Virtual Reality, Mental Health and Identity

An emerging technology and its challenges

As AWE is preparing its second conference in Munich Germany in October, the momentum of its Silicon Valley conference is still percolating.

This year AWE in Silicon Valley was the first conference on AR/VR/MR to give Tech for Good an exclusive focus. There were several talks and panel discussions that dealt exclusively with this emerging theme. As VR/AR/MR are maturing and finding varios use cases, its positive potential in the mental/digital health arena is becoming clearer. Its positive role for the enhancement and support of human connection is evident as well.

VR and AR are unique platforms in the way they affect the brain and the visual networks. The sense of presence, the sense of embodiment that is generated through the activation of specific brain networks makes both AR and VR unique platforms for a wide range of applications. In its ability to generate feelings of empathy, in its ability to work with pain, its possibilities as a support for graceful aging and in its ability to support anxiety and depression therapy it is truly unique and versatile. 

The segment on AR/VR for Good at AWE was coordinated by the Virtual World Society which was founded by Tom Furness, the grandfather of VR, as he is affectionally called. The DigitalRaign community converged with VWS to invite producers and consumers for VR for Good to witness its new social outreach program. This outreach program is to further the adoption of an ethical and empowering Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality platform. 

One full day was devoted entirely to speakers in the area of VR/AR. Many different aspects of the platforms were examined, as well as shortcomings, technological difficulties and barriers to entry and current as well as future possibilities for “building a better world”. This is also the core of VWS’s mission.

A first snapshot from the two days-

William Barry, (adjunct professor at the University of Notre Dame de Namur and founding director its VR/AR immersive learning support lab) used Glasser’s five basic human needs (Glasser, W. (2000). Reality therapy in action. New York, NY: Harper & Row) to analyze the difficulties and the barriers to entry existing in trying out Virtual Reality for the first time. The five needs of Glasser are survival, love, power, freedom, fun. Dr Barry examined the reluctance of people to try VR. What were and are the motives for the reluctance to experience an immersive adventure? Dr Barry found in his research that the block revolved around the role of self-identity in the VR world. The questions addressed in his research were: 

When people come to VR what is their identity?

“Who are we really really anyways?” was the question that was brought up in conjunction with the usage of this new technology.

Is one’s identity then different once in VR? How is this existential anxiety triggered in Virtual Reality? Where is the actual divide with the real world? Dr Barry found that the “Ontological weight” of the experiences in VR can actually be added to a person’s reality. Besides this people are also free to choose experiences and thus create their own profile and further add to their ontological weight. The question: what part of you do you want to experience? 

In conclusion, VR can be used as a tool to meet the basic needs listed by Glasser. The user can explore himself/herself in the context of her/his needs: survival, love, power, freedom, fun. In this way VR can support people in understanding and exploring their very own identity. If we understand who we are as a personality we can also understand how to relate with the world in a connective and constructive manner. 

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