What is Virtual Rehab? Can it Work?

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Virtual Rehab is one of those technologies that captures the imagination – even in a literal sense. It’s the kind of idea foretold in science fiction stories. For instance, fans of the popular TV and film franchise Star Trek will instantly recognize this application of virtual reality as the equivalent of that show’s fictional “holodeck,” a special virtual reality room which can be programmed with immersive scenarios for training purposes.

That’s the gist of Virtual Rehab. It uses a simulated reality to train people in coping and dealing with life’s challenges. For instance, if a person suffers a crippling phobia of snakes, the virtual reality system could program a campground location where the patient can have simulated encounters with snakes in a safe, private environment until they’re acclimated and able to overcome their panic trigger.

That’s a very simplified example. The gaming industry has been pushing technology forward to the point where we can simulate complex and interactive virtual worlds, complete with avatars, AI-governed event scripts, and interactive environments.

Applications

The technology is finding a foothold in several fields of rehabilitation medicine:

  • Psychological disorders – Training autistics to socialize and obsessive-compulsives how to overcome their triggers.
  • Prisoner rehabilitation – A prisoner released after serving a decades-long sentence will not have been exposed to recent developments like mobile phones and ATM machines, so they can practice in virtual reality prior to being reintroduced in society.
  • Criminal reform – Training in simple scenarios helps people learn to overcome criminal impulses.
  • Addiction rehab – Recovering addicts are confronted with scenarios where they are tempted to fall back into their old habits, but are rewarded for resisting.
  • Medical treatment – A patient anticipating surgery can have their anxieties calmed by experiencing a virtual tour of the procedure they’re about to undergo.
  • Military treatment – Soldiers can engage in virtual battlefield scenarios to help prevent PTSD.

Proof of Concept

The basic idea is actually already established on two psychological practices: Cognitive training and Exposure therapy. Psychologists have actually been using virtual reality to some extent for our identical hypothetical scenario of treating phobias and panic disorders. More commonly, people with acrophobia (fear of heights) respond well to acclimation simulations where they are guided along gradual steps from a stepladder to a trestle bridge.

The Virtual Rehab system adds the step of making a video game out of the challenge scenario. Successfully playing through a level earns points, and completed stages award trophies. We already have ready examples of how this work in real life. Whether playing video games or reaching for the phone to check up on friends on Facebook, the human brain is wired to pay off little hits of dopamine in response to incremental achievements, whether it’s earning points through zapping zombies or seeing that fifteen friends loved your funny cat video.

Virtual simulators have also been deployed for training. Pilots run flight simulators before boarding an actual plane, soldiers practice on virtual battlefields before being deployed, and even ordinary citizens can tune their driving skills with a virtual test-drive.

As for tested results, researchers at Johns Hopkins have shown that when rehab patients develop strategies to avoid relapsing in a virtual world, they are able to apply those same strategies in real life.

If using virtual reality seems like a gimmick for treating real-life mental issues, it’s only because we’re used to thinking of it as a far-fetched technology. But we’ve had generations of game programmers and movie CGI laying the groundwork to the point where whipping up a custom game to help a recovering patient develop coping strategies to overcome their personal struggles is almost trivial. The technology has been there for years and is very well mapped, so why not use it?

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