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Even if we have not had a “spiritual experience,” we are probably familiar with stories of these experiences. While Virtual Reality (VR) is being used to create greater immersion in video games and as a tool used by therapists for exposure therapy in treating phobias, SpiritualVR is leveraging the unique properties of VR to create emotionally powerful spiritual experiences that can have a positive impact when you return to the real world. These experiences are being developed to help people change their thinking and, as a result, change their behavior.

How does that change happen? It is helpful to look at the research done on awe by Dacher Keltner, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. His work in awe helps us to understand the nature of spiritual experiences and how they can have a positive impact on how people live their lives. “...[A]we involves a challenge to or a negation of mental structures when they fail to make sense of an experience of something vast.” Encountering something vast and surprising evokes feelings which cause the self to feel small, powerless, and confused. In this state of confusion, the self is faced with the challenge of either dismissing or negating the experience, or accommodating the experience. Accommodating the experience involves accepting the feelings of power, wonder and fear, which can create feelings of timelessness, selflessness, humility, and a greater sense of connection with the world around us. This is similar to the sublimation of the ego (and conditioned belief systems) required for all spiritual transformation. In simpler terms, you cannot have a spiritual experience without letting go of preconceived notions of being in the world.

Predictability prevents change. We do not change in situations which are predictable. “Fleeting and rare, experiences of awe can change the course of life in profound and permanent ways.” Awe involves a need for accommodations. If such an experience is not negated or dismissed, feelings of enlightenment and rebirth can occur when mental structures expand to accommodate truths never before known. It is these “peak experiences,” as described by Abraham Maslow, which have the ability to create transformative, or spiritual, experiences.

What does this have to do with Virtual Reality? It is the immersive quality of “presence” in VR that makes it so powerful. At a basic level, VR creates an alternate reality in a virtual world with props to increase its reality. Adding sound and touch greatly enhances the virtual world to the point where it can be indistinguishable from the material world that we inhabit. The props used in VR are capable of “tricking” the brain to make the virtual world indistinguishable from the real world. It is in this virtual world that “reality” can be manipulated to create desired change. With awe, change occurs as a result of successful accommodation to an unexpected and overwhelming experience. In VR, change can be created by manipulating this environment and providing predetermined stimuli to cause a desired change in behavior.

Virtual reality gives us the capability to manipulate reality in ways that can be therapeutic. In one of SpiritualVR's prototype applications where we are testing the powerful properties of psychology, we examine "self-criticism". The user/subject appears as an avatar (a figure representing an actual person). Another avatar appears and begins to criticize the subject. The subject is next greeted by a third avatar who releases a large quantity of bubbles from above. Some of these bubbles contain “gifts” which are captured and held by the self. The self then gives these gifts to three new avatars who are expressing discomfort. Each gift is a compliment to counter the criticism received by the self. It is this act of altruism in giving the gift of compliments to the distressed avatars that creates the experience of compassion. This modeling of behavior in expressing compassion to others is meant to counter feelings of self-criticism. If we can learn to treat others with compassion, we can learn to treat ourselves with compassion.

Keltner concludes his discussion of awe by stating that “Awe can transform people and reorient their lives, goals, and values” making “awe-inducing events ... one of the fastest and most powerful methods of personal change and growth.” The same can be said of SpiritualVR.

Please also read our white paper: "Using Virtual Reality for the Reduction of Anxiety: An Introduction to How Immersive VR Can Improve the Treatment of Anxiety"

candles

Life is hard. That is why so many people look for relief/escape in drugs, alcohol, sex, shopping, food, and various forms of travel and entertainment. We are looking for instant gratification, a quick fix, an escape from a reality that has become painful and burdensome. Any uncomfortable emotion is now looked upon as a pathology to be medicated. We are not looking for personal growth, we are looking for relief.

Some people are able to look past the immediate and yearn for something more than a quick (and temporary) fix. They are not trying to escape their present reality, they are looking for a way to understand it and get better at living within it. This can take the form of spiritual tourism, whereby we look for the next vacation, trip, retreat, class, church, temple, congregation of like-minded people, to support us in our quest. While potentially helpful, there is an element of striving to this which is counter-intuitive to any real spiritual experience. And it is a spiritual experience which is required to create meaningful change in how we view ourselves and the world around us.

Virtual reality (VR) offers us the opportunity to experience a reality that is different than the one in which we are experiencing discomfort. What does this have to do with spirituality? All religions have rites and rituals designed to create an atmosphere of the transcendent. These rites and rituals use music, dance, incense, and formal prayers to create an atmosphere which invite us to experience the divine. It is in this mystical environment that we are able to expand our consciousness beyond our daily cares concerns and and connect with timeless truths which can offer us insight and guidance. This path has traditionally been pursued by those searching for a deeper meaning to their existence.

When you put on the headset, you enter into a virtual world that can be manipulated to create a specific environment tailored to meet your needs. Virtual reality has the ability to manipulate the environment and your experience in ways that can easily be more compelling than real life. VR has been successfully used in exposure therapy for treating people suffering from various phobias and from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). VR allows people to experience their fears and past trauma in a safe and controlled environment. People know that the experience is not “real,” but the brain is tricked by the artificial stimuli. The overwhelming sense of “presence” experienced in VR which makes the experience so powerful. This presence allows people to experience VR as if it were real, and to experience the powerful emotions that can be triggered by this experience. It is the triggering of these emotions that has the power to create change.

Anyone on a spiritual quest is seeking a new way of experiencing the world. Those who can afford it can travel to spiritual centers in Tibet, Bali, and other places in search of enlightenment. Most people seeking spiritual growth don’t have access to these opportunities and will need to find something closer to home. In VR, you can attend a virtual religious service along with others in a virtual space, you can listen to a teaching from a spiritual master, and you can experience meditating on a beach in Maui — VR gives you instant access to another world. The brain-tricking power of VR provides us a tool to experience life as those who have sufficient means to travel and to create meaningful connections with others whom we might not ordinarily meet.

In summary, VR can give you the opportunity to expand your consciousness and experience life in a safe environment as a means of achieving personal growth. With VR, technology replaces religious rites and rituals with predetermined stimuli which can be arranged to create the desired effect that the individual is seeking. VR isn’t going to replace religion, it is going to provide an additional tool to enhance people’s lives in a way that religion has not been able to due to the immersive quality of the VR experience.

doctor

In an effort to manage patient anxiety and control the costs of surgery, virtual reality (VR) is being used as an alternative to anesthesia and sedation in medical procedures with great success. One pioneering physician in Mexico began his research into this practice by beginning with the use of video games and moving to VR after experiencing success. The results have been published in an alternative to anesthesia and sedation in medical procedures with great success. One pioneering physician in Mexico began his research into this practice by beginning with the use of video games and moving to VR after experiencing success. The results have been published in an article by Jo Marchant with the BBC.

It has been said that necessity is the mother of invention. In 2004, Dr. Jose Luis Mosso Vazquez, a surgeon at Panamerican University in Mexico City, bought a Spider-Man game for his son. The game, an early form of VR, involved images projected onto a head-mounted display. Dr. Mosso was struck by how immersed his son became in the game and wondered if this was something that he could use to reduce the level of anxiety that patients experience during minor surgery. Dr. Mosso experimented using the Spider Man game with the head-mount while doing endoscopies. Patients were encouraged to play the game during the procedure instead of being sedated. He asked patients to score their pain level during the procedure and found that the immersive quality of the game reduced the need for sedation. In 2006, Dr. Mosso presented his results at the Medicine Meets Virtual Reality conference in California.

At the conference, Dr. Mosso met Albert “Skip” Rizzo, a psychologist (and now Director of Medical VR at the University of Southern California), who had been doing similar research with endoscopies. “He presented 10 cases,” says Mosso. “I presented 200.” Rizzo showed Mosso the expensive, state-of-the-art head-mounted displays he was using. “It was another world,” says Mosso. But then Rizzo revealed the equipment with which he had begun – it was the exact same Spider-Man game.

Rizzo was impressed with Mosso’s research and donated a headset to him. Rizzo also convinced a colleague, Brenda Wiederhold of the Virtual Reality Medical Center in San Diego, to let Mosso use some virtual worlds she had developed specifically for pain relief.

Mosso returned to Mexico and began using his new VR setup in a wide range of procedures, including childbirth and heart surgery. VR helped patients relax in all situations, but Mosso had the most success using VR in minor outpatient procedures where patients are awake but sedated. In these procedures, Mosso used a virtual scenario developed by Wiederhold called Enchanted Forest. This virtual world was meant to relax the patient and allowed them to explore rivers, lakes, trees, and forests. Virtual experiences involving guns and violence are not used because they tend to increase blood pressure, which could result in uncontrolled bleeding.

In using VR, Dr. Mosso found that patients required half as much sedation as they normally would require and, in some cases, required no sedation. In addition to relieving patient anxiety, there has been a significant cost savings for the clinics for sedative drugs such as fentanyl and midazolam, which are very expensive. Dr. Mosso estimates that the cost of surgery has been reduced by 25%. More important, less sedation reduces the risk of complications and recovery times. With these results, Dr. Mosso hopes to see VR more widely used not just for surgery, but to relieve pain in medical situations such as wound care and dentistry, as well as in chronic conditions such as phantom limb pain. And in areas where resources are limited, VR may be a welcome solution.

"Mosso doesn’t have the facilities here to sedate her, or offer her any painkillers more powerful than the local anesthetic, so he plugs in the laptop and switches the VR back on. Veronica keeps Oliveria talking as Mosso works. “What do you see?” she asks. “Fishes, water, stones,” Oliveria replies."

The University of Washington did a striking study with burn victims, showing them an experience they called SnowWorld during sessions of skin grafting. "Pain research using fMRI brain scans show significant reductions in pain-related brain activity..."

 

Photo credit: University of Washington

 

Using VR as a high-tech distraction technique allows surgeons to carry out operations that would normally require powerful painkillers and sedatives, with nothing more than local anesthetic. In addition to significant cost savings, VR has demonstrated that its immersive quality reduces patient anxiety and facilitates speedier recovery. Now that there is research to support these claims and the price of headsets has come down, consumers can hope that more doctors will take advantage of VR in improving patient experience and outcomes.

This attention distraction power is also a game changer for uncomfortable procedures such a dialysis and chemotherapy, waiting rooms, as well as what Mosso has done, for everything from fom childbirth to heart surgery. Distraction VR is sure to be a catalyst in VR wellness applications.

Please also read our white paper: "Using Virtual Reality for the Reduction of Anxiety: An Introduction to How Immersive VR Can Improve the Treatment of Anxiety"

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An Introduction to How Immersive VR Can Improve the Treatment of Anxiety

Everyone feels anxious now and then. It’s a normal emotion. Many people feel nervous when faced with a problem at work, before taking a test, or making an important decision. Anxiety disorders are different, though. They can cause such distress that it interferes with your ability to lead a normal life. These types of psychological and emotional problems are common. There is a growing body of research that shows virtual reality can be used effectively to treat depression without medication, treat PTSD and phobias, and reduce persecutory delusions. 25% of all U.S. adults have a mental illness and nearly 50% of U.S. adults will develop at least one mental illness during their lifetime. Only 44% of adults with diagnosable mental health problems and less than 20% of children and adolescents receive needed treatment. Between 30% and 80% of people with mental health concerns never receive treatment. In 2011, 59% of adults with a mental health problem did not receive any mental health treatment. Those numbers are only for serious mental health issues. Acute anxiety can be a serious mental illness. For people who have one, worry and fear are constant and overwhelming, and can be disabling. But with treatment, many people can manage those feelings and get back to a fulfilling life.

There are many types of anxiety disorders including the following: panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and specific phobias which are intense fears of a specific object or situation. Symptoms of anxiety disorders can be feelings of panic, fear or uneasiness, problems sleeping, cold or sweaty hands or feet, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, dry mouth, nausea, and dizziness. The exact cause of anxiety disorders is unknown, but anxiety disorders — like other forms of mental illness — are not the result of personal weakness, a character flaw, or poor upbringing. As scientists continue their research on mental illness, it is becoming clear that many of these disorders are caused by a combination of factors, including changes in the brain and environmental stress which can cause maladapted behavior.

Anxiety is generally treated with medications and/or psychotherapy. The growth of technology in medical treatment has expanded over the past several years and virtual reality (VR), a newer technology, has shown promise in its effectiveness in treating mental disorders, particularly when it is combined with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). VR is the computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment that can be interacted with in a seemingly real or physical way by a person using special electronic equipment, such as a helmet with a screen inside or gloves fitted with sensors...

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