Virtual Reality Goggles for Treating Phobias: A Rumor of Empathy at Psious

Virtual reality (VR) is coming to psychotherapy. Based on a briefing on July 08, 2016, a company named “Psious” provides VR technology. Psious’ collaboration agreement, available temporarily to Chicago-area mental health professionals, includes training for


Virtual Reality Goggles Demoed by an Actor Reacting to a Confronting Situation [Therapist is present by not shown]

the therapist on how to use the VR technology. Online manuals integrating the simulated scenarios provide step-by-step guidance from psychologists on how to help patients shift out of fear, expanding positive responses to a variety of stress-laden situations that people find confronting such as fear of heights, flying in airplanes, insects, and more (to be detailed momentarily).

The one thing that immediately occurred to me: Psychotherapy invokes a virtual reality all its own – even without goggles. This is especially the case with dynamic psychotherapy that activates forms of transference in which one relates to the therapist “as if” in conversation with a past or future person or reality. Indeed, with the exception of being careful not to step in front of a bus while crossing the street on the way to therapy, we are usually over-confident that we know the reality of how our relationships work or what people mean by their communications. This is less the case with certain forms of narrowly focused behavioral therapies, which are nevertheless still more ambiguous than is commonly recognized. Never was it truer that meaning – and fear – are generated in the mind of the beholder.

Positioning an intervention that exploits VR in any psychotherapy clinical practice raises numerous issues that must be engaged, and the economics of virtual reality mean the time is now. Flight simulators in which airplane pilots train still cost millions of dollars. The initial “one off” VR goggles used to cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Psious brings the goggles, plus the necessary software subscription for a compelling price of $1299 a year not including the hardware (Samsung Gear VR goggles and Samsung Galaxy smartphone), the platform on which the software operates). Hardware bought on Amazon for about $700 is discounted to $259 with an annual subscription. The total cost is about $1558 a year for access and ownership of the hardware. At current rates for psychotherapy that is about ten session to break even.

The therapist has a display on his computer of what is being presented in the Goggles to the client. For example, in the scenario in which the patient is dealing with fear of public speaking, one is presented with a “speaker’s eye view” of an audience. Controls allow the therapist to incorporate the patient’s expectations and feedback on what he is ready to confront. The therapist controls different scenarios – a member of the audience gets up and walks out, members of the audience are audibly talking with one another and not listening to the speaker, applause, booing, questions are shouted out (e.g.) “What is the weakness in your proposal?” The list goes on. Close coordination is required between the therapist operating the controls and the subject of the therapy in order for this simulated speaking experience not to become re-traumatizing. Of course, even the latter could become a therapeutic opportunity if the patient is flooded but is enabled to recover his equilibrium thanks to an empowering conversation with the therapist at the moment of the upset.

Modules are currently available for fear of flying, needles, heights, public speaking, animals/insects, driving, claustrophobia, agoraphobia, social anxiety, and generalized anxiety. Given that as soon as one is confronted with fear the intervention also involves imagining or activating a “safe place” from which to function in the face of fear, positive modules are available that provide coaching in breathing exercise, mindfulness, and Jacobsen Relaxation (progressive muscle relaxation).

While the VR technology is innovative and disruptive in many ways, a moment’s reflection suggestion continuity between VR technology and the “virtual reality” of the transference in classic psychodynamic therapy. There is a strong sense in which the conversation between a client and a psychodynamic therapist already engages a virtual reality, even when the only “technology” being used in a conversation is English or other natural language. For example, when Sigmund Freud’s celebrated client, Little Hans, developed a phobia of horses, Freud’s interpretation to Hans’ father was that this symbolized Hans’ fear of his father’s dangerous masculinity in the face of Hans’ unacknowledged competitive hostility towards his much loved father. The open expression of hostility was unacceptable for so many reasons – Hans was dependent on his father to take care of him, Hans loved his father (though he “hated” him, too, in a way as a competitive for his mother’s affection), Hans was afraid of being punished by his father for being naughty – so the hostility was displaced onto a symbolic object. Hans’ symptoms (themselves a kind of indirect, virtual expression of suffering) actually gave Hans power, since the whole family was now literally running around trying to help and consulting The Professor (Freud) about what was going on. In short, the virtual reality made present in the case is that the horse is not only the horse but is a virtual stand-in for the father and aspects of the latter’s powerful masculinity. So add one virtual reality of an imagined symbolic relatedness onto another virtual reality of a simulated visual reality (VR) scenario, the latter contained in a headset and a smart phone.

Psious was founded in 2013 in Barcelona, Spain. It has operations in Barcelona, and is opening a branch in Chicago, which is where I met with Scott Lowe. Psious has about 50 employees worldwide and some 400 clients using the technology in a clinical or closely related setting.

Psious’ claim is that virtual reality based therapy (VRBT) is superior to CBT alone, when the latter uses merely the patient’s imagination [see references to peer-reviewed articles at the end]. For example, if one is so afraid of flying that one is unable to do one’s job because it requires travelling on an airplane for business, one is sitting there in the therapist’s office imagining boarding an airplane and taxiing towards the runway for takeoff. Instead of closing one’s eyes and imaging a trip to the airport, put on the VRBT goggles and find oneself sitting in a seat in coach. For someone seriously stressed by such a situation, the person’s pulse is accelerating, sweat is breaking out, fear is escalating faster than the airplane, and comfort is in free fall until one wants to jump up and run screaming down the aisle and try to open the emergency exit. Not good.

Presumably one would work with the therapist to adjust, adapt, and accommodate to the environment in small steps during which the client’s comfort level is monitored in an on-going conversation with the therapist (and the available biofeedback tool, a galvanic skin sensor). First, are you willing to put on the headset and sit in the airplane seat? Close the cabin door? Taxi towards the runway. Rev up the engines? Start rolling down the runway? Picking up speed? Nose wheel off the ground? Wheels up? Vibration in the cabin as the plane gains altitude? Shaking from side-to-side as the plane ascends through turbulence? Big bump as the plane picks up and enters the jet stream? While the headset provides compelling visual and sound clues, the seat does not vibrate. Still, up until now, if one wanted to confront one’s fear of flying (in an airplane), one had to charter an airplane, time in a flight simulator, or use one’s imagination. It’s a whole new world with Psious.

Let me say up front that I have gone to the demo for the fear of heights, heard the presentation, put on the headset, and I am inclined to say that this technology has legs. At the risk of paradox, virtual reality therapy is the real deal. However, as the Psious people make clear, it is not a replacement for a therapist, it is a tool that can augment the process of confronting and engaging one’s fears under the guidance of a therapist. Why? Because the virtual reality goggles put the client back in a simulated situation that is most calculated to arouse the anxiety that requires treatment. The conventional wisdom is that one cannot overcome one’s fear without engaging with it. However, the engagement must find a stretch to the client’s comfort zone, no matter how narrow, that does not result in retraumatization. In short, the kid gloves are on. The head set should not cause the patient to run screaming from the room as he or she did from the spider or public bathroom. This scenario motivates the need for fine-grained controls as well as training the therapist in how to use them and how to talk the client through an empowering – or at least survivable – experience with the fearful.

The knock against individual dynamic psychotherapy has been that it does not scale. It is highly individual, one size definitely does not fit all, and a third of the population would have to be therapists in order to treat all the members of the armed forces who are suffering from some significant measure of PTSD. If one could define a process that enabled the wounded warrior to bring CBT tips and techniques such as interrupting the pathogenic thought and going to his or her “safe place” while confronting the trauma, perhaps initially in a diminished presentation, then it just might make a scalable difference in treating significant numbers of clients using a method that really works (presumably as opposed to medications with substances that may be addictive).

The fear of horses that manifested itself in Little Hans’ fear of going out onto the street (due, in turn, to fear of encountering a horse) was actual fear. Hans was not faking. He was really terrified. However, his fear was inauthentic in that it masked his unexpressed hostility and ambivalence toward his father and his new baby sister. He was not afraid of horses; he was afraid of being punished for wishing to do away with his new sister. “The stork should take it back.” “Throw it down the drain (that is, the sister).” Remember has was only four years old. However, it is in the nature of an emotion such as fear to glom (“adhere”) onto an available object. This binds the fear to a specific target that may be able to be avoided or otherwise managed in a survival drill rather than have free-floating fear paralyze the entire organism, endangering the survival of the whole. There may even some objects such as spiders, snakes, and thorns that we humans are biologically and evolutionarily predisposed to experience as automatically and inevitably arouse fear. What then of the technology?

The Psious technology is still relevant to address the delta between one’s ordinary uneasiness towards a spider that allows one to take a napkin and remove it from the kitchen and someone else extreme distress that causes them to hyperventilate and, as noted, run screaming from the room. True, they may just have an intensified biological disposition, but they may also be adding expanded meaning based on their individual experience. As far as I can tell, the scenarios are useful in evoking the feared object regardless of the cause, but the therapy still has to intervene with a narrative to shift the fear in the direction of a manageable de-escalation of the fear. Whether the narrative is a CBT one that send the individual to his “safe place by the calming waters” or one that deconstructs the fear as a transference displacement from one’s reaction to one’s father’s scary masculinity, is independent of the technology. It remains a function of the therapeutic intervention.

I am excited by these developments for three reasons. First, the scenarios presented in the goggles are compelling. I have climbed mountains and I regularly fly on airplanes, but I still have a lurking fear of heights. When I put on the goggles and found myself near the glass bottomed sky deck, I was literally unable to step forward over the visual cliff. Amazingly enough, it did not even help when I closed my eyes – since I still vividly imagined being in the scenario. However, taking off the goggles worked just fine in interrupting the process. I do not know if the other scenarios are as compelling. However, I do not have a fear of any of the other things quite as visceral as my fear of heights, or more properly speaking, the visual cliff.

Second and more importantly, this technology may enable individuals who are unable to be helped any other way (“treatment resistant”) to get the treatment they require. We can debate whether or not it is the best treatment; but I am persuaded that if someone is suffering, then a treatment that works is one worth engaging. If a person is so confronted that they are unwilling or unable to imagine a scenario in which they encounter their fear, this technology gives the client an opportunity, with his permission, to puts himself in the fear arousing situation – which, if I am any judge, can be “tuned down” to a significant degree such that a gradual “on ramp” is available to client with the encounter.

Third, some individuals who need help but do not value a conversation for possibility with another person (such as a therapist) may be persuaded to engage by using the goggles as a kind of lever to open up access to their upset. The same people who are fascinated by the technology of the functional magnetic imaging (fMRI) apparatus that shows what area of the brain lights up as they are empathizing with the pain of another will be able to engage in a conversation with the therapist while in the process of using the goggles. Some may say it is a “gimmick”; but I say if this be gimmickry, make the most of it. The provisioning of a virtual reality platform provides an “on ramp” to the virtual reality of a transference conversation in which displacement, symbolization, and interpretation can be marshaled above and beyond the VR scenarios.

Frankly, the most engaging scenario is one that Psious does not have available as this is published in July 2016. As the result of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US and its allies have many veterans suffering from diverse forms of post traumatic stress disorder. Worse yet, the diagnosis of PTSD does not even encompass the forms of moral trauma (see further the work of John Mundt, Ph.D., Jesse Brown, VA Center, Chicago) from which many service men and women are suffering. For example, In Iraq a car with four occupants is speeding towards a check point containing multiple passage, ignoring warnings to stop, zig sagging around the barriers. A suicide bomber? The sergeant orders the gunner to fire. The family was rushing to the hospital with a pregnant woman giving birth. One of the now orphaned children survives. The gunner cannot forgive himself, but this does not qualify as PTSD under current rules unless all the criteria are satisfied. The VR technology offers rich possibilities for reenacting the scenario with diverse outcomes, enabling an empowering conversation about what the soldier experienced, what it meant to him, and how to work through his suffering and guilt. Note at this point this is all “brain storming” and “blue sky,” but the possibilities are significant and deserve the urgent attention of software innovators, Veteran Affairs decision makers, politicians, psychotherapists, and survivors alike.

Issues include whether in what sense the hardware is a medical device. What sense, if any, does it make to certify it as health insurance compliant?  The reason for the edgy subtitle “A Rumor of Empathy at Psious” is not that there is any doubt about the empathy of the people at Psious. In addition to being empathic, they are dedicated, hard working, and innovative in their commitment to alleviating human suffering. The rumor of empathy at Psious is no rumor – empathy LIVES in the work being done at Psious. However, as usual the devil is in the details. There are so many rules and regulations around health care that I am not even clear that I know how to ask the right questions. Does a therapist using this device as an adjunct or augmenter to CBT or dynamic psychotherapy need to call it out in her or his coding of the insurance claim, and what sense would it make to try to do so? Presumably Psious will be engaging with these issues over the next year.

References: A selection of publications:

Chapman, L. K., & DeLapp, R. C. (2013). Nine session treatment of a blood–injection–injury phobia with manualized cognitive behavioural therapy: An adult case example. Clinical Case Studies. Retrieved October 26, 2014, from

Wiederhold, B.K., Mendoza, M., Nakatani, T. Bulinger, A.H. & Wiederhold, M.D. (2005). VR for blood-injection-injury phobia. Annual Review of CyberTherapy and Telemedicine, 3, 109-116.

Botella, C., Osma, J., García-Palacios, A., Quero, S. & Baños, R.M. (2004). Treatment of Flying Phobia using Virtual Reality: Data from a 1-Year Follow-up using a Multiple Baseline Design. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 11(5), 311-323.

Da Costa, R.T., Sardinha, A. & Nardi, A.E. (2008). Virtual reality exposure in the treatment of fear of flying. Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine, 79(9), 899-903.

Wallach, H.S. & Bar-Zvi, M. (2007). Virtual-reality-assisted treatment of flight phobia. Israel Journal of Psychiatry and Related Sciences, 44(1), 29-32.

Emmelkamp, P., Krijn, M., Hulsbosch, A. M., De Vries, S., Schuemie, M. J. & Van der Mast, C. (2002). Virtual reality treatment versus exposure in vivo: A comparative evaluation in acrophobia. Behaviour Research and Therapy. Vol. 40, 509-516.

Botella, C., García-Palacios, A., Villa, H., Baños, R., Quero, S., Alcañiz, M., & Riva, G. (n.d.). Virtual Reality Exposure In The Treatment Of Panic Disorder And Agoraphobia: A Controlled Study. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 164-175.

Cárdenas, G., Muñoz, S., González, M., & Uribarren, G. (n.d.). Virtual Reality Applications to Agoraphobia: A Protocol. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 248-250.
J., C. (n.d.). A Randomized Controlled Study of Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy and Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy in Panic Disorder with Agoraphobia. Frontiers in Neuroengineering.

Anderson, P.L., Price, M., Edwards, S.M., Obasaju, M.A., Mayowa, A., Schmertz, S.K., Zimand, E. & Calamaras, M.R. (2013). Virtual reality exposure therapy for social anxiety disorder: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 81(5), 751.760.

Moldovan, R. & David, D. (2014). One session treatment of cognitive and behavioral therapy and virtual reality for social and specific phobias. Preliminary results from a randomized clinical trial. Journal of Evidence-Based Psychotherapies, 14(1), 67-83.

Safir, M.P., Wallach, H.S. & Bar-Zvi, M. (2012). Virtual reality cognitive-behavior therapy for public speaking anxiety: One-year follow-Up. Behavior Modification, 36(2), 235-246.

Da Costa, R.T., de Carvalho, M.R. & Nardi, A.E. (2010). Virtual reality exposure therapy in the treatment of driving phobia. Psicologia: Teoria e Pesquisa, 26(1), 131-137.

Wald, J. & Taylor, S. (2000). Efficacy of virtual reality exposure therapy to treat driving phobia: A case study. Journal of Behaviour Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 31(3-4), 249-257.

Wald, J. & Taylor, S. (2003). Preliminary research on the efficacy of virtual reality exposure therapy to treat driving phobia. CyberPsychology & Behaviour, 6(5), 459-465.

Wald, J. (2004). Efficacy of virtual reality exposure therapy for driving phobia: A multiple baseline across-subjects design. Behaviour Therapy, 35(3), 621-635.

Botella, C.M., Juan, M.C., Baños, R.M., Alcañiz, M., Guillén, V. y Rey, B. (2005) Mixing Realities? An Application of Augmented Reality for the Treatment of Cockroach Phobia. Cyberpsychology and Behaviour, 8(2), 162-171.

Spira, J.L., Pyne, J.M., Wiederhold, B., Wiederhold, M., Graap, K. & Rizzo, A. (2006). Virtual reality and other experiential therapies for combat-related posttraumatic stress disorder. Primary Psychiatry, 13(3), 58-64.

(c) Lou Agosta, PhD

Categories: anxiety disorders, Emotions, empathic interpretation, empathic receptivity, Empathy, empathy psychotherapy, Phobia

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