Mind games

Woman pulls a blue sweatshirt over her eyes with both hands

Mind games

At the Université du Québec en Outaouais (UQO), cyberpsychologists are using the latest virtual reality technology to overcome their fears
October 31, 2019
A version of this story was originally published on innovation.ca in July 2005
A man in the small town of the Maniwaki, Quebec, sits in front of a TV talking about his deepest fears.

He’s not pouring his heart out to a blank screen. He’s actually meeting with his therapist via videoconferencing technology. The therapist is listening, watching, and helping—from 150 kilometres away. The man and his therapist are part of a revolution in the interplay between communications, computer technology, and psychology. It’s a revolution that enables therapists to treat patients across long distances—in a virtual reality environment.

Can patients feel close to their therapists via videoconference? The answer is yes according to Stéphane Bouchard, the Co-Director of the Cyberpsychology Laboratory, and the Canada Research Chair in Cyberpsychology at the UQO.

In fact, Bouchard’s Cyberpsychology Laboratory is conducting the fundamental, clinical, and applied research to demonstrate whether tools like videoconferencing and virtual reality are, in fact, therapeutically effective.

Before this happens, though, cyberpsychology will have to overcome a major problem: most psychotherapists are adamant that personal contact is the essential, indispensable element for successful therapy.

The study involving the man in Maniwaki compared the delivery of cognitive behavioural therapy for agoraphobia (fear of open spaces), post-traumatic stress disorder and generalized anxiety disorder using either videoconferencing or in-person therapy. The results? The patient outcomes were identical.

“Patients and therapists do connect through videoconferencing as if they are in the same room,” says Bouchard. “During one videoconferencing session, a woman said to me ‘Oh, I’m so lucky you’re here. It helps so much.’” Bouchard’s lab is focused on the treatment of anxiety disorders such as phobias (e.g., arachnophobia, claustrophobia, aviophobia (fear of flying), social anxiety, and panic disorder).

Bouchard says that this sense of presence between therapist and patient is essential to understanding why their research is showing that virtual reality can be a powerful tool for treating anxiety disorders.

The Cyberpsychology Laboratory has developed over 20 virtual environments to help patients face their deepest fears and overcome them. Patients suffering from arachnophobia, for example, enter a virtual world filled with spiders of different sizes and with different behaviours. In this “fear factory”, patients wear head-mounted virtual-reality goggles and shift their virtual view with head movements. Along with the psychologist, they move around to face the different spiders at their own pace. The virtual environments developed by Bouchard’s team make it possible to recreate a number of situations in which therapists can mitigate the challenges faced by patients to maximize the chances of gradually and successfully helping them overcome their fears.

Bouchard says that after only 12 sessions, arachnophobics treated with virtual reality therapy were able to stand next to a tarantula in an open terrarium. That’s the final test to show that the virtual exposure has real impact. “What our work over the past 10 years has shown,” says Bouchard, “is that the emotional part of the brain is processing the experience as if it were real.”

Although the Internet is usually cited as a source of psychological problems, rather than solutions, things are changing. The budding field of cyberpsychology is putting a new, healing face on technologies like videoconferencing and virtual reality.

The events of 9/11 in the U.S. in 2001 grounded Wendy Mansfield. Prior to the deadly terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Center, Mansfield (not her real name), a retired Ottawa teacher had flown several times a year for most of her adult life. Soon after the attacks, she became haunted by nightmares about planes and terrorists. She couldn’t even drive past an airport. “I was feeling so strangled by not being able to fly,” she says. “I was ready to try anything that might help.”

Mansfield wasn’t thinking about virtual reality therapy. But when friends told her about the Cyberpsychology Lab, she eagerly got on board the project to surmount her fears in cyberspace.

About one-quarter of Canadians experience some level of debilitating phobia during their lifetime. According to Bouchard, Mansfield is part of a current trend—a soaring number of Canadians tackling their phobias and anxieties through cyberpsychology techniques. The field includes the use of virtual reality, as well as remote psychological counselling via videoconferencing.

Bouchard’s team at the Cyberpsychology Lab has already demonstrated that virtual reality therapy can successfully treat phobias ranging from arachnophobia, agoraphobia, and claustrophobia, to fear of flying and public speaking.

Bouchard says cyberpsychology offers the advantages of being safer, lower cost, and more practical than many other types of therapies. However, it’s not for everyone. The major side-effect for some patients is cybersickness, a condition similar to motion sickness.

Bouchard is convinced that telepsychotherapy via videoconferencing is about to fundamentally change the way we look for a therapist. “In the near future, I think patients in Maniwaki, Montreal, or Toronto could be considering psychotherapists in New York or even Mexico,” he says. The hurdles are not technological, he stresses, but rather legal issues around cross-jurisdictional licensing of psychologists.

However, for Mansfield, the benefits of cyberpsychology have already moved from virtual to real. This past Easter she boarded a plane to Europe to visit friends.