On a recent Tuesday evening, residents at senior living facilities in Tennessee and Virginia never left the comfort of their homes. Still, they were treated to a front-row seat at a Broadway play and transported back in time to places they had not visited since childhood.
By using a virtual reality headset, elderly residents can see and experience places they are no longer able to see physically. Frank James, one of the residents in Virginia, was quoted by the Wall Street Journal after an evening with his virtual reality headset, saying:
“Seeing these shows again is invigorating … it just takes your mind off things like the lockdown.”
The successful integration of this technology into these assisted living facilities is just one use of virtual reality technology that has benefitted the lives of consumers across the country.
Virtual reality, in its simplest form, is a mind game -- one that transports something from your imagination onto the screen in front of you.
However, just like with many other technologies, there are potential drawbacks to the overuse of three-dimensional, computer-generated environments, which the mind processes differently over time. Studying the psychological effects of using this innovation is important, even as most of its uses can be quite healthy and beneficial.
When virtual reality studies began in the 90s, they focused primarily on negative physical responses, which included dizziness and nausea. Fortunately, those side-effects subside quickly, but the mental/psychological impact can be far more long-lasting and impactful.
In order to assess virtual reality’s successes and drawbacks, it is important to levy the proof that VR is, in fact, having some impact on the mind. For instance, a group of researchers completed a study in which users played a low-stress game in different scenarios. One group played the game on a computer screen while researchers studied their brain response. Compared to users who completed the task in a VR condition, their brains reported lower levels of absorption. That absorption increased their negative emotional response to the scenario even though it was designed to elicit a low amount of negative emotional energy.
What’s more, in a paper published in Timing and Time Perception, researchers asked people playing a very simple maze puzzle game to estimate when they believed five minutes had passed. Those playing the game in a virtual reality setting waited more than 72 seconds longer before signaling they believed five minutes had passed.
Grayson Mullen, one of the researchers, said of that finding,
“It’s really the fact that it is virtual reality versus a conventional screen that contributes to this time compression effect.”
With proof that virtual reality has an effect on the mind, we can dive deeper into our understanding of what those effects might be.
Some doctors in mental health use VR for treatments — like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) — as it can produce an illusion of reality beneficial for such treatment. However, recreational users also contend with that illusion of reality. The technology is advanced enough that even though someone knows virtual reality is not real, it can trick our brains into believing the computerized illusion is real stimuli.
That is remarkably helpful in the treatment of anxiety, schizophrenia, eating disorders, substance abuse, and phobias, to name a few.
Overindulgence also yields potentially harmful effects for someone engrossed in the recreational use of virtual reality, and video games are designed to keep the user playing longer. To use a term that often comes with a negative connotation, many would call them addicting.
In a 1994 study of early VR technology, the addictive nature of games and virtual reality was already leading to elevated levels of aggression or hostile thoughts. However, virtual reality has not yet been proven to elicit higher levels of these emotions than 2D gaming.
There is a need for more research. Indeed, virtual reality and 2D video games can produce similar psychological responses, but virtual reality may or may not heighten those responses. There is not enough data to know.
No analysis of virtual reality’s benefits and drawbacks would be complete without a more robust discussion of the aforementioned benefits upon which modern medicine is already capitalizing.
Individuals fighting a tobacco addiction have used what doctors call cue exposure therapy to fight the insatiable cravings for nicotine. VR has proven useful in treating nicotine dependence, and more analysis is underway to assess its ability to fight gambling addiction as well.
Virtual reality is not a clinical tool itself; it is a platform that provides content that can be beneficial. Despite a few outlier situations in which overindulging in a world of fabricated stimuli can lead to negative effects, VR is currently in use as both a tool for enjoyment and a tool for improved mental health outcomes.
The previously mentioned Lavoie study says,
“Given VR’s ability to produce such powerful effects with relatively neutral stimuli, it is plausible that such effects may become even more pronounced in response to more stressful VR gaming experiences. Thus, our results provide preliminary evidence that, depending on the nature of the gameplay, VR use can cause some users to experience emotional harm and that firms producing VR video games ought to take steps to mitigate such harm in the design and marketing of their products.”
That fact can be true simultaneously with the fact that clinical use of VR has proven quite helpful for patients facing a myriad of conditions.
Virtual reality is a potentially powerful tool, and the world is still learning of its full potential. Time and dedicated minds will long ponder the hypotheses discussed above, but for now, find solace in the fact that many Americans will use this tool to better their lives.