In A Nutshell
Study of addiction has shown that environmental cues can cause a physiological desire in addicts. Being in a bar can create the need to drink in an alcoholic, for example. This is known as cue reactivity. In order to teach addicts to control these reactions, doctors have created virtual reality worlds, including sights, sounds, and even smells. They put the addict in a triggering situation, such as a bar or even a virtual crack house, but in a safe environment. Patients can then learn to control their reactions and become less likely to relapse in the real world.
The Whole Bushel
Traditional methods in helping addicts to overcome their environmental triggers have had serious limitations. An alcoholic given a beer bottle in a doctor’s office is still in a doctor’s office (where it would be very strange to drink anyway). To combat this, doctors can ask their patients to close their eyes and visualize a triggering scenario, such as standing outside a coffee shop for a smoker. These basic methods seem to have some impact, but not much. Coping strategies developed in a lab may not hold up elsewhere.
The solution to these limitations comes in the form of virtual reality technology. Patients are put in front of a computer while wearing a headset that allows them to navigate their way through a virtual world, like an immersive game of Second Life with added narcotics. The system may also include a machine to release odors, re-creating cigarette smoke when treating tobacco addiction, for example. Artists render the places and objects specific to the person being treated—a virtual version of their favorite coffee shop, for example.
The technology to make this work properly is new, so scientists are using it in conjunction with traditional treatments at the moment. Tests that have been done so far are very promising. A trial with crack addicts is under way, and researchers intend to create their most detailed version yet to treat heroin addicts. Treating phobias is another possible use for the technology. Increasing exposure to the thing causing fear, known as acclimating, is well established. Arachnophobes are shown pictures of spiders, followed by the real thing in jars and eventually just crawling around the place. Virtual reality opens up other phobias to the same method. Those scared of flying can board a plane cheaply, without ever leaving the ground.
Show Me The Proof
University of Houston: Returning Veterans’ Alcohol Abuse Addressed in Virtual Reality Study
Popular Science: Can Virtual Reality Treat Addiction?
Virtual World Therapeutic For Addicts: Study Shows Impact Of Environment To Addiction Cravings