Improving our lives often means we have to change our behavior: change our eating pattern in order to be healthier, stop swearing in order to set a good example for our kids, start separating waste to contribute to a better future for our planet. In the unpredictable and sometimes harsh environment called reality, not everyone has what it takes to make a change. Research has shown promising results to change behavior more efficiently and comfortably with help of virtual environments.
- Research has shown positive results of VR therapy in people with psychosis accompanied by anxiety issues. Patients can overcome their paranoia and fear by practicing in virtual environments. They are less afraid, avoid social situations less often and are able to do things that they sometimes have not dared to do for years, such as traveling by bus or going to the gym.
- Several studies have reported positive results on the use of virtual environments in treating people with weight-related disorders or even getting children to eat more vegetables.
- F. van Hoesel, head of the department of High Performance Computing and Visualization at the Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, gave an interview on the way VR can change our view of the term ‘fake’. He shared an anecdote of a girl who was cured of her fear of heights by experiences in his virtual environment lab.
- VR offers the opportunity for patients and therapists to discuss which experiences the patient is ready to take on. Patients with anxiety issues can, for example, decide how many people are present in the virtual environment they are about to enter.
Connecting the dots
When it comes to implementing changes or improvements that concern our behavior patterns, one of the main challenges is that our environment stays the same, confronting us with pitfalls that might be too difficult to address at once. For centuries, we already try to take advantage from synthetic realities such as simulated battlefields to prepare for war, space simulations to train astronauts or family constellations to detect unresolved traumas. They offer the possibilities to arise emotions, intrinsic motivation and to make users immersed in what they are trying to learn. The rise of virtual reality is a disruptive tool because it can easily imitate reality like never before, and adjust content to individual needs at the same time. Offering cognitive behavioral therapy through virtual environments has shown promising results in changing the behavior and mindset of patients with several medical conditions such as overeating or anxieties.
Research in changing behavior through VR therapy focuses mostly on matters that concern medical conditions. However, there are matters that are not related to any medical condition in which changing our behavior more efficiently and comfortable is favorable too. For example, when someone wants to become better in making contact with the opposite sex, but is too shy to start practicing in real life.
On a bigger scale, an example could be including insects in our diet as a substitute for meat. Although this is already a common ingredient in the Asian and African cuisine, Europeans and Americans are a long way from accepting such a change in their food-habits. Even if there are people in the West that want to implement such a change in their diet, to actually eat an insect would be challenging for many, due to a long history of viewing insects as dirty and annoying creatures. Because of habit, changes like this are time consuming even when we are willing. In order to change habits in a more efficient and comfortable way, people could benefit from VR programs that are now mostly used to cure medical conditions.
In order to do things we were not able to do before, VR therapy programs could expand their field from merely health related issues towards training for personal reasons. This can be for better or for worse. The above examples demonstrate positive applications, but it takes little imagination to think of less favorable examples. In any case, it holds the promise of offering people a more efficient and comfortable way to ‘manufacture’ their behavior, as opposed to the sometimes harsh and unpredictable environment of reality.
- Richard Dawkins introduced the term ‘meme’ over 40 years ago, it refers to ideas that are spread amongst information carriers (humans, computers etc.), just as genes are spread amongst organisms. Due to memes, we are able to speed up the implementation of survival tactics because we do not have to wait for biological evolution to manifest certain advantages. For example, we can tell our children to wash their hands instead of waiting for immunity to certain bacteria. VR environments that help implement behavioral changes more efficiently can result in shorter cycles of implementing personal or collective ideas or goals into our behavior patterns.
- If VR programs will indeed prove to be effective in changing behavior patterns and mindsets, having certain behavioral patterns becomes less a matter of fate and more a matter of choice, and thus of responsibility.