"Or if the patients hear laughter, they might think the laughter is directed at them. So these are ambiguous social events that happen that some people may read in a paranoid and suspicious fashion."
Freeman told ABC that about a third of his subjects expressed paranoia over the behavior of the virtual train passengers, even though there was no threatening behavior programmed into the characters.
He concluded that "What this study shows is that people who got suspicious in the tube were much more likely to report paranoia in real life. So it certainly suggests that paranoia is very common."
For the VR technique to work, one must "stay in the VR situation for as long as possible and to repeat doing that," according to Freeman.
"So in VR, even though it seems like a game, and you know it's not real, your body reacts, your brain reacts as if it were real. Therefore if you can stay in that situation for long enough, your mind and body will naturally calm down."
What he hopes to do eventually is to show that repeated VR journeys into environments where fearsome situations are simulated -- in a safe and uneventful way -- will help many people conquer fear and paranoia. This is a computer-aided form of cognitive behavioral therapy, a well established form of psychotherapy in which self-awareness hat fears are unfounded can lead to letting go of those fears and to living with ease in the real world.
The research so far is geared toward using VR in clinics to identify and treat people who have both acute and low-grade paranoia.
But does this technology also have the potential to show all of us how to overcome our everyday fears of failure at work, fear or mistrust of a friend or loved one?
In other words, can VR therapy teach us how to become more successful in work, at school, with family and, dare it be said, in the bedroom, by teaching us how to overcome our fears, paranoia and other self-doubts? Is VR the next self-help phenomenon?
Freeman may not have yet overcome the fear of going too far out on that limb, but he does acknowledge that there is potential.
"Most self-help books tell you to get out there in the real world and try out things. With VR, you can almost practice this before going out into the real world and that can give you a lot of confidence. It can be a really helpful step in changing."
He adds, "A combination of a book and VR could be highly effective, but obviously there are the costs involved in the technology."
But if the self-improvement industry seizes the moment, the potential to make billions of dollars in a new VR self-improvement industry just might be realized.
So if you are having trouble with your boss, your teacher, or your lover, you may someday find yourself strapping on a VR helmet (and gloves?) to overcome your fears and raise your confidence.
I can already imagine the sales pitch: "No more fear! Earn a fortune! Be popular! Be loved. That will be $239.95, please."