Virtual Reality Therapy for the Brain
by Ryan Hook | June 16, 2020
The Link Between Virtual Reality and Memory Care
My first impression of Virtual Reality (VR) Therapy was that it seemed like something out of the plot to a science fiction novel. Despite it seeming like a device straight out of a John Carpenter film, virtual reality therapy has become a remedy for the sensation of prolonged fear. Since the Covid-19 pandemic forced quarantine, immersive virtual art galleries and historic sites have become a type of therapy for many people stuck at home in self isolation. VR therapy has been taking small steps forward since it was invented in 1968 at MIT by Ivan Sutherland, and started with a head mount––an uncomfortable and ineffective head mount.
Since Facebook acquired the Oculus headset, and Samsung and Sony bid for other VR headsets, we have seen VR technology become cheaper, more comfortable, more available to the public, and consequently more available to healthcare researchers.
I talked with Bob Cole, founder of 3scape Systems, which is a firm dedicated to virtual reality films for elders. Cole worked with a psychiatric team out of Rockyview General Hospital in Calgary alongside their head of psychiatry, to determine what type of VR films are therapeutic to those suffering from neurological disorders. Cole says that while “films for entertainment are useful––we want to make it a therapy. We aren’t there to make people happy, because a lot of the time memories are painful, but that’s why it’s important to have an outlet to deal with these sometimes painful memories.”
How does 3scape Systems accomplish their objective? “We construct the stories. The films are story driven. They’re hyper-involved,” he says, “From our data we gathered that elders wanted a story, not just a montage of pictures.”
Memory functions via triggers––a song, a word, a photograph––and triggers bring us closer to the traumatic and the beautiful moments in our lives. In a lot of older peoples’ cases, memories become harder to see, and due to degeneration of neural pathways in the brain, triggers are often more difficult to notice. For elders suffering from dementia or alzheimers’ quality of life suffers––they lose themselves, their families, and the valuable memories that connect them to their lives. Degenerative brain diseases are caused by the death of brain cells, which is what causes memory loss and cognitive decline. As the disease worsens so does one’s memory. It is a devastating disease that affects half a million Canadians and over 25,000 cases are discovered each year. There are a number of charities in Canada and beyond that advocate for Alzheimer's research and treatment development, like the Alzheimer Society of Canada and Hilarity for Charity ––a charity started by Seth Rogen and his wife Lauren Miller Rogen that, according to their website, “bridges the gap in understanding the landscape of Alzheimer’s disease.”
The 3scape System employs immersive techniques that improve the wellbeing of residents with degenerative diseases, and physical impairments. Virtual reality technology can help alleviate stress for the elderly by bringing them into a familiar reality, or an exciting one, or one where they’re not bogged down by impairment. The human brain is a vast landscape that we’re still learning about. What we do know about the brain, is that it’s highly adaptive. VR therapies provide immersive catalysts so that the brain can create new neural pathways, which can assist in helping the client regain their memory. Humans can use their “mirror neuron” to regain their sense of self––the mechanism that allows this process to happen is often referred to as neuroplasticity.
Mirror neurons fire the same way when we visualize actions as when we are actually doing the actions. People with chronic pain are frequently told to visualize themselves performing exercise as the first step to beginning a new movement routine. This helps prepare the mind for a task that the brain may have labeled as threatening or overtaxing. Some doctors have discovered new treatments for brain based disorders like phantom limbs, gender dysphoria, or PTSD by re-examining them through the lens of neuroplasticity. VR therapy can help a wide variety of conditions, because it provides a space for extremely tangible visualization. VR can assist those experiencing gender dysphoria by helping them experience gender “euphoria.” People with phobias can be assisted as well, for instance, those with a fear of flying can have a controlled airplane experience with the assistance of VR goggles. It also helps with PTSD.
Many PTSD sufferers are able to use VR therapy as a means of gaining control over a traumatizing experience. Veterans with PTSD can be emotionally and physically triggered by everyday sounds, like the sounds made by a pinball machine, or a heavy item falling from a shelf. To soldiers the rattling of metal sounds like bullet caskets hitting the floor of their armoured Jeep. VR therapy works to put them in those situations again––to hear those sounds in a familiar but controlled environment––so that eventually the trigger becomes less charged. When you put the subject in a safe space that resembles the space they fear, they can work on desensitization by talking through what's going on step-by-step with the help of a trained clinician. This should always be done with the assistance of a trained professional, and only when the clinician believes the client is ready.
VR therapy is rooted in behavioural psychology and reminiscence therapy––a therapy commonly used to support patients with dementia. Clients are put in the driver’s seat, in a controlled environment, which helps them reduce their inhibitions and their protective strategies. They can tell clinicians first-hand their thoughts, feelings, and emotions, which helps them process their memories and real life experiences. VR therapy works like a type of reminiscence therapy because it enacts most of the senses––touch, sight and sound–– which contributes to helping patients remember events, people, and places. While reminiscence therapy usually involves listening to music, looking at photographs or eating food as a means to remember, VR therapy takes reminiscence therapy into a first person embodied experience.
Returning to the topic of seniors and people with degenerative brain diseases, let’s pretend that a dementia patient puts on a headset. They are taken to a 1940’s era bar. Their favourite song is playing on the jukebox, they hear the clinking of beer glasses, and they can see uniforms of servicemen throughout the bar. It’s scenes like these that VR therapies are filming, to bring life back into the eyes of the dementia patients. While there have been strides made in getting funding for VR therapy, and advances made in the realm of VR therapies––including making them cheaper––VR therapy is still a ways away from being a perfected and accessible therapy. Right now there are “more questions than answers,” Cole says. “What we’re trying to find out for our product is if it works for most people.”
While VR headsets have gone from thousands of dollars down to $300, and are even becoming a popular tool for meditation they are still “awkward.” Cole says, “The technology is moving fast, the goggles are still an issue, but there are updates to the hardware to create a better user experience.” The haptic side of VR is still a work in progress for seniors, but Cole says, “Looking at the clinical studies, there has been a majority of the viewers that have felt emotional change. [...] We’re trying to make use of the technical apparatus that brings deeper meaning to the viewing.”
VR is a fascinating future therapy. It’s becoming a more integrated part of the cultural lexicon, as it becomes more mainstream in wellness culture, particularly with the advent of VR mediation. The human condition is complicated, but VR can take us into another reality so that we may gain more insight into this one. For those experiencing degenerative brain disorders, VR can become a reprieve from what may feel like an off kelter, unfamiliar world, and take them into a land of familiarity. VR can run the gambit between evoking negative emotions so as to desensitize the client, or by calling happy memories to the forefront of the client’s mind, so as to put the client at ease. Either way, it’s clear the VR is provoking response.