Overcoming Phobias Using Virtual Reality

All of the participants feared spiders enough that they couldn't remove the lid from a cage with a tarantula in it. During the series of experiments, some of the participants received only the visual part of virtual reality, and others received both the visuals along with the creepy replica of the real spider.

Later, while one of the clinicians waited just outside the door, each participant was told to go into the lab and walk up to the cage containing the spider. Prior to the treatment, the participants didn't want to get within five feet of the cage.

But the participants who had received just the visual treatment were able to cut that distance in half. And those who had also felt the fuzzy replica during the experiment were able to get within six inches of the real thing.

And after it was all over, Miss Muffet was able to reach inside the cage and pick the spider up.

The point of all of this is not to suggest that people should have no fear of spiders, or flying, because a few spiders bite, although usually in self defense, and some airplanes crash, so some anxiety should be expected. But in many cases, the fear far exceeds the danger. At that point it becomes a phobia, defined as an irrational or excessive level of fear.

In the past, psychologists dealt with that by "in vivo" techniques in which they gradually exposed the patient to real spiders, or real airplanes, but that won't work for all kinds of traumas. Hoffman's lab earlier used virtual reality to help people suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder after the terrorist attack of 9/11.

It wasn't possible to destroy the twin towers again, nor would any sane person want to, so virtual reality was used to recreate the scene, over and over, for patients ranging from a housewife to a New York City firefighter.

One woman who was reduced to sobs whenever she saw a replay of the tragedy was eventually able to talk about her emotions and finally remembered that she thought she was going to die, part of the reason she was so stressed. The treatment proved very effective, Hoffman says.

By adding additional and supportive sensual experiences, as in the experiments on spider phobia, Hoffman believes the treatment can become even more effective.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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