The Psychology of Virtual Reality


    This paper studies the potential clinical uses of Virtual Reality. Virtual Reality (VR) technology offers opportunities for the development of innovative neuropsychological assessment and rehabilitation tools. Many empirical studies have demonstrated the effectiveness of virtual environment applications that can provide new options for targeting cognitive and functional impairments caused due to traumatic brain injury, neurological disorders and learning disabilities. This paper provides an introduction to the basic concepts and the historical background of experimental psychology along with a rationale for the application of Virtual reality in this scientific discipline. Finally , it discusses the potential role of virtual reality to rapidly increase peoples’ awareness of climate change and possibly affecting behavior and policy, together with associated ethical dilemmas. 

    Keywords: visualization; climate change, virtual reality, environmental psychology

Literature Review

Virtual reality (VR) is a computer-simulated environment with and within which people can interact. The basis for the VR idea is that a computer can synthesize a 3-D graphical environment from numerical data. Using a combination of hardware and software components, the user can experience the environment as if it was a part of the real world. The input devices sense the operator’s reactions and motions and the computer modifies the synthetic environment accordingly to create the illusion of interacting with and being immersed within, the virtual environment. A VR system is composed of: the output tools (visual, aural, and haptic) which immerse the user in the virtual environment; the input tools (trackers, gloves, or mice) which continually report the position and movements of the users; the graphic rendering system, which generates, at 20–30 frames per second, the virtual environment; and the database construction and virtual object modeling software for building and maintaining detailed and realistic models of the virtual world. 

However, it is possible to describe virtual reality in terms of human experience, rather than technological hardware. The following sections will further elaborate the potential psychological uses of VR.

Experimental Psychology and Virtual Reality

    VR emerged in the 1960s and has been regarded lately as a research tool in psychology (Rose & Foreman, 1999). VEs have the benefit of flexibility; environments can be altered instantaneously so that experimental studies can be conducted in new ways. This provides behavioral experimenters with entirely new experimental tools (Gaggioli, 2001). In behavioral research, VEs have allowed psychologists to think outside the box — to use a range of new paradigms that were not possible for conducting experiments in reality — and to consider old problems in new way. VEs provide opportunities to augment real world experiences, enabling interaction with environments that would be hard to imagine in any other medium. According to Golledge, humans obtain the ability to navigate in a given area by gaining knowledge about landmarks, routes, and spatial configurations (Golledge,1991). That knowledge may be enhanced by the use of maps, verbal or written directions, or photographs. Although map-based learning gives rise to an orientation-specific representation, VE learning, like real world exploration, gives rise to orientation-free representations (Tlauka & Wilson, 1996; Witmer, Bailey, Knerr, & Parsons, 1996). 

    For example, training firefighters to navigate fire rescue operations is becoming paramount. Traditional training methods have focused upon using real-life situations where firefighters may learn about a particular building's internal structure by studying actual blueprints or following general rules for search and rescue. Such rules often dictate that firefighters follow an exhaustive search pattern. An obvious disadvantage with the use of exhaustive search patterns is that firefighters may waste precious time and resources searching rooms and spaces where victims are unlikely to be found, such as the janitor closets or maintenance rooms. In recent years, virtual reality (VR) technology has been viewed as a way to solve many training and modeling problems. VR may successfully be used for training specific tasks, where "real-world" training might be impractical. Wickens has noted that certain elements of virtual reality may enhance learner motivation and levels of information processing, and may reduce the levels of effort required to assimilate new information (Wickens, 1992).

    Another development that has particularly benefited education and research in clinical and behavioral sciences has been the programming of realistic behaviors into computer generated characters. Two types of virtual people can be programmed into VEs: first, the avatar which is a character on screen which represents the participant (the controller, who operates the viewpoint and navigates within the VE), and second, a virtual or simulated person, who is an independent agent, that can be programmed with specific personality characteristics and to behave in predetermined ways. This type of usage of programmable people in VEs has particular potential for psychology, in areas such as interpersonal skill development and training, particularly since it may be necessary for training purposes to have a virtual character who becomes quickly aggressive and hostile, or withdrawn, as required. Developments in the computing field, that enable the programming of emotion-driven “Believable Agents” whose “… behaviors change in psychologically plausible ways” have been adopted in areas such as human-machine interfaces, electronic advertising, and electronic entertainment, but also have applications in areas related to interactive therapy.

Clinical Psychology and Virtual Reality

    Shifting our analysis to psychotherapy, it is easy to find that the most common application in VR in this area is the treatment of phobias. Botella (2005)  and Botella et al. (2006) pointed out that there have been an increasing number of studies in the clinical therapeutic field, mainly concerning exposure treatments for anxiety and phobic states. Huber (2006) pointed out that using VEs in “clinical cyber psychology” is beneficial because a high level of control can be exerted over stimulus presentation and patient interactivity, no other form of training having the reproducibility aspect that characterizes VEs. VR exposure therapy (VRE) has been proposed as a new medium for exposure therapy. The rationale behind its use is very simple: in VR the patient is intentionally confronted with the feared stimuli while allowing the anxiety to attenuate. Because avoiding a dreaded situation reinforces all phobias, each exposure to it actually lessens the anxiety through the processes of habituation and extinction.

    Virtual reality and exposure therapy. According to the emotional processing theory of Foa and Kozak (1986), successful exposure therapy leads to new and more neutral memory structures that overrule the old anxiety provoking ones. What distinguishes virtual reality from a mere multimedia system or an interactive computer graphics display is a sense of presence. A sense of presence is also essential to conducting exposure therapy. As mentioned before, exposure therapy is aimed at facilitating emotional processing (Foa & Kozak, 1986). For this to occur, it has been proposed that the fear structure must be activated and modified. Exposure therapy is historically effective at activating the fear structure via confrontation with the feared stimuli, which elicits the fearful responses. The processes of habituation and extinction, in which the feared stimuli cease to elicit anxiety, aid modification of the fear structure, making its meaning less threatening. Any method capable of activating the fear structure and modifying it would be predicted to improve symptoms of anxiety. Thus, VRE has been proposed to aid the emotional processing of fears (Rothbaum et al., 1995).

    VRET uses VR techniques to create environments that are immersive and provoke anxiety. In VRET, these virtual situations are ‘visited’ for a prolonged period of time for extinction to occur. In line with the theory of Foa and Kozak (1986), three conditions should be met for VRET to be effective. First, participants need to feel present in the virtual environment to be able to experience the environment fully as a place visited, instead of a film seen (i.e., first vs. third person view; (Slater, Pertaub, & Steed, 1999). Second, the virtual environment should be able to elicit emotions (North, North, & Coble, 1998; Regenbrecht,  Schubert, & Friedman, 1998; Schuemie et al., 2000), otherwise, extinction will not occur. Finally, extinction and co-occurring cognitive changes have to generalize to real situations so that real-life situations will not be avoided any longer or will be endured with less anxiety.

    Anxiety disorders can be treated quite effectively with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).  CBT is a goal-oriented psychotherapy treatment that changes patterns of thinking or behavior that are behind people's difficulties, and so change the way they feel. If a virtual environment could elicit fear and activate the anxiety-provoking structure, it can function as an alternative mode to induce exposure.  In a case study by Botella et al. (1998), one participant was exposed to claustrophobic situations during eight sessions of 35 to 45 min. The virtual environments used were (1) a balcony or small garden of 2 x 5 m, (2) a room of 4 x 5 m with windows and doors, (3) a room of 3 x 3 m, without furniture or windows, and (4) a wall that could move leaving only a 1-m sq. room. Between Sessions 6 and 7, this participant was exposed to a real anxiety-provoking situation, namely, a CT scan where no avoidance was possible. The treatment was evaluated after eight sessions, including the exposure in vivo session. Results showed a decline in anxiety and avoidance on all measures.

    Spider phobia is characterized by persistent fear of spiders, an immediate anxiety response upon exposure to spiders, and avoidance of spiders. Desensitization, a treatment based on gradually and systematically exposing the phobic person to the feared object or situation, and calming them, has proven to be an effective treatment for a wide range of phobias, including fear of spiders (Marks & Gelder, 1965).  Although, one potential advantage of VR over other techniques lies in the greater ability of the patient or therapist to control the feared stimulus. Unlike a real spider, virtual spiders obey commands, can be placed in various positions and orientations by patient or therapist, and can be touched without danger. VR allows the experimenter to control how frightening the spiders appear. A study was conducted where tactile augmentation (Hoffman et al., 1996) was introduced in an attempt to maximize the level of presence achieved and to maximize the transfer of training from VR to the real world. Tactile augmentation is a form of mixed reality where Ss feel position-tracked real objects (with their

hand) that correspond to virtual objects they see in the immersive virtual environment. Over a period of 3 months, 12 weekly sessions were conducted approximately 50 min long. Each session consisted of five, 5-min trials with a 2 or 3-min break between trials. The breaks were incorporated to reduce fatigue and reduce the likelihood of 'simulator sickness', a form of motion sickness sometimes evoked by VR. The S was encouraged to interact with the spider in each situation long enough for her anxiety to decrease to a level where she felt ready to progress to a more frightening situation. After the 12 sessions of VR desensitization treatment, the patient's fear ratings dropped considerably. 

    Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is one of the most disabling psychopathological conditions affecting the veteran population. Weiss et al. (1992) estimated 830,000 veterans suffered from chronic combat-related PTSD. Exposure treatments for PTSD involve repeated reliving of the trauma with the aim of facilitating its processing, a mechanism presumably impaired in victims with chronic PTSD (Foa, Steketee, & Rothbaum, 1989). One of the most common complaints of Vietnam Veterans with PTSD is a strong emotional response to the sound of helicopters. The American Lake VAMC PTSD program used "helicopter ride therapy" for several years as a regular part of their treatment (Fontana, Rosenheck, & Spencer, 1993). More than 400 Vietnam veteran patients had the opportunity to ride in Huey helicopters as part of their treatment. The authors reported that this type of exposure treatment was very helpful to their patients, although no data was reported. However, it is not practical to use actual Huey helicopters for the thousands of veterans with PTSD, and the benefits of standard imaginal exposure in this population are modest, at best. Therefore, virtual reality exposure (VRE) therapy is proposed as a new medium of exposure therapy for veterans with PTSD.

Climate Change and Virtual Reality

    There is an urgent need to mitigate and adapt to climate change but there is an alarming gap between awareness and action on climate change. Phenomenas like climate change, ocean acidification, extinction, and glacier erosion are especially challenging to illustrate, either because they’re happening in slow motion or because they’re evolving in remote places that few people see, or both. Although, there is potential to recognize some quite tangible visual or landscape-related effects of climate change, such as sea-level rise, flooding, or drought. Visual communication has a lot of potential to accelerate social learning and motivate implementation of the substantial policy, technological, and life-style changes. Realistic landscape visualizations can provide special advantages in rapidly advancing peoples’ awareness of climate change and possibly affecting behavior and policy, by bringing possible consequences of climate change home to people in a compelling manner. However, few visualizations addressing climate change have yet been produced or researched. Winn (1997; S.R.J.Sheppard, 2005) has argued that more complex, interactive 3D virtual reality displays may provide qualitatively and quantitatively superior forms of learning on environmental science and global change issues. Daniel and Meitner (2001; S.R.J.Sheppard, 2005) have described several studies which show that visualizations can arouse positive or negative emotional reactions in observers. Cohen (1997; S.R.J.Sheppard, 2005) used GIS and remote sensing imagery with other information to communicate climate change scenarios to Canadian stakeholders, who reported that the scenarios made a difference in their visions of the future and potential interventions in policy debates. Therefore, a virtual reality experience could perhaps promote better understanding of nature and give people empathetic insight into environmental challenges.


    As discussed earlier, climate change, like many large-scale issues, is a dilemma which most people feel is outside of their direct control. However, public inaction and lack of support for certain environmental policies over the long term creates a dangerous disconnect. However, significant research has shown that the introduction of market-ready virtual reality (VR) devices could be important in visualizing for a lay audience the consequences of environmental degradation. This is a topic that’s hard to intuitively grasp for most people because the dangers will only manifest themselves slowly over a period of decades. The characteristics of climate change make it difficult to see directly. Carbon dioxide and even the carbon source itself is effectively invisible. Many environmental issues are complex and difficult to explain fully.  By harnessing the possibilities of virtual reality, environmental advocates can make the subject real to millions of people whose only knowledge of environmental abuses and climate change has hitherto been abstract and theoretical. A hypothetical solution would be to bring home the impacts of future climate change scenarios to people in their back yard or in other meaningful and iconic landscapes: ‘making climate change personal.’ A virtual reality experience where the user would be an endangered species and can see exactly what the oceans and the world would look like in a future affected by climate change. This experience would not just for entertainment but for reflection, critique, provocation, and inspiration. Rather than thinking about architecture, products, and the environment, it starts with laws, ethics, political systems, social beliefs, values, fears, and hopes, and how these can be translated into material expressions, embodied in material culture. 


    The development of VEs in psychology has largely benefited research in the past, though they are being used more frequently now in clinical and other forms of virtual training. In most VEs for clinical psychology, VR is used to simulate the real world and to assure the researcher full control of all the parameters implied. VR constitutes a highly flexible tool, which makes it possible to program an enormous variety of procedures of intervention on psychological distress. A key advantage offered by VR is the possibility for the patient to face a fear or to manage successfully a problematic situation related to his/her disturbance. Thus, the patient is more likely to gain an awareness of his/her need to do something to create change and also to experience a greater sense of personal efficacy. This application of VR in clinical training could be extended in the future, with improvements in the programming of the avatars, such that the simulated avatars can be placed in imaginary situations to witnesses events thousands of miles away. Consequences of environmental change, such as severe flooding and desertification, can be illustrated in a more visceral way by harnessing the growing potential of virtual reality. As the technology improves and the consequences of climate change inaction continue to unfold, VR will become a potent tool in the arsenal of those who wish to highlight the pivotal importance of sustainability, clean energy generation and other Earth-saving tactics.


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