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Virtual reality helps people to comfort and accept themselves

A - The participant in the virtual reality setup where she sees and talks. B - The virtual crying child that is in a virtual chair that is in the same place in the virtual world as the real chair in the real room. Note that the participant could see her body representation in the mirror to the left, and also could see her virtual body when directly looking towards herself. Here we see the hands. C - The view of the participant giving her compassion intervention, but now seen from within the body of the child. Note the mirror to the right. D - A third person view of the scenario. Credit: Aitor Rovira (UCL Computer Science)

A - The participant in the virtual reality setup where she sees and talks. B - The virtual crying child that is in a virtual chair that is in the same place in the virtual world as the real chair in the real room. Note that the participant could see her body representation in the mirror to the left, and also could see her virtual body when directly looking towards herself. Here we see the hands. C - The view of the participant giving her compassion intervention, but now seen from within the body of the child. Note the mirror to the right. D - A third person view of the scenario. Credit: Aitor Rovira (UCL Computer Science)

13/11/2014

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Self-compassion can be learned using avatars in an immersive virtual reality, finds new research by a team of psychologists and computer scientists from the University of Barcelona (UB), the University College London (UCL) and the University of Derby. This innovative approach reduced self-criticism and increased self-compassion and feelings of contentment in naturally self-critical individuals. The scientists behind the study published in PLOS ONE say it could be applied to treat a range of clinical conditions including depression.

The team of researchers designed a method to improve people’s compassion to themselves, by creating a unique self-to-self situation using avatars and computer gaming technology. Virtual reality has previously been used to treat psychological disorders including phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder but this research focused on a new application for promoting emotional well-being.

 

Compassion from a virtual child perspective

In the study, 43 healthy but self-critical women experienced a life-size virtual body substituting their own, giving a first person perspective of a virtual room through the eyes of the avatar.

The participants were all trained to express compassion towards a distressed virtual child while in their adult virtual body. As they talked to the crying child, it appeared to listen and respond positively to the compassion. After a few minutes, 22 of the participants were then transferred to the virtual child body and from this perspective they saw their original virtual adult body deliver their own compassionate words and gestures to them. The remaining 21 participants observed their original virtual adult body express compassion to the child from a third person perspective. The participants were surveyed for mood, state and personality traits before and after the experiment using verified tests.

Professor Mel Slater, co-director and research professor from the Event Lab at the Faculty of Psychology of the UB and from the Catalan Institution for Research Advanced Studies (ICREA), said: “When you wear a head-mounted display and look down towards yourself and see a virtual body replacing and moving like your own, and also see it in a mirror, this gives a powerful clue to the brain that this is your body. We have shown before that when adults are embodied in a virtual child body that this influences their perceptions of the world and themselves to become child-like. Here they experienced receiving compassion from their adult selves while embodied as a child.”

According to the researcher, “one potential advantage of our procedure over existing methods is that experiencing self-compassion is achieved indirectly. This may assist in overcoming some of the resistance that is thought to arise as a result of individuals feeling undeserving of compassion.”

Dr Caroline Falconer, first author from UCL Clinical Educational & Health Psychology, said: “Women who experienced a first person perspective through the eyes of the virtual child were soothed; they felt safe and content and had increased self-compassion and a lower level of self-criticism. For these women, we created a unique situation where they can have a kind and reassuring word with themselves. In contrast, those who experienced a third person perspective only reported reduced self-criticism, which highlights the benefit of a first person, self-to-self experience in immersive virtual reality when cultivating self-compassion.”

Excessive self-criticism plays a prominent role in the development and persistence of many mental health problems including depression. The scientists say people who are self-compassionate tend to have lower levels of self-criticism and are better able to cope with negative life events because self-compassion acts as a buffer, helping to promote a positive mood and general wellbeing.

Professor Chris Brewin, study lead from UCL Clinical Educational & Health Psychology, said: “We are thrilled to see the immediate benefits the women involved in this one-off session experienced and are now pursuing a more in-depth, clinical study into our method to measure longevity of the positive effects in both healthy and depressed individuals from both sexes. We’re keen to find out if the benefits for women are also seen with men and those suffering from depression. If positive, we hope virtual reality-based therapy will become a viable, low-cost treatment people can use in their own home – something we believe is achievable using commercial gaming technology.”

Professor Paul Gilbert, co-author and expert in compassion focused therapy at the University of Derby, said: “All over the world research is showing that compassion can have major effects on a whole range of psychological and neurophysiological processes. The big challenge is how to help people engage, generate, and experience compassion and for these to be of therapeutic benefit.”

The research was funded by the Medical Research Council and was conducted at the University College London by a research team led by Professor Chris Brewin and Professor Mel Slater. Other team members were Dr Caroline Falconer, Aitor Rovira, Dr John King, Dr Angus Antley, and Professor Paul Gilbert.

 

Implications of virtual embodiment.

The present research is one of the first demonstrations that the technique of virtual embodiment can also be used to inculcate positive emotions that are important for mental health as well as decrease negative emotions.

Recent work from the Event Lab has already shown that these types of body illusions have physiological and psychological consequences: you can feel a virtual arm up to three times the length of a person’s real arm as your own; reductions in implicit racial bias in light-skinned people embodied in a dark-skinned virtual body; and changes in size perception in bodies that look like children.

 

Video:

 

The video illustrates the complete experiment. First, the participant gives comfort to the crying virtual child. We see a stereo view of what the participant sees through the head-mounted display. Then after delivering the compassion, the participant is embodied in the body of the child, and sees her adult delivering the compassion. It can be seen also that occasionally the participants look towards a virtual mirror and see their mirror reflection.

 

Article reference:

C. Falconer, M. Slater, A. Rovira, J. King, P. Gilbert, A. Antley and C. Brewin. “Embodying Compassion: A Virtual Reality Paradigm for Overcoming Excessive Self-Criticism”. PLOS ONE, November 2014.

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