The Power of Cybertherapy
When he tried to give a speech in the controlled experiment, he had the same feelings, but he quickly realized that something was different. For the first time he realized that the people from the audience do not really care about him, in the sense that they do not eagerly wait for him to make a mistake in order to laugh. He finished his speech, and then he removed his helmet. You see, the audience was represented by virtual people, which have him the impression that he was speaking in front of an audience. He said that the possibility of facing your worst fears, knowing that nothing can happen to you if you do it, is incredible. The experiment is gradual, and you can really sense the difference. This is not the first case when virtual imaging has been used in order to help people get rid of their phobias.
This method has been used for more than ten years, the major difference being that the technology was inferior to the one which exists today. Thanks to the evolution of technology, people are able to interact with virtual people, just as they would interact with real ones. They can choose their own avatar, which makes the situation much more real. The scenarios which the researchers can create are amazing. For example the virtual people might tempt one to do all sorts of things, from taking drugs, to consuming alcohol. The main task of these methods is to give you the opportunity of facing your fears, without being able to be hurt by them. The people who suffer from social anxiety are often asked questions by the virtual people, and the situation is a little bit tense at the beginning, until they realize that the avatars are not real. The researchers are there to help the people when they are in need, or when they must make a very tough decision.
Similar experiments were done in the past, and it has been proven that they are very effective for the people who suffer from certain phobias. What they learn during these experiments can be observed in the real life. This process is called cybertherapy, and it is becoming one of the most popular types of therapy. Millions of dollars have been invested in it by the Canadian and the U.S Army, as they want to make sure that their soldiers are fully prepared for battle, or that their post-traumatic stress disorder will be cured. Numerous conferences regarding the cybertherapy are held each year, and thousands of psychologists attend these meetings in order to learn more about them. Of course, this approach is not loved by everyone, as there are many people who consider it to be useless. Jaron Lanier, who is a computer scientist, stated that since this approach uses the computer, there is always the possibility that it will stop working in the proper manner and because of that; the patient might have to suffer. He is convinced that the patient is not cured through the cybertherapy, and that after a while he will start behaving like prior to the therapy.
Albert Rizzo, a psychologist at the University of Southern California, stated that in most of the cases the only psychologists who use these methods are the ones who do not have very great skills. They use these methods in order to be able to solve the problem of the patients, and in most of the cases it does not work. The University of Southern California uses this method as well, as it has a virtual woman who interacts with the volunteers. Her name is Angelina, she is 30, and she has a normal appearance. The researchers synchronize her eyes and her expressions to what she says. She is the one who asks the students questions, as she plays the role of the psychologist. The students answer her questions, because they find it much easier to talk to a computer than it is to talk with a real person. They have the feeling that they can speak freely, and that Angelina will not judge them for what they say. However, it can be obviously seen that Angelina is not real, and maybe this is the main reason why the students feel that they confide in her.
A study has been made regarding her effectiveness, and it has been discovered that the people who suffer from social anxiety are willing to reveal more information about them then they are when they talk with a regular person. Talking is very difficult for a person who suffers from social anxiety, but it seems that they do not have this problem with Angelina. SimCoach has been developed thanks to Angela, and it will be used in the army in order to analyze the mental situation of the soldiers. He can look in different ways; he can be young, old, male, female, and of any race. He would ask the soldiers about the problems they might have, looking for signs of post traumatic stress disorders, and other disorders as well. Jonathan Gratch, who is a co-author of the Angelina study with Sin-Hwa Kang, stated that SimCoach can not give a diagnosis, but it can ask the soldiers certain questions which might reveal more about them.
The benefit of this technology is the fact that the psychologists can use it in order to create certain situations. For example they might simulate the horrors which the soldiers might encounter in the warzone, which means that they might be prepared for it by the time they arrive there. The psychologists can do this in real life, but they have to ask their patients to imagine the scenario, which is not very effective; or at least not as effective as the virtual simulation. However, the method can be used in real life as well. For example a person who is afraid of spiders might be gradually introduced to them. For the beginning the psychologist might bring one in the room, and with each session it will place it closer to them. The situation can be achieved through cybertherapy, the main difference being the fact that the patients are more comfortable with it.
There are many patients who have stated that the cybertherapy has been more effective for them than the real one. They have been engaged in numerous scenarios, which even if seemed to be dangerous weren’t, and they knew that. The same can be said about the people who suffer from social anxiety, as they might be placed in certain uncomfortable situations, such as talking to a stranger. Stéphane Bouchard, who directs the cybertherapy program at the University of Quebec in Ottawa, stated that the situation is very tense in the case of the people who suffer from social anxiety. These people feel that they are being judged even when someone simply looks at them for a few seconds. The researchers did an experiment, in which they split the volunteers who suffered from social anxiety into two groups: one of them did regular therapy, whereas the other one did cybertherapy. At the end of the experiment it was discovered that the ones who did cybertherapy were much better than the ones who did the regular therapy.
The reason for that was the fact that even if they had to interact with the avatars, they knew that they would not hurt them. The volunteers were also fascinated by their virtual image as well. The avatar moves exactly in the same manner as the real person, and that is very important. The person identifies with his avatar, and if the researchers can modify something about the avatar, the people will use this change in the regular world. For example if the avatar will have a feeling of confidence, the person will behave with more confidence in the real life as well. Jeremy Bailenson, who is the director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford, analyzed this in an experiment. There were 50 students, and each of them had to choose an avatar, and then they were asked to interact with each other. What the students did not know, was the fact that the researchers manipulated their appearance. Some of them were with muscle, whereas some were fat; some were tall, other short, and so on. They discovered that the people, who were affected by their physical traits in the virtual world, were more likely to be affected in the real life as well. The technology is amazing, but it needs a little more tweaking, until it will be completely finalized.11