Virtual reality in clinical psychology

Virtual reality is transforming clinical psychology and mental health treatment as we know it. Advancements in virtual reality technology have improved in treating very serious psychological and physical disabilities. Virtual reality is a computer-generated simulation of a three-dimensional image or environment in which interaction is seemingly real or physical by a person using special electronic equipment. Researchers are using this virtual reality technique to further understand how we perceive the world around us. Perception is defined as experiences resulting from the stimulation of the senses. Researchers are using virtual environments to augment brain functions by enhancing perception. This is prevalent in the medical field, training simulations, entertainment and gaming environments. The results of these studies have shown optimal outcomes. Virtual reality has also shown as a promising tool for studying and measuring human behavior and cognition. This technology has aided in the treatment of phobias, post-traumatic stress, substance abuse, and other debilitating disorders.

An essential aspect of creating an immersive experience within a virtual environment is in creating a sense of three-dimensionality so that one believes one can move about within the virtual world. Since a good majority of our sensory receptors are dedicated to vision, virtual reality can serve as a medium. Combining virtual reality with our visual senses the possibilities are endless. The use of this virtual reality technique is to evoke the same emotions that are experienced in the real world without leaving the safeguards of a controlled environment. This type of treatment eliminates obstacles to control previously faced by researchers with participants in their experiments. The interactive nature of virtual reality helps participants to slowly let down their guard with the intense emotions the environment creates thus helping psychologists get to the root of the mental disorder.

“We can manipulate a virtual world in ways that could never be done in a real environment…For example, we could take away visual aspects of the environment that you might use to navigate, such as street signs or distal mountains, to explore what that means for visual perception or spatial cognition” says Jeanine Stefanucci, PhD, an associate professor of cognition and health psychology at the University of Utah.(4)

“Whether we feel scared or pleased in an environment and how we explore it is down to our combined perception of space and of our bodies, according to new research conducted in a virtual reality environment. The study, published in the journal Heliyon, suggests that the brain uses the interplay of these factors to control our emotional experience and exploration of an environment.” (2)

An example of the use of virtual reality would be a person with acrophobia (fear of heights). This technique would be used as a form of exposure therapy, the person would experience a real-world situation, like being lifted up on a skyscraper, and experience the same reactions as if they were truly in that setting.

Virtual reality and virtual environments have increased dramatically over time. It allows for greater control over stimulus presentation and for a variety of responses. Virtual reality allows researchers to create environments that are either impossible or unfeasible within the real world as well as situations that would be too dangerous to test with other methods.

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Works Cited

  1. Goldstein, E. B. (2015). Cognitive psychology: Connecting mind, research, and everyday experience. Stamford: Cengage Learning.
  2. Martin Dobricki, Paul Pauli. Sensorimotor body-environment interaction serves to regulate emotional experience and exploratory behavior. Heliyon, 2016; 2 (10): e00173 DOI: 10.1016/j.heliyon.2016.e00173
  3. Virtual reality study finds our perception of our body and environment affects how we feel. (2016, October 13). Retrieved from
  4. Virtual Reality Expands Its Reach. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  5. , & Geoffrey, W. (2014, March 24). Using virtual reality to augment perception, enhance sensorimotor adaptation, and change our minds. Retrieved from
  6. How Virtual Reality Could Transform Mental Health Treatment. (n.d.). Retrieved from

1 comment

  1. The advances in virtual reality have been making big leaps forward recently, especially in therapeutic applications. The first time I saw the use of virtual reality in neurorehabilitation was in physical therapy for amputees and stroke victims. The use of virtual reality masks “tricked” the brain areas associated with the affected areas into thinking they were functional. So the signals sent from the brain were as if there were no physical deficiency, which allowed for more useful feedback from the areas to the brain, which sped healing (Adamovich, Fluet, Tunik, & Merians, 2009). Amazing stuff!

    As you say, it is also used with phobias. But recently I have been reading about its use in treatment of PTSD. I can imagine that this could be incredibly useful in defusing
    highly reactive situations for those with PTSD, using gradual exposure in a safe environment. Initial tests seem hopeful, with a significant reduction in symptoms (Difede, & Hoffman, 2003).

    What other areas do you think this will expand to?

    Adamovich, S. V., Fluet, G. G., Tunik, E., & Merians, A. S. (2009). Sensorimotor training in virtual reality: A review. Sensorimotor Training in Virtual Reality: A Review, 25(1), 29-44. doi:DOI: 10.3233/NRE-2009-0497

    Difede, J., & Hoffman, H. G. (2003). Virtual reality exposure therapy for world trade center post traumatic stress disorder: A case report. PsycEXTRA Dataset. doi:10.1037/e705482011-020

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