By Sarah C.P. Williams

An excerpt from the article:

Where avatar-based virtual realities are already being put to use is in psychiatric clinics that specialize in the treatment of phobias and anxieties. They use virtual realities to expose people to their fears in a safe manner. Scared of flying? Spend increasing amounts of time on a virtual plane to teach your brain to stay calm in the air.

Deathly afraid of spiders? A virtual room with some small creepy-crawlies might slowly help you become less terrified.

At the Virtual Reality Medical Center in San Diego, these kinds of therapies aren’t just theoretical; they’re carried out on patients every day. Executive director Brenda Wiederhold, also a researcher at UC San Diego, says she’s been using the technology on patients since the mid-1990s. Before that, clinicians working to calm phobias could either ask patients to visualize their fear, or use the real thing. Both have drawbacks, as only about 15 percent of the population is any good at imagining, Wiederhold says. But the virtual realities are incredibly effective.

“Our brain really doesn’t know the difference between reality and a virtual reality in a lot of cases,” she says. “If I expose you to a spider in a virtual setting, your limbic system will light up just as if you see a spider in real life.”

And once again, the participant isn’t always aware of the effect, or even what’s real or not. After experiencing a virtual airplane, Wiederhold says, she’s had patients comment that the smell of coffee as the flight attendant came down the aisle really helped immerse them in the scenario. Only there was no smell of coffee.

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