Here's How VR is Being Used to Treat Severe Paranoia

By Aatif Sulleyman on at

Who knew that strapping a chunky headset to someone’s face and transporting them into an unsettlingly real-feeling virtual scenario would prove a great way to tackle severe paranoia? A bunch of brainy researchers at the University of Oxford that can see beyond gaming is who.

They’ve found that VR simulations of potentially uncomfortable social situations can reduce paranoid delusions. In a recent study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, 30 patients were taken into a VR Underground train carriage and lift.

One group was told to act as they typically would, avoiding eye contact and behaving in a defensive manner, while the patients in the other group were instructed to try to learn that they were in a safe environment by approaching the virtual characters, standing toe-to-toe with them or -- rather creepily -- staring at them.

The patients in the second group showed the biggest reduction in paranoid delusions, with over half of the test sample saying they no longer had severe paranoia by the end of the study. However, a small improvement was also recorded in the first group.

“At the heart of paranoia is the unfounded belief that people are under threat,” said Professor Daniel Freeman, a clinical psychologist at Oxford University's Department of Psychiatry, who led the research. "With virtual reality we can help the person to re-learn that they are safe, and when they do that, the paranoia melts away.

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"I think this a glimpse into the future of mental healthcare. There is a revolution underway in virtual reality with many headsets becoming available. As these become more affordable we will see them used not just in clinical settings, but in people's homes."

Though the study sample was only small and the VR sessions haven't been followed up, Freeman's really take with the findings, describing them as "exceptionally good." [BBC]