Our digital, two-dimensional lives leave little room for focus. Our eyes dart from screen to screen throughout the day as notifications and messages divert our attention from tasks, from relaxation, from the faces of our loved ones. For all its flatness, our digital lives are dominated by distractions – so much so that sometimes we forget to breathe.
Finding lasting inner peace from this flattened world can be a neurological nightmare. Mindfulness and meditation apps, the answer to digital health for the past decade, use many of the same engagement methods that have driven other consumer applications such as games and fitness apps to success. Strategies such as performance and social connectivity have kept many users coming back to participate evidence-based, clinically effective therapies. But even the most effective and engaging mindfulness apps can’t transcend the noise and distractions of our daily lives.
At the end of the day, these digital therapies exist on a flat screen, tucked away with the rest of our apps. They complement our experience. Even when we use them, our brains remain overwhelmed by the deluge of stimuli that surround us – lights, sounds, push notifications, the things we touch, the things we hear.
We can improve our relationship with technology beyond these two-dimensional experiences. There are neurological benefits to participating in an immersive, multisensory environment where experiences can be controlled, where stimuli can be regulated, eliminated or populated with real or simulated people. In these environments, there is no competition for attention. The simulation can be used to calm down in a controlled way or even consciously induce fear and stress. VR is a unique medium that can transcend the overwhelming hustle and bustle of the digital age, if we use it for good.
Within the ongoing metaverse, there is the potential to not only free ourselves from the distractions that surround us, but also the opportunity to create immersive and engaging therapeutic experiences that help us process the fear, anxiety, and pain we feel in the real world. unload.
A replacement for our sensory experiences
In his book Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Anxiety and Anxiety, Joseph E. LeDoux describes a common experience where the fight-or-flight response is activated. Imagine walking through an autumn forest and out of the corner of your eye you see something long and curved, curled up among some fallen leaves. Your instinct is to freeze as your vision sends the signals to your amygdala, which senses a potential threat and triggers your fight-or-flight response, just milliseconds before that information is sent to your prefrontal cortex to be further evaluated. In the blink of an eye, you’ve determined that the object is a stick and not a snake – and now that you’ve ruled out the threat, you can relax and continue on your way.
Involuntary neurological processes like these are the primitive survival responses that have allowed our species to thrive, but for many, our responses to these triggers need to be honed. To do that, the intervention must take place at both the preconscious and conscious levels. Virtual reality can do this by placing users in controlled environments that replace their sensory input and stimulate different emotional and physiological states.
The clinical potential of immersive virtual environments is not a recent discovery. Medical researchers and innovators have been building VR programs for years that deliver evidence-based treatments such as exposure therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, and pain management. But one of the key features of virtual reality — so fundamental that it’s often overlooked — is its tendency to completely command the user’s attention.
For people who struggle with mental and behavioral disorders such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, and substance use disorders, VR can provide a welcome break from reality and provide a safe, simulated space where the source of distress can be better understood and addressed. For people struggling with chronic pain, where the neurological interplay between physical and emotional pain can be so overwhelming that it leads to more stress, anxiety and depression – VR can provide physiological respite through stimulating the areas of the brain charged with processing pain and blocking pain signals.
Despite all the benefits VR brings as a medium, healthcare will not fully realize the potential of VR unless it provides awe-inspiring, effective and attention-competitive experiences to the ongoing metaverse, where a growing number of consumers are already engaged, playing and seeking help.
Play with your medicine
Modern medicine has an engagement problem. It was one of my biggest frustrations during my time as Chief Technology Officer at Humana. Time and again, I’ve seen healthcare consumers completely withdraw from their treatments, despite knowing their quality of life was at stake. This never made sense to me: Healthcare innovators routinely develop safe and effective technology-enabled innovations, but it seems healthcare consumers aren’t using them long enough to be effective.
As humans, our social networks — the people we want to surround ourselves with, not necessarily just online — play a critical role in our mental health. The social relationships we form and maintain determine our behavior, our access to material resources, our involvement in social activities. Medicine has failed to cling to many of these fundamental levers of mental health. Despite research demonstrating the importance of involving social support in behavioral health treatments, care is too often something that we experience independently. Modern medicine is lonely. We can change that in the metaverse.
Virtual reality can be a powerful therapeutic tool in its own right, but digital therapy delivered in an ongoing metaverse — where communities are connected and engaged — can make it even more compelling and engaging.
For example, a virtual reality therapy for substance use disorders can be delivered independently of the metaverse in an institutional medical setting. The user may be completely isolated and disconnected from others during the VR experience, but the treatment itself can still be clinically effective. Now imagine that same digital therapy delivered in the metaverse and anchored in the methods of engagement that make it engaging: a persistent virtual world, interactions with meaningful and personalized spaces, a digital identity as anonymized (or not) as you want. , and a community of people with similar experiences.
Building such experiences takes time and requires a concerted effort between healthcare and the gaming industry to keep it safe. But the potential is too powerful and possible to ignore. Such digital therapies will maintain their clinical efficacy and be enjoyable and repeatable experiences. People should want to return again and again.
In the metaverse lies an opportunity for healthcare to reverse the script of the engagement dilemma, to make healing experiences as engaging as they are powerful by bringing them into virtual spaces – spaces where more and more consumers are engaged, playing and seeking help every day. . The idea of a multisensory immersive digital experience is powerful. We can use that power to eliminate distractions, stimulate healing experiences, and dissolve the fear and pain we feel in the real world.
Aaron Gani is the CEO and founder of braVRa VR company for digital wellness and digital therapies.