Silencing Schizophrenia Demons through Avatar Therapy
For years, therapists have been using computer simulations to create a safe, virtual space where people can confront their real-world phobias. Recently, the treatment is being adapted for schizophrenia patients to help them confront the frightening voices inside their heads. “The idea was that if we give the invisible entity a human face then it can be much easier for the patient to converse with it,” said Julian Leff, the University College London psychiatrist who developed the treatment.
Here is how this therapy works: The therapist will present a patient with a computer-generated avatar that represents a particularly distressing voice. The patient then customizes the avatar’s face, hair and pitch of its voice. Next the doctor, who is sitting in another room, brings the avatar to life onscreen by saying frightening things through a voice-altering technology that emulates the pitch selected by the patient. Finally, the doctor will tell the patient to fight back. “I encourage the patient,” Leff explained to the BBC, “saying you mustn’t put up with this, you must tell the avatar that what he or she is saying is nonsense, you don’t believe these things, he or she must go away, leave you alone, you don’t need this kind of torment.”
The early results do seem promising. In the pilot study, after up to seven 30 minute sessions each, most of the 16 participants reported that they heard the voices less frequently and felt less distressed. As they were talking back to their virtual tormenters, their depressing and suicidal thoughts diminished as well. Three patients even stopped hearing the voices altogether after the treatment. The next step for this therapy is to test the technique on a larger group.