War changes people. Between 8-18% of American vets from Iraq and Afghanistan come home with PTSD. Even that number seems low, and there are most likely countless vets who never get officially diagnosed. In 2014, vets made up 18% of all suicides in the US. To combat this tragedy, the Pentagon spends billions on mental health and between 2003 and 2014, the VA’s mental health budget expanded from $3 billion to $7 billion.
How is PTSD being treated? 80% receive psychotropic drugs, which carry dangerous (even fatal) side effects. Is there another kind of treatment that can balance medication? Enter virtual reality. By combining classic exposure therapy and the technology of VR war simulations, vets can work through their trauma in a safe environment.
An abbreviated history of virtual reality
The term “virtual reality” wasn’t coined until the mid-1980’s, but the concept had actually existed for decades. In 1929, the Link Trainer was released as a way to train pilots. While the user sat in what looked like one of those airplane toys outside grocery stores, the flight simulator would mimic turbulence and other factors of flight. In 1956, Morton Heilig invented the Sensorama, a multi-sensory movie-watching experience. Users sat in a chair and stuck their heads into the machine, which stimulated a city motorcycle ride complete with sights, sounds, and even smells. Four years later, he released the Telesphere Mask, the first head-mounted VR gear. In 1958, inventors tried connecting the display to a computer instead of a movie camera, essentially creating the first VR “game.”
The industry continued to evolve and grow as technology got better. The goal was always to improve the realism of the VR world and the person’s ability to interact with it. When The Matrix came out in 1999, society latched on to the idea of a VR world as tangible as the one Neo lives in. This interest reinvigorated the VR divisions of tech companies like Samsung and Google, and with the release of devices like the Oculus Rift, what people once thought was impossible is now a reality.
Treating PTSD with virtual reality
VR technology is now capable of simulating a huge variety of environments and situations in easy-to-use forms. Why does that matter to therapists, particularly those who treat vets with PTSD? The reason has to do with “exposure therapy,” which has been endorsed as a treatment for post-traumatic stress. During exposure therapy, a patient must confront what triggers their symptoms and develop coping mechanisms. As an example, if you were afraid of spiders, you would talk about spiders with your therapist, look at pictures of arachnids, and then eventually encounter an actual spider. With veterans and PTSD, they obviously cannot go back to Iraq and relive that experience, but with VR, they can enter a simulated war environment.
That’s exactly what Bravemind, a virtual reality therapy program created at the University of California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, does. Using 14 different environments like a highway checkpoint or a city block in Iraq, clinicians guide patients into their trauma by adjusting sensory elements like a car engine, explosions, and more. During the VRET (virtual reality exposure therapy) experience, the patients’ stress responses are measured with brain imaging and psychological assessments. While digging into this type of trauma is painful, the patient knows they are safe. Clinical trials show high rates of success; ¾ of the patients treated had reduced symptoms. One study even showed that after a 3-week program, ⅔ of the vets no longer qualified as having PTSD and six months later, they were still clear.
The future of VRET
VR is only going to improve. The creators of Bravemind hope to build versions that treat victims of military sexual trauma, as well as firefighters, police, and victims of terrorist attacks. To make virtual reality more like real life, all the senses will get involved, including smell and taste. Scientists have realized that the brain interprets events through all the senses at once, so to create a complete picture of a memory, all the senses should be stimulated. Suggested tech like vests with vibrating transducers that target a user’s inner ear and stomach would turn VR into more of a full-body experience. When the brain truly believes it is in the situation that caused its trauma, the healing process is extremely effective. That’s the ultimate goal for VRET.