‘After, I feel ecstatic and emotional’: could virtual reality replace therapy?

22nd Feb 2018

Leslie Channell admits he’s not a typical case for treatment. Channell, known to everybody as Chann, is a registered pilot who served 24 years in the army working on Apache helicopters. Chann also happens to be scared of heights. He doesn’t mind flying planes or sitting on the side of the Apache with the door open; he’s just terrified of going up two or three floors of a building or driving over a bridge.

Chann is nervous; his speech is fast. He says he’s sweating. We meet at a trendy startup in Oxford, where he is about to undergo virtual-reality therapy for his phobia (although the term “virtual-reality” therapy is controversial: some say the VR is just a tool for the therapy; others argue that the virtual reality is the therapy itself). Psychologists are now trialling VR for all kinds of conditions, from phobias to pain management to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

There are two other people in the room. Cognitive-behavioural therapist Polly Haselton sits behind a curved computer screen watching Chann, occasionally asking questions. Daniel Freeman, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford and one of the world’s pioneers in this field, watches Chann’s every movement. Freeman explains there are three common fears of heights: that you will fall; that what you are standing on will give way; or that you will jump, which is known as “the call of the void”. Chann’s fear is of falling.

He straps on his virtual-reality headset (also known as a head-mounted display, or HMD). Inside the headset, he will find himself fully immersed in a three-dimensional world. Today, he is going to level four of a 10-storey building in New York to rescue a kitten stranded on a branch of an indoor tree.

Chann has to use a lever to push himself on to a small platform towards the cat. He is a stocky, tough-looking man in his late 50s. But he’s not looking tough any more. His voice is rising, and he’s shaking. He edges forward along the virtual branch. In real life, his feet also move gingerly – then come to a sudden stop. His breathing becomes louder and more staccato.

“You’re doing really well,” Haselton says.

“You don’t know how difficult this is,” Chann pants. “Come here, cat.” Then he stops. “Nah, can’t get it. Aaaagh. No! Gotta come back.”

He starts again, cautiously edging forward. “Yes. Yes. Yes! No, stop Chann. Yes! Yes!” His yeses are urgent, desperate. He makes a grab for the kitten, and returns it to virtual safety.

Task complete. He takes his headset off, talking even faster. “My anxiety levels were way high. Super high.”

“We’re talking nine out of 10, 10 out of 10?” Freeman asks calmly.

“Yeah. I really didn’t want to be there. I had to think I was in a room in Oxford. ‘You’re not here, it’s all OK, do it.’”

Chann is one of a dozen people currently testing this software. (Next month, the trial is being extended to 100 people.) Already, he says, it has made a difference to his life. “Yesterday, I went on a rollercoaster with my daughter. I had never gone on one before. Not the big ones, the smaller ones, but still…” He’s spent only around 20 minutes in the virtual world today, but he is exhausted. “I was worried about coming here, and I’ve done it, and I’m buzzing. Elated.” He pauses, trying to catch his breath. “But I know in my heart of hearts, if there was a real cat on level four, I would not be going out and getting it. Polly asked me, what if it was a little baby? That would change the dynamics.”

 

 

source/read more: http://snip.ly/gk2we#https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/oct/07/virtual-reality-acrophobia-paranoia-fear-of-flying-ptsd-depression-mental-health

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