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Video: A virtual treatment for real depression

"Can you think of someone who loves you and is kind to you?"
Like reading a great novel, virtual reality can be a totally immersive experience. It can put you in a new place and make you feel, for a period of time, like a different person. And that can have a powerful effect on your emotional state. So what happens if we use it, with purpose, to change how we feel? 2:01
Listen8:44

This story first aired in March, 2016.

Like reading a great novel, virtual reality can be a totally immersive experience. It can put you in a new place and make you feel, for a period of time, like a different person. And that can have a powerful effect on your emotional state.

So what happens if we use it, with purpose, to change how we feel?

Chris Brewin is a professor of clinical psychology at University College London. He, along with his colleague Mel Slater, ICREA research professor at the University of Barcelona and University College London, have experimented with using virtual reality as a treatment for depression.

Professor Brewin says that, "Potentially, people could be downloading the kinds of experiences we're beginning to develop to help them in difficult emotional situations, and to help them sort of get a different perspective on problems that they're having in their lives. So potentially I think this could be a really big development in mental health."

Their treatment is based on the idea of "embodiment", the tendency for people to associate themselves with their virtual bodies, and take on the characteristics and attitudes of that body. Professor Slater says, "Although they know it's not true, people nonetheless have a strong perceptual illusion that this is body is their own body."

Their treatment of depression was specifically focused on people who have trouble receiving and expressing compassion. "One of the ways therapists now think can be helpful to treat depression is to teach people to be more self-compassionate," says professor Brewin, "but for some people it's quite hard to accept that... So we're trying to use virtual reality in the hope that it may get through to people who would possibly resist more conventional attempts."

The idea of using virtual reality to help people with depression sounds like a nice, novel use of the technology. But hearing them describe the process sounds more like a dream sequence from a David Lynch movie.

The process involves embodying a participant in a virtual body, in a room across from a crying child. The participants are told to say comforting things to the child, like "It's not nice when things happen to us that we don't like." and, "Can you think of someone who loves you and is kind to you?" The virtual child reacts by relaxing, and eventually they stop crying.

Then, the participant becomes the crying child.

To do this, they are embodied in the avatar of the crying child they have just been comforting, and they see their previous avatar consoling them and offering the same comforting words. "What happened," explains Professor Slater, "is that, indirectly, the person has given compassion to themselves." 

Although these techniques are experimental, virtual reality is becoming more and more accessible to the average person. If we can use these techniques to treat mental health problems, what does that mean if everyone one has access to virtual reality at home?

"We know that most people who have psychological difficulties perhaps don't really want to see a therapist," says professor Brewin, "or find it difficult to admit to the fact that they're having problems. And even if they were keen, they'd have to wait quite a long time, or they have to travel a long distance... So what we're hoping is that these are experiences that could be freely downloaded from the internet, then in principle they could be made available to people much like how people now go out to the book store to get a self-help book." 

"Having it in the home, it needs to have a bit more thought..." professor Slater cautions. "Ideally it should be something that's set up by the clinician, with some strict rules that the patient has to follow, and so on. Because otherwise people could just be doing things that may turn out to be not beneficial. I have a word of caution, which is that, just because it's virtual reality doesn't mean it's going to work."   

"Can you think of someone who loves you and is kind to you?" 8:44

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