Paranoid Fears Crumble in the Virtual World


If you're a child of the '80s and '90s, then your earliest notions of virtual reality likely involve glittering cyberspace matrixes, simulated fantasy worlds and of course 1992's "The Lawnmower Man."

But there's much more to virtual reality than futuristic computer interfaces and sci-fi dreams. For years, researchers have explored the virtual realm's potential to aid us in treating a wide range of real-life conditions such as addiction, PTSD, depression and autism. The latest potential application comes to us from a 2016 Oxford University study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry: the treatment of severe paranoia.

Specifically, the authors used virtual reality as a kind of simulated exposure therapy on 30 participants with delusions of persecution. This level of paranoia can interfere with a person's ability to mix with others in public or make eye contact. So the researchers had the test subjects experience a taste of the real-world stimuli (such as visiting a tube station) and then strapped them in a VR rig for a simulated version of the same environment.

The results were very encouraging. Some subjects were directed to engage the virtual crowd with their usual safety-seeking behaviors, such as the avoidance of eye contact. But even this bunch experienced a decrease in paranoid thoughts. Those encouraged to confront their (simulated) fears experienced even greater decreases in paranoia, at least for the duration of the testing day.

As you can see from the video, this is hardly a "Star Trek" holodeck simulation, but graphics worked well enough with a high-quality VR rig to make the difference. As the technology becomes more affordable and research continues, this therapeutic approach could make a huge difference in the personalized and portable treatment of extreme paranoia.