestinal difficulties.” 

Despite its benefits, however, mindfulness training can be intimidating to non-practitioners and particularly difficult for remote participants. This has lead researchers to investigate how Virtual Reality (VR) can be used to lower the barriers and increase the efficacy of meditation practice for a variety of purposes and populations. Below are four recent examples.

To Increase Positive Emotion in the General Population

A recent study out of Melbourne, Australia is one of several that points to VR as a viable option for improving mental health and mindfulness. Mindfulness is a great way to improve mental health, however, under normal circumstances, is a difficult habit to adopt due to environmental and personal distractions. Virtual Reality (VR) directly addresses these challenges “by providing an immersive environment for practicing mindfulness and by supporting the user to orient attention to the present moment within a tailored virtual setting.” A group of 37 participants were recruited to trial a VR mindfulness app in which users were presented with 360 video of a “peaceful forest environment with a guided mindfulness voiceover.” Researchers analyzed participant scores on the State Mindfulness Scale, Simulator Sickness Questionnaire, arousal, and positive or negative emotion before and after users participated in the simulation. Although there were initial concerns about simulator sickness and negative emotion, neither of these variables produced any notable changes following the simulation. However, state mindfulness and positive emotion significantly increased, participants reporting that “the use of VR helped them to focus on the present moment by using visual and auditory elements of VR as attentional anchors.” The spatial presence of virtual environments allowed participants to practice mindfulness and meditation, positively affecting their mental health and well-being.

To Reduce Stress In the Workplace

A study out of England analyzed workplace stress specifically in the National Health Service (NHS) and tested the effectiveness of Virtual Reality in decreasing levels of stress and promoting overall well being. “Work-related stress, defined as ‘a harmful reaction that people have to undue pressures and demands placed on them at work’ is one of the most important emerging risks in occupational management and health.” This stress is threatening not only the quality of services provided, but the sustainability of vital healthcare systems and corporations around the world. Researchers provided a 10-minute VR relaxation experience to 39 trauma staff working in a fast-paced environment. Following the session, participants “reported significantly increased feelings of happiness and relaxation, and significantly decreased feelings of sadness, anger, and anxiety.” Furthermore, patients experienced a significant reduction in heart rate and yielded high acceptability ratings. Ultimately, the study found that VR relaxation sessions were beneficial to the health and well-being of healthcare workers, and many were excited at the opportunity to implement it into their everyday lives.

To Help Treat Opioid Addiction

VR mindfulness and relaxation are also being implemented in the midst of the opioid epidemic. This epidemic is an ever-so-present problem in our society, and the key to preventing further damage is by exploring viable alternatives to pain relief. According to The Gate Theory of Pain proposed by Melzack and Wall in 1965, “a person may interpret pain stimuli differently depending upon mental/emotional factors such as attention paid to the pain, emotions associated with the pain, and past experience of the pain.” Believe it or not, we can essentially “distract” our way out of pain. Virtual Reality addresses two of Melzack and Wall’s points – attention and emotional state. Through VR technology, patients can escape to an alternate reality, sending positive signals to their brain and subsequently lessening the pain they are experiencing. This technology dates back to 1996, when the Harborview Burn Center “successfully piloted the use of VR for burn patients with severe acute pain,” which inspired other providers to make VR technology accessible to patients experiencing acute pain. Recent studies have shown promising results for relieving chronic pain as well, patients reporting high levels of satisfaction and a significant reduction in overall pain. Although VR cannot fully take the place of opioids, it can definitely be used as an alternative for certain candidates, considering their level of pain and potential risk factors.

To Act As A Moderator of Psychedelic-Assisted Psychotherapy

Virtual Reality is another promising candidate as a moderator of Psychedelic-Assisted Psychotherapy (PP), a “unique psychopharmacological model that leverages the profound effects of the psychedelic experience.” PP is highly reliant on two key factors – the patient’s mindset and their surrounding environment. Consequently, meditation, relaxation, and visualization are supplemental tools in creating the most effective environment for this therapy. Virtual Reality is a promising candidate to provide these tools, given its evidenced capacity to “aid relaxation and reduce anxiety; buffer from external stimuli; promote a mindful presence; train the mind to achieve altered states of consciousness (ASC); evoke mystical states; enhance therapeutic alliance and encourage self-efficacy.” Because there was little empirical evidence on the joint application of VR technology in Psychedelic-Assisted Psychotherapy, researchers aimed to gather evidence on the ability to achieve a deeper sense of consciousness in a virtual environment. 

They found 7 different ways that VR can be used to support psychedelic treatments:

1. Mitigate psychological side effects through enhancing the state of relaxation,

2. Help participants sustain their focus on intention by removing familiar cues that keep them tethered to their external world,

3. Encourage entering the inner world of experience by inducing a mindful presence,

4. Deepen the intensity of acute psychological and emotional states via simultaneous targeting of ME-evoking pathways,

5. Prime the capacity to achieve an altered states of consciousness (ASC) through familiarization and comfort with the ASC experience,

6. Enhance and maintain a hierarchy-free therapeutic alliance that is consistent throughout treatment,

7. Strengthen resilience and a sense of agency around facing challenging experiences.

It is also important to note the comfort and safety of the environments that VR provides, allowing patients to temporarily distract themselves from the emotionally taxing process of overcoming and treating PTSD or related disorders. Researchers ultimately recommend that VR be introduced into PP, as long as it is “developed in accordance with a robust protocol…and accompanied by thorough training of any practitioners involved in therapy.” Virtual Reality has the ability to transform the future of psychedelic treatments, as long as appropriate precautions are taken to not introduce disturbing or traumatic triggers or distract from the inner narrative.

The Foretell Reality platform provides safe VR environments to support various mental health treatment protocols including those that incorporate mindfulness training and relaxation experiences as part of the protocol. To learn more about our platform, please reach out to us for a demo.

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