Can VR act as digital therapy?

Can VR act as digital therapy?

Our two-dimensional digital lives leave little room for concentration. Our eyes drift from screen to screen as the day progresses as notifications and messages divert our attention from tasks, from relaxing, from the faces of our loved ones. For all its flatness, our digital lives are dominated by distraction, so much so that we can sometimes forget to breathe.

Finding lasting inner peace inside this flattened world can be a neurological nightmare. Mindfulness and meditation apps, the answer to digital health over the past decade, use many of the same engagement methods that have propelled other consumer apps like games and fitness apps to the mainstream. hit. Strategies like Achievements and Social Connectivity have kept many users coming back to engage in clinically effective, evidence-based therapies. But even the most effective and engaging mindfulness apps can’t transcend the noise and distraction of our daily lives.

Ultimately, these digital therapies exist on a flat screen, hidden away with the rest of our apps. They add to our experience. Even when we use them, our brains remain overwhelmed by the deluge of stimuli that surround us: light, sounds, push notifications, the things we touch, the things we hear.

We can enhance our relationship with technology beyond these two-dimensional experiences. There are neurological benefits to engaging in an immersive, multi-sensory environment where experiences can be controlled, where stimuli can be regulated, eliminated, or populated with real or simulated humans. In these environments, there is no competition for attention. Simulation can be used to calm or even deliberately induce fear and stress in a controlled way. Virtual reality is a unique medium that can transcend the overwhelming clamor of the digital age, if we use it for good.

Within the persistent metaverse exists the potential to not only free us from the distractions that surround us, but also the ability to create immersive and engaging therapeutic experiences that help us resolve the anxiety, fear, and pain we feel in the world. real.

A substitute for our sensory experiences

In his book Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Process Fear and Anxiety, Joseph E. LeDoux describes a common experience in which the fight-or-flight response is triggered. Imagine walking through an autumnal forest when, out of the corner of your eye, you detect something long and curved, wrapped among fallen leaves. Your instinct is to freeze as your vision sends the signals to your amygdala, which registers a potential threat and triggers your fight or flight response, just milliseconds before sending that information to your prefrontal cortex for further evaluation. In the blink of an eye, you determine that the object is a stick, not a snake – and now that you’ve ruled out the threat, you can relax and go on your way.

Involuntary neurological processes like this are the primitive survival responses that allowed our species to thrive, but for many our responses to these triggers need to be refined. To do this, the intervention must occur at both the preconscious and conscious levels. Virtual reality can do this by placing users in controlled environments that override their sensory inputs and stimulate various emotional and physiological states.

The clinical potential of immersive virtual environments is not a recent discovery. Medical researchers and innovators have been building virtual reality programs for years that offer evidence-based treatments like exposure therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and pain management. But one of the main characteristics of virtual reality – so fundamental that it is often overlooked – is its propensity to totally capture the user’s attention.

For people struggling with mental and behavioral health issues such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, and substance use disorders, virtual reality can provide a welcome respite from reality and a safe simulated space where the source of distress can be better understood and addressed. For people with chronic pain, where the neurological interaction between physical and emotional pain can be so overwhelming that it leads to increased stress, anxiety and depression – virtual reality can provide physiological respite by stimulate areas of the brain responsible for processing pain and blocking pain signals.

For all the benefits virtual reality brings to the table as a medium, healthcare will not realize the full potential of virtual reality unless it brings impressive, efficient and competitive experiences to the persistent metaverse, where a growing consumer base is already engaging, playing and asking for help.

play with your medicine

Modern medicine has a commitment problem. This was one of my biggest frustrations when I was CTO at Humana. Time and time again, I saw healthcare consumers completely disengage from their treatments, even though they knew their quality of life was at stake. It never made sense to me: healthcare innovators Healthcare regularly develop safe and effective technological innovations, but they don’t seem to be successful in convincing healthcare consumers to use them long enough for them to be effective.

As humans, our social networks — the people we choose to surround ourselves with, not necessarily just online — play a vital role in our mental health. The social relationships that we form and maintain determine our behaviors, our access to material resources, our engagement in social activities. Medicine has failed to hold on to many of these fundamental levers of mental health. Despite research demonstrating the importance of engaging social supports in behavioral health treatments, health care is too often something we experience independently. Modern medicine is lonely. We can change that in the metaverse.

Virtual reality can be a powerful therapeutic tool on its own, but digital therapy delivered in a persistent metaverse – where communities are connected and engaged – can make it even more compelling and engaging.

Virtual reality therapy for substance use disorders, for example, can be delivered independently of the metaverse, in an institutional medical setting. The user may be completely isolated and disconnected from others during the VR experience, but the treatment itself may still be clinically effective. Now imagine that same digital therapy delivered in the metaverse and rooted in the methods of engagement that make it compelling: a persistent virtual world, interactions with meaningful and personalized spaces, a digital identity as anonymized (or not) as you want it to be. . , and a community of people with similar experiences.

Building experiences like this will take time and require a collaborative effort between the healthcare and gaming industries to keep it safe. But the potential is too powerful and too possible to ignore. Digital therapies like these will retain their clinical effectiveness and be enjoyable, repeatable experiences. People should want to come back again and again.

Inside the metaverse lies an opportunity for healthcare to reverse the script of its engagement dilemma, to make healing experiences as engaging as they are powerful by taking them into virtual spaces – spaces where more and more consumers are engaging, playing and asking for help every day. The notion of multi-sensory immersive digital experience is powerful. We can use this power to eliminate distraction, elicit healing experiences, and resolve the fear and pain we feel in the real world.

Aaron Gani is the CEO and Founder of BehaviorVRa company of well-being experiences and digital therapies in virtual reality.

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