The inclusion of virtual reality (VR) in psychology enables individuals to develop and improve their cognitive capabilities by aiding learning and memorization, pain management and travel sickness treatment.
A person's capacity to consciously carry out intellect-driven tasks such as thinking, remembering, reasoning and taking actions is classified under an umbrella term known as cognitive abilities. In mental health parlance, an individual suffers cognitive impairment if they lose their ability to perform such tasks. Cognitive psychology is the field that involves mental health experts studying a patient's memory, attention, language usage, perceptive ability, decision-making ability, reasoning, pain tolerance and problem-solving ability. Understanding these aspects about an individual is challenging for psychologists for a variety of reasons—namely, the sheer complexity of the human psyche and the variations in different patients reacting to different scenarios. Developing new cognitive capabilities in individuals is harder still due to similar reasons. Such issues can be resolved with the application of VR in psychology.
Already, there are several ways in which VR-based simulations disrupt modern healthcare and pharmacy. For example, healthcare experts can use simulations for visualizing and conducting complex invasive surgeries through surgical robots. Also, VR is also useful in assessing the efficacy of new medicines or vaccines in patients via lifelike simulations of how they enter the bloodstream. Similarly, the involvement of VR in psychology enables mental health experts, physicians, trainers or teachers to use computer-generated simulations to help their patients, students and trainees in myriad ways.
The sensation of pain is felt when certain nerves called nociceptors to transmit "pain signals"— information about tissue damage—to the brain along the spinal cord. For instance, if somebody accidentally or knowingly touches a cactus, the nociceptors near the point of contact will send a signal to the brain via the reflex arc in the spinal column. This signal often triggers a fast, involuntary reflex reaction of pulling one’s hand away. As you can see, in such scenarios, it is easier for an individual to “get away” from the source of pain. Naturally, internal or chronic pain is much harder to ignore for individuals. Patients suffering from internal fractures or migraine attacks suffer hours of agonizing pain and discomfort due to their medical condition.
A section of psychologists classifies VR as a "non-pharmacological analgesic," which means that it can be categorized as a painkiller despite not being a pharma product. So, how does VR ease the pain in suffering patients? Firstly, doctors can employ VR to create photorealistic simulations for their patients. Such hyper-immersive simulations capture an individual's visual and aural senses and block pain signals from reaching their brain. In a way, one can liken this process to hypnotizing patients to ease their pain sensations.
As you may know, VR simulations can cause disorientation if used for longer periods. As a result, people lose track of how much time has passed, their location and sense of direction if they spend several hours in a VR simulation. Doctors utilize this disorientation to take patients' minds off their pain momentarily. Certain VR systems also contain tactile and sensory feedback to immerse a patient even more in a make-believe simulation. In some ways, VR-based pain management can be compared to people escaping from real-life trials and tribulations when they watch an incredibly well-made movie, listen to a moving piece of music or read a great book.
However, using VR in psychology for pain management has its limitations. It is only seemingly effective for pain that is not chronic. Therefore, while VR can be a reasonably good substitute for analgesics in patients suffering from short-term, acute pain, it will take a few years for the same to be said about chronic, recurring pain and conditions in patients. Currently, researchers in think tanks and innovation centers such as Pain Studies Lab continue to find new solutions to manage pain in patients with the help of VR, wearable health trackers and other tools and applications.
Cognitive psychology is not exclusive to just psychiatric wards, big pharma and hospitals. As implied earlier, the field deals with how people learn new things. Learning and understanding concepts from life experiences shape an individual’s cognitive capabilities. Apart from absorbing knowledge, a learner’s memory and content retention also form a principal cognitive component. And when it comes to learning and exploration, the scope of VR in psychology and cognitive development is essentially limitless. Therefore, reputed schools and institutions such as the Washington Leadership Academy actively involve VR in many of their teaching sessions. VR allows learners to visualize the dour theory found in books. VR-powered simulations enable students to grasp bookish concepts more effectively. For example, even the most attractively illustrated chemistry textbooks cannot provide accurate illustrations of chemical compounds. VR simulations, on the other hand, allow students to visualize the 3D chemical structures and bonds in complex compounds. Students can accurately understand chemical reactions and how electrons and energy are shared in high-intensity chemical reactions. Apart from visualizing textbooks, VR also enables learners of all ages to virtually revisit historical locations on Earth or in space to study history, geography or planetary sciences. For example, students can get a measure of the size of planets in the solar system and the vast distances between them that the best encyclopedias wouldn't be able to demonstrate. VR is also a handy technology to study the human anatomy and real-time working using photorealistic simulations. Medical students can learn the intricate details of the different types of skin layers, bones, glands, organs and joints and how all the different bodily systems work in perfect harmony relentlessly. An anatomical simulation also will shed light on how quickly impulses travel through the human body. Learning and education do not stop in a school or college classroom premises. So, the use of VR in psychology also extends to safety training at the workplace, simulation-based operational training for workers in organizations and other types of training. One must not forget that, apart from learning, retaining the gained knowledge is also a major aspect of one’s cognitive capabilities. Several research studies have found that VR makes it easier for people to remember what they’ve learned even in the distant past. Generally, VR creates extremely clear simulations used by students, researchers and learners to understand theoretical concepts. Such simulations leave an everlasting mental imprint on the minds of learners. People tend to recall the ideas and events that they see and hear in VR. Thus, they can recall concepts and knowledge gained through attractive 3D simulations when the use of VR in psychology is carried out for learning or training purposes.
A simple VR headset can allow users to overcome their greatest fears. For example, if a person is extremely scared of great heights or depths, being virtually engulfed in such a scenario can help reduce the fear factor to some extent in such individuals. One of the main facts about fear is that if an individual comes across it several times, they will eventually stop being afraid of it. If children or adults who are scared of cockroaches end up sharing a room with them—virtually, with a headset—they will, sooner or later, not find them as intimidating or scary anymore, even in real life. VR helps people overcome their phobias simply by presenting their biggest fear to them multiple times so that they can eventually overcome them. The usage of VR to deal with phobias is still an idea largely in its infancy stage. With further developments in the quality of VR tools and simulations, the technology promises to improve cognitive psychology greatly in the future. People generally associate the term psychology with a mental asylum or a session with a local psychiatrist. While this may be true to some extent, it shows a very limited understanding of a field as vast and diverse as cognitive psychology. Quite simply, cognitive psychology encompasses every conscious action taken by an individual, along with their experiences, thoughts and ideas. The cognitive psychology of all human beings is dictated by what they view, touch, taste, hear or smell throughout their lifetime. VR enables tech handlers to manipulate or alter the reality of visuals, touch and audio with simulations. Therefore, using VR in psychology allows doctors, trainers and teachers to improve the cognitive abilities of individuals. Due to these and several other reasons, the involvement of VR in psychology is an effective way to develop people’s cognitive capabilities.
Naveen is the Founder and CEO of Allerin, a software solutions provider that delivers innovative and agile solutions that enable to automate, inspire and impress. He is a seasoned professional with more than 20 years of experience, with extensive experience in customizing open source products for cost optimizations of large scale IT deployment. He is currently working on Internet of Things solutions with Big Data Analytics. Naveen completed his programming qualifications in various Indian institutes.