The US military is using virtual reality to treat soldiers that suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. The idea is to virtually recreate battlefield situations and let soldiers think about, and deal with, their memories, rather than suppressing them.
So-called exposure therapy, in which patients are asked to confront memories of a trauma by imagining and recounting it in painstaking detail, has long been a first-line psychological treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. But the bells and whistles of virtual reality may make exposure therapy more effective, said Michael Kramer, a clinical psychologist at the Veterans Administration hospital in Manhattan who is overseeing the introduction of Virtual Iraq there.
“One of the hallmarks of P.T.S.D. is avoidance,” Dr. Kramer said. “Patients spend an awful lot of time and energy trying not to think about it or talk about it. But behaviorally, avoidance is what keeps the trauma alive.
“With virtual reality, we can put them back in the moment. And we can do it in a gradual, controlled way.”
Virtual Iraq features two scenarios. In one, patients navigate the streets of a generic Iraqi city, walking past buildings, cars, civilians and markets. With the touch of a therapist’s keypad, a little boy might appear on a street corner and wave, apparently in friendship, or a man might stumble down the middle of the street calling for help, a sight that provokes anxiety in some veterans who have come to fear ruses.
In the other scene, veterans ride in a Humvee. Other vehicles might slow down in front of them, and strangers might open fire. Enemy combatants might appear under bridges. Objects dotting the roadside might explode as the Humvee passes.
The patient cannot shoot back at the insurgents and also cannot die or be wounded in the simulation.