Stanford neurobiologists use VR to explore responses to stress, anxiety, and fear

It will attack and devour anything. It is as if God created the devil, and gave him jaws. Fear is an adaptation which is good… Certainly, you want to be afraid of fast moving cars, and of heights, and things like that. That’s what keeps us alive. However, there are many cases in which we have pathological fear. Post-traumatic stress comes after the trauma when the trauma is no longer there. That’s what makes it pathologic. Having stress and fear in response to something that’s happening that’s truly threat-inducing, that’s good. We certainly are not interested in curing fear, we’re interested in alleviating pathologic fear. We have subjects come in, we wire them up to a number of different things in order to measure their body and brain responses, and then we provide these different states, fear states in particular. By placing them into virtual environments, we measure people’s stress response, we’re analyzing the status of the brain and the body through measures like heart rate and sweating, pupillometry, the size of the pupils, which is a readout of autonomic arousal or the level of arousal or anxiety inside the brain and body. In a Society for Neuroscience conference I saw a demo by one of the VR vendors that triggered a fear of fight actually, and I tried it on, and it was very, very effective. Then, that’s where I decided, “OK. This is the way to put humans in a box, and if we can just put some sensors on them, too, we can measure their reactions.” The first time I put on the virtual reality goggles, which allow you to look up and down and behind you and actually see different things, the environment that I was experiencing was actually a virtual platform many, many meters off the ground, and which I was required to step off. What I found was that my body was actually resisting stepping off the platform, and that when I did, I got the physical sensation of falling. In virtual reality terms, I got presence, which is my brain thought that I was in the virtual environment. At that moment, I realized that virtual reality was going to be an immensely powerful tool for probing the relationship between emotion and visual perception. We took it upon ourselves to learn something about the technology, and then we decided that we needed some scary experiences, so we employed a tree climber to climb very high up into a tree that was swaying in the wind. What do you think? It’s a nice view up here. Want to go a little higher? We also have a stimulus in which we worked with a professional dog trainer to have a dog attack you in the virtual environment. Ah, ah, ouch. Don’t hurt me. Ah, ah, ah. Then, that’s one of the more unusual and exciting ones was diving with great white sharks. Diving video narrator: Are you ready to go deeper? It would be accurate to say that we are crafting fear, so in that sense we are craftsmen of fear. Of course, we’re doing more than that, with the ultimate goal of understanding how our bodies and minds respond to fear, and what are the parameters that change when somebody has a mental condition. What I’m very interested in, and what the lab is interested in are purely mechanical acts that you can perform, mainly in the form of specific patterns of breathing and specific patterns of eye movements, non-meditative practices. So that when we place that subject back into a virtual environment, where typically or previously they had a very heightened stress response, they can maintain a calm demeanor and make better behavioral decisions. We’re still in the building phase of this platform, but it’s really exciting to see a lot of similarities between subjects as well as very interesting differences, so we’re excited to move forward and explore these more. The ultimate goal of this project is to understand the origins of anxiety. If we can understand how anxiety and fear are coupled to sensations, and perhaps develop, ideally develop new strategies for intervening with our own states and anxiety, and the conditions where we don’t want to feel anxious. Because if we can do that, then we really can shift away from reactivity and suffering and toward proactive coping. Voice on the tree video: Hey! Come on up here!

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