What is Cybertherapy?
Cybertherapy is a rapidly emerging field that aims to therapeutically combine virtual reality technology with various means of traditional therapy, such as systematic desensitization, in order to help patients make real world improvements in very safe and consequence-free environments.
For example, a person with severe social phobias that are profound enough to prevent him or her from comfortably walking into, say, a crowded hotel lobby, or an airport, could undergo cybertherapy with the assistance of a qualified mental health professional, and the session might go something like this:
An Example of Cybertherapy to Cure Social Phobia
The patient would put on special 3D glasses with small video screens embedded inside them, much like similar glasses now being used in 3D home entertainment systems. These glasses allow their wearer to become totally visually immersed in a virtual world. Whichever way the wearer might turn their head, the video screens inside will show them a seamless and uninterrupted 3D environment. In our example, our socially phobic patient would put on the glasses and find himself right on the outskirts of a large and heavily crowded open-air market, a natural source of great anxiety for him.
Meanwhile, the patient's therapist would be sitting in the therapy room close behind him, guiding and supporting him. The therapist could see exactly what his patient was looking at and seeing thanks to a computer monitor that was simultaneously running the same visual program that was being fed to the patient's 3D glasses. In this case, cybertherapy is all about the patient being able to safely encounter a real-world trigger of distress and anxiety, in a controlled and ultimately safe environment.
First the therapist might talk his patient through being near to this crowded scene, reminding him that nothing bad is going to happen to him and that he's safe to observe the scene from the outskirts until he grows comfortable enough to proceed closer to the heart of the throng.
Why would this be effective? Because the basic underlying principle of cybertherapy is something that has been at the heart of debates centering around the possible effects of virtual reality for a very long time. The fact of the matter is that when people encounter a scene as convincing as those displayed in this cybertherapy session, their bodies and brains undergo the same types of stimulation they would if the situation were actually happening; in effect, the scenes rendered through this virtual reality exercise can truly bring about real emotions and activate psychological complexes.
This basic fact is therapeutically groundbreaking. What seems to be the case from initial testing, is that progress made in a virtual scenario by patients undergoing cybertherapy actually has real world carry-over effects. As the patient in our example edges his way closer and closer to the crowd, maybe over the span of several different sessions and thanks to the help of his therapist's gentle coaxing, the patient will also experience increased confidence and comfort entering crowded places in the real world. While it might be gradual at first, our cybertherapy patient will eventually realize they're half as uncomfortable riding the subway as they used to be.