Fighting fears

Dr. Darren PierceyDr. Darren Piercey is using virtual reality to fight fear and anxiety.

Piercey, a psychology professor at the University of New Brunswick’s Fredericton campus, is part of a national network of researchers exploring this cutting-edge area of science and psychology.

They use the technology to expose people to their fears in a systematic, progressive way.

“With virtual reality, we can take that person and let them experience their fear in a situation that feels a little more safe to them,” he explains.

Fear of spiders, or arachnophobia, is a common phobia that comes up in fear research. While most people are afraid of spiders, it doesn't’t affect the way they function on a day-to-day basis – but for those with the phobia, it affects their daily lives.

“They may be afraid to leave their room because they fear a spider,” says Piercey. “With virtual reality, we can take that person and let them experience their fear in a situation that feels a little more safe to them. They understand that it’s not a real spider, but their fear is so great that even this fake spider in a virtual environment will elicit their fear.”

Systematically exposing people to fear stimuli like virtual spiders – combined with other psychological techniques, including cognitive-behavioural therapy – helps them overcome their fears.

“As you continue to have them experience the fear stimulus, they become desensitized to that stimulus and their fear decreases. They will probably always be afraid of the spider, but they reach a stage where they can now behave in a normal way, so they can function normally when they see a spider.”

Challenging anxiety

Piercey is working on expanding the concept of virtual reality fear reduction to less specific cases of anxiety, including cases of post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD.

“I’m interested in the notion of ‘being there.’ Some people with OCD have behaviours like constant hand washing – they’ll wash their hands hundreds of times a day. For these people, you could create a virtual environment that looks like a washroom and vary how dirty the washroom looks. You could have them go into this washroom and have them eventually pick up tissue paper that’s laying on the ground.”

Piercey is a cognitive psychologist with an interest in information processing, which is exemplified by the marriage of psychology and technology in this project. As technology develops, he explains, the scenarios that researchers like himself can create become more sophisticated. While sophistication is always a concern, he also is interested in the accessibility of the technology.

"How realistic does an environment need to be to be effective for treatment? Can we use cheaper technologies, which are easily purchased by the average person? If cheaper is still effective, then more people can purchase the technology to use for self-help.”

Passionate students

One of Piercey’s graduate students, Heather Lister, is working on a project on reducing fear of public speaking. The experiment sees student volunteers read an excerpt of Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham to a 3D video of students in a classroom.

At UNB, Piercey has had no problem getting students to take place in experiments or even recruiting student volunteers for his projects.

“The students here are engaged and interested,” he says. “They see the potential value in the long run – whether that’s altruism or helping reduce their own fears.”