Virtual Reality Check

By Amanda Domurad

Professor Mitchell Schare treats phobias through simulated reality

Francesca Antonacci

Francesca Antonacci

Inside Hauser Hall, there is an office with shelves stacked steeply with psychology books. This is reality. The man behind the books spends a lot of his time outside of it.

Director of the Ph.D. Program in Combined Clinical and School Psychology, Professor Mitchell Schare, is researching how to treat people with phobias. Virtual reality is one of the ways in which he conducts this research.

“I’ve always been fascinated by people’s fears,” says Schare. “You should have a fear of standing in a bathtub full of water and using an electric hair dryer, because that fear will keep you alive. You should have a fear of driving on a rain-slicked highway. Some people do, and some people don’t. So fears really are healthy and have an evolutionary function.”

Schare conducts his research at Hofstra’s Joan and Arnold Saltzman Community Services Center where he and his colleagues create virtual environments for their patients. He describes the virtual environment by comparing it to something called called a “halodeck,” on the show, Star Trek: The Next Generation. The “halodeck” was a recreation center on the spaceship that could create any situation imaginable through a computer and holographic projections.

Schare creates a computer-generated environment where people can interact in meaningful ways, and ultimately rid them of their fear, whether it be flying on a plane, or speaking in front of a large crowd.

Skeptical about how realistic the computer-generated images are, I took a quick walk over to the Saltzman Center, where Professor Schare showed me exactly how he treats his patients.

Schare had me sit in an airplane chair used in the treatment of patients with a fear of flying. He picked up a rather large contraption, which looked like a pair oversized goggles, and placed it on my head. My eyes fixated on a realistic, computer-generated airline waiting area.

I saw people walking around and heard sounds coming from the machine on my head. Schare told me to move my head around as if I was looking around the airport. I looked to my right and saw a coffee shop in the airport, I turned to my left and saw the gate to the plane.

“I feel like I should be able to smell things in the airport too,” I said.

“We’re actually completing a research study right now where we have different odors come out at set times to correspond with things on the screen,” Schare replied. “So you walk by a coffee shop and you smell the odor of coffee. The whole idea of Virtual Reality is to produce a total sensory environment.”

Virtual Reality is used to treat these phobias by immersing the patient in the environment. A clinic in San Diego, The Virtual Reality Medical Center, uses such tactics to even help people combat eating disorders, but Schare says he has not done enough research on that to comment.

Virtual Reality to Cure Phobias?

For the full story, check out the Spring issue of Pulse, available now

Published in: on April 5, 2009 at 9:56 pm  Leave a Comment  

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