UK researchers have recently used virtual reality (VR) to check if people had paranoid thoughts when using public transportation. Their VR tube ride experiment revealed that 40% of the participants experienced exaggerated fears about threats from others. Until now, researchers were relying on somewhat unreliable questionnaires to study paranoid thoughts which are often triggered by ambiguous events such as someone laughing behind their back. With the use of VR, psychiatrists and psychologists have a new tool which can reliably recreates social interactions. As said the lead researcher, VR 'is a uniquely powerful method to detect those liable to misinterpret other people.' But read more...
You can see above several "computer people (avatars) on a simulated underground train. The virtual reality simulation was used to measure levels of paranoid thoughts." (Credit: Institute of Psychiatry news, King's College London). Here is a link to a slightly larger version of this picture.
You can see above another VR image of the same simulation: but where is the enemy? (Credit: Institute of Psychiatry news, King's College London). Here is a link to a slightly larger version of this picture.
This project has been led by Dr Daniel Freeman, a Wellcome Trust Fellow who also is a Senior Lecturer in Clinical Psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London. This present research project has been funded by the Wellcome Trust.
Here is a link to "Studying paranoia," a Wellcome Trust news release. From this link, you'll be able to see a short video of Dr Freeman talking about his research. "The film shows one of the researchers experiencing the virtual reality journey, and features some of the virtual Tube ride footage itself." Here is a direct link to this movie.
Now, what are paranoid thoughts and why VR can help to detect them? Here is Freeman's answer. "Paranoid thoughts are often triggered by ambiguous events such as people looking in one’s direction or hearing laughter in a room but it is very difficult to recreate such social interactions. Virtual reality allows us to do just that, to look at how different people interpret exactly the same social situation. It is a uniquely powerful method to detect those liable to misinterpret other people."
You might want to know how was the experiment conducted. "Wearing virtual reality headsets, 200 volunteers broadly representative of the general population walked around a virtual London underground carriage in a four-minute journey between station stops. The carriage contained neutral computer people (avatars) that breathed, looked around, and sometimes met the gaze of the participants. One avatar read a newspaper, another would occasionally smile if looked at. A soundtrack of a train carriage was played. Dr Freeman and colleagues found that the participants interpreted the same computer characters very differently. The most common reaction was to find the virtual reality characters friendly or neutral, but almost 40% of the participants experienced at least one paranoid thought."
Here are some comments from the participants in this VR experiment. One says "There was a guy spooking me out -- tried to get away from him. Didn't like his face. I'm sure he looked at me more than a couple of times though might be imagining it." Another one says "There's something dodgy about one guy. Like he was about to do something -- assault someone, plant a bomb, say something not nice to me, be aggressive."
Of course, the participants in this experiment were exposed to a simulation of public transportation, where people can sometimes be reminiscent of previous terrorist attacks in major cities. So it's not completely surprising that they are sometimes afraid by other passengers' behavior.
For more information about this research project, the latest results have been published in Schizophrenia Bulletin, one of the medical Oxford Journals. The article, "Studying and Treating Schizophrenia Using Virtual Reality: A New Paradigm," has been published as an advanced online open access article on March 28, 2008. Here is one excerpt of the abstract about the use of VR. "The use of virtual reality (VR) -- interactive immersive computer environments -- allows one of the key variables in understanding psychosis, social environments, to be controlled, providing exciting applications to research and treatment. Seven applications of virtual social environments to schizophrenia are set out: symptom assessment, identification of symptom markers, establishment of predictive factors, tests of putative causal factors, investigation of the differential prediction of symptoms, determination of toxic elements in the environment, and development of treatment. The initial VR studies of persecutory ideation, which illustrate the ascription of personalities and mental states to virtual people, are highlighted. VR, suitably applied, holds great promise in furthering the understanding and treatment of psychosis."
If you want to read more, Schizophrenia Bulletin allows a free acces to both the HTML version and to the PDF version (6 pages, 161 KB) of the full article.
Finally, I want to add that Freeman is one of the co-authors of a book named "Overcoming Paranoid and Suspicious Thoughts" (Robinson Publishing, June 2006). [Note: You can buy it from Amazon UK for £6.49.] The writers built a site around this book, paranoid thoughts. And if you don't know how common are paranoid thoughts, here is an answer. "In one recent survey, 70% of people said that they had, at some time, experienced the feeling that people were deliberately trying to harm or upset them in some way."
Sources: Institute of Psychiatry news, King's College London, April 1, 2008; and various websites
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