Virtual Reality in Psychology

When Immersive Realities Tackle Mental Health and Cognitive Research

New developments in virtual reality have expanded its reach and impact in medicine. One particular branch of medicine that has seen breakthroughs is psychology. Psychotherapists use virtual reality in psychology to relieve the symptoms of patients, while researchers incorporate VR in surveys to understand more about human behavior and cognition.

USING Virtual Reality In Psychology to Treat Anxiety Disorders

Over 20 years ago, Dr. Barbara Rothbaum of Emory University unlocked the power of virtual reality in exposing patients to fear and trauma. Dr. Rothbaum and her team proved that using virtual reality in psychology could help patients overcome their fear of heights. By immersing patients in hyperrealistic scenarios, virtual exposure therapy triggers the same emotional response in patients as real-life situations do. VR reproduces a vivid experience, especially if digital images are complemented with other stimuli like sound, scent, and touch.

Virtual exposure therapy treats phobias and anxiety-based disorders such as PTSD without placing patients in real danger. Dr. Rothbaum comments on how she can regulate the intensity of the experience: “With a virtual plane, we can take off and land as many times as we need to in a therapy hour. If my patient isn’t ready for turbulence, I can guarantee there won’t be turbulence.” Reliving a negative event through a headset in a controlled setting allows patients to be exposed over and over to their fears, in the hopes that the gradual exposure would recondition their reactions.

One might think that VR exposure therapy is less effective than being exposed to real objects. Dr. Rothbaum detracts from this theory. “People often think virtual reality won’t scare them, since they know it’s not real. But it doesn’t take a whole lot to tap into that fear,” Rothbaum explains, “Their brains and bodies fill in the details, and suddenly they are shaking and hyperventilating.”

Virtual Reality as a Tool in Psychological Research

Researchers have also applied virtual reality tools in the study of human behavior and cognition. Studies using VR technology provide glimpses into the functioning of the human brain.

Dr. Jeanine Stefanucci at the University of Utah claims that VR can help answer important questions about human perception. Dr. Stefanucci and her team used virtual reality in psychology to explore the sense of vastness, the phenomenon that makes a person feel small and insignificant when facing an endless landscape like the night sky or a vast ocean.

Dr. Stefanucci used virtual reality to expose people to images of vast areas in nature while measuring participant’s reactions and cognitive processes. VR has helped Stefanucci “manipulate a virtual world in ways that could never be done in a real environment.” She purposefully takes away “visual aspects of the environment that you might use to navigate, such as street signs or distal mountains” to see how individuals would conceptualize space and geography differently.

How Using Virtual Reality in Psychology Could Lead to Change

Virtual reality is already benefiting therapists and researchers tremendously. As the technology continues to develop, we can expect significant results from its use in the field of cognitive and behavioral psychology. Using virtual reality in psychology could be the change the medical field has been waiting for.

When virtual reality was first used in psychology two decades ago, a single VR set cost over $30,000. Today, VR is far more accessible thanks to its advancement in the gaming industry. Consumers can purchase a VR headset for less than $100 USD nowadays. VR’s wide accessibility will expedite its adoption.

Ormuco, the leader in edge computing, is helping industries benefit fully from virtual reality. Our company’s edge computing platform provides an advanced and autonomous way to provision processing power on-demand. Ormuco supports medical professionals by delivering VR experiences with high fidelity and low jitter—so that doctors can focus on treatments and patients can focus on recovery.