Your Mind – The Ultimate Virtual Reality

Recently, psychiatrists at the University of Oxford helped 100 patients with a fear of heights overcome their phobia through virtual reality programs. Even though most patients had suffered from a fear of heights for decades, the study showed it only took four weeks of treatment (an average of 124 minutes) of this unique VR experience to reduce their fear by an average of 68 percent, and in some cases as much as 75 percent. 

The Oxford study is only one of many VR projects demonstrating the treatment potential of immersing people in situations where they gradually face their emotional challenges in a safe environment. Virtual Iraq showed it could reduce PTSD symptoms by as much as 50 percent, while a VR game called Sparx is helping adolescents tackle depression by allowing them to combat “literal” negative thoughts and learn techniques to manage their distress. 

In each of these instances and more, VR is helping patients reprogram their minds by reliving a traumatic situation through a simulation, and then rewriting how they relate to it. As neuroscientists at Northwestern University demonstrated, the expulsion of fear depends on reactivating the neurons that contain it because each time we remember something we are partially reconstructing the memory. By activating the neurons associated with a type of memory a window is opened in which thoughts can be changed and deliberately rewritten to alleviate the triggers that cause negative emotions and fears to come into form. 

Called memory reconsolidation, the idea is that when you call up a memory, it forces the brain to store it anew, which means the mind is in a mutable state at that time. This explains the malleable nature of memory and validates how neuro-linguistic programming and other hypnosis techniques can be so effective at lessening the traumatic impact of some memories and fears. These tools add new information to our recollections or cause us to put them in a different context, thus allowing the brain to revise the memory before it is encoded again. 

Researchers at the University of Cambridge took memory reconsolidation one step further and showed that negative associations with memories could be altered by merely providing a reward (in this case monetary) whenever the brain pattern of specific fear memory was detected in an MRI machine and artificial intelligence algorithms. Their work revealed that even when we are not consciously thinking about a negative emotion, fear or memory, the brain pattern is still firing subconsciously. That ability to notice and then counteract it helps patients reduce the emotional charge of their fear memory faster. 

All of this research and more points to the growing understanding that memory operates somewhat like a game of telephone. Each time the memory is recalled, the brain rewrites it. So the next time it is called up, it’s not the original memory floating into our minds, but the modified version from the last time we thought about it. This is why the passage of time alone can be helpful in reducing the negative emotions around a particular memory. Each time you recall it, you are thinking about it in a slightly different manner, as a slightly different person with new insights. 

But you don’t need AI, an MRI machine or even a VR headset to make use of the mind’s ability to rewrite memories each time we recall them. Your mind itself is the original and ultimate virtual reality simulator. 

This is why visualizing an activity before you do it (the age-old technique of athletes and performers) has been proven effective by research. Whether it’s physical activity or a mental projection, the mind doesn’t care. It encodes the new memory or learning the same way, making the body more effective at performing the activity in reality. 

However, visualization only involves one aspect of your virtual mind, what you see. To access the true VR capabilities of your brain and deprogram your fears and painful memories, I recommend you virtualize. This includes bringing all of your senses into the experience: sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, and feeling. By putting each sense to work, you can recreate an entirely new virtual environment, as personal and tailored as you want or need because you are in total control of it. 

The practice of virtualization is the act of playing an immersive movie in your head of the way you would prefer things go, rather than how you usually experience them in reality. If fear begins to bubble up to the surface in this experience, that’s a good thing, as it indicates the mind believes the virtualization is real. Since you are a conscious programmer of the experience, you can bring in new aspects to the movie that can help you feel safer in the situation. If fear or negative emotions persist, all you need to do is keep changing the movie until the feelings dissipate. 

Regardless of how powerful or impotent you feel you are in the virtualization, the brain will still record a memory of the virtual movie. Each time you recall it, your emotional challenge will be less — both in your mental simulation and also the next time you are presented with the situation in real life – just as with a VR program. 

For example, if you want to get over a fear of heights, you can virtualize yourself standing on the edge of a cliff without fear. Fully immerse yourself in all of the senses of feeling completely comfortable on the cliff. If the fear bubbles up, you might imagine yourself strapped to a boulder so you cannot fall. If that doesn’t reduce the anxiety, perhaps you then virtualize your feet locked into the ground, so there’s no possibility of you moving. Once you can feel the safety of a fearful situation, your brain can encode it as safe, so that the next time you find yourself high above ground, this new memory (created in virtual) will be recalled, thus reducing your fear of heights and giving your mind a new, concrete experience to encode. The repetition of this over time will eventually lessen the anxiety and transform these memories into ones that are less painful for you. 

While it’s easy to think of VR technology coming to our collective rescue by helping us reprogram our minds around negative emotions, it is advisable to avoid using it as a crutch. A VR programmer or neuroscientist can never fully understand the depth and breadth of our painful memories to the extent needed to write VR programs that could help each of us individually. It just isn’t cost effective to tailor programs for each patient. Nor do they need to. We each have the perfect tool for the job right in our own heads! 

That’s one of the hidden powers of imagination: to help us think differently about how we emotionally react to our past experiences and reduce the pain we feel. But it’s up to us to be our own programmers. No one else can do it as well as we can, because no one knows our emotional pain as personally as we do. 

This week, select a fear or negative emotion that has plagued you over the years and commit to practicing virtualization on it each day. By just spending a few minutes in your personalized virtual world, you may find that by the end of the week, your negative emotions are reduced, and any triggering stimuli in real life are less effective at inducing a fearful or emotional response.

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” ― Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night 

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