Virtual Reality Latest Tool for Doctors

Do you want to be a success at work? Do you want to have better personal relationships? Do you want to worry less? Do you want to have a nicer day? Do you want to be a better lover?

If yes, perhaps you should make room beside your personal growth guides for a virtual reality self-improvement psycho-treatment Kit. It doesn't exist yet, but it may soon become as common as all those how-to books from authors who claim to know the secrets of success.

Daniel Freeman, a Wellcome Fellow at Kings College London, told ABC News that virtual reality therapy can help all of us: "I think it's definitely in the future as the costs come down and the environments are developed. It has a great potential for helping us to improve our social interactions and conqueror our fears in the workplace, home or wherever."

Freeman is one of the scientists who is testing virtual reality technology for treating various kinds of mental and emotional disorders, from post-traumatic stress disorder in U.S. military personnel returning to a fear of flying.

A reminder: you may have already experienced virtual reality technology in an amusement arcade. You put on a helmet or large goggles wired to a computer. You see only what the computer feeds into the screen in your head gear. As you move your head and walk, the computer image simulates your movements and you sense, with sights and sounds, that you are actually in a different world.

Scientists are taking that idea and making it therapeutic.

The basic technique is to allow subjects to experience the things that trigger their fear but in the safe environment of virtual reality.

For instance, a veteran from Iraq who suffers from PTSD might fear a crowd of strangers. But by repeating that virtual experience over and over without injury or traumatic experience, the subject gradually comes to accept that his or her fear is either unproved or unfounded, and is thus better able to cope in the real world.

But this is not just for those who suffer from acute fears.

Freeman's research adds a new dimension by looking at ways of helping the rest of us, ordinary people with no PTSD or exceptional circumstances, cope with everyday paranoia, i.e., normal life.

Freeman told ABC News: "The traditional view is that paranoia only occurs to those with severe mental illnesses. However this [our study] shows that there is a spectrum of paranoia."

He added that many of us experience low grade paranoia because of the times in which we live.

"I think that paranoia almost is a 21st century fear. We're perhaps living in a time of increased suspiciousness, mistrust and paranoia," said Freeman.

And what better place to test everyday paranoia than the temporary prison of a crowded London underground subway tube train.

Freeman teamed with the Department of Computer Science at University College London to build a VR program that simulates a five-minute underground tube ride between two stations.

Nothing exciting happens in those five minutes. "Virtual" passengers are seen and heard, but they do nothing unusual. If you look at them, after a few seconds they might look back at you. Or they might laugh.

Freeman said: "The key things are that the characters are neutral, so it is all about what the person [the patient] reads into the expressions. If [virtual] someone looks at them, then that can be interpreted as a sign that they are staring at them to try to irritate them."

"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."