Thursday, December 10, 2009

E-unlearning: Virtual Iraq treats PTSD

Every year I buy The Best of American Science Writing, and every year I come across at least one, often more, astounding pieces of work that change my world view. One was a paper on first-cousin marriage in the Middle East which explained why western ideas of government could never succeed in some countries, as they never replace close kinship, family and tribal affiliations in their populations. Another showed meticulous research showing that bullies do not suffer from low self-esteem, but a surfeit of esteem, and that efforts to bolster their esteem backfire, making them worse!

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

This year, 2009, brought a fascinating tale of US soldiers being successfully treated for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD) through video games. Patients don a helmet with goggles, earphones, supplemented by a scent machine and realistic simulations from the video game Full Spectrum Warrior (originally developed as a training programme). They then go back to experience the horrors of war that caused their condition in the first place.

Nearly 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer from PTSD and most therapies don’t seem to work. This new type of therapy is based on Cognitive-Behaviour Therapy and tries neutralise the cues that trigger PTSD by playing back the traumatic experiences over and over again, leading to ‘habituation’.

The technique was first used in 1997 with some long-term PTSD Vietnam veterans and all showed signs of improvement. This time round the system was way more sophisticated and in all groups that have used the system, four out of five, eight out of ten and eight out of nine, no longer meet the criteria for PTSD. This is an astonishing rate of success.

Crazy - me?

Interestingly, many sufferers had previously avoided treatment or cut out of treatment due to the stigma of being thought of as ‘crazy’. The fact that the treatment was using computer games, was seen as ‘cool and unthreatening’. There are already signs that computer games can be used in healthcare to good effect, with improved performance in surgery, pain management in children, Alzheimers and other conditions.


Alternative realities (e-unlearning) may be more than just escapism, they may be just the thing to cure minds of faulty imagined realities. Ultimately, depression and many other forms of mental illness may well be relieved by such virtual approaches, where the mind heals itself through created realities.

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Anonymous Chris Brannigan said...

Thanks for the link. Very interesting paper. Intuitively, it always struck me that virtual environments would be useful for theraputic interventions, but this example is at the extreme. I figured that for war induced PTSD, a virtual environment would need to be highly sophisticated to induce sufficient suspension of disbelief in the individual (Matrix like!). I'll delve into this with interest.

2:03 PM  
Anonymous Jack Uldrich said...

Excellent post. I always enjoy having my world view changed and I appreciate you bringing this research to my attention.

I also intend to go back and find the other studies -- especially the one on bullying -- which you referenced.

Jack Uldrich

3:04 PM  
Anonymous Bob Harrison said...

Makes sense to me Donald...if those conditions created ptsd then simulating similar conditions with a positive outcome could reverse them surely?

This could have many more applications.

perhaps I could "unlearn" some of my secondary modern experience?

8:59 PM  
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