You’re sitting in a virtual doctor’s office, looking across a desk at none other than Sigmund Freud. You begin to explain your problem to this representation of Freud—that you’re worried that you’re not performing well at work—as he nods empathetically. But then, before he has a chance to fully respond, the experience changes and you find yourself in Freud’s body, looking back at an avatar that’s supposed to look like you. You give yourself advice aloud, saying things you may have thought before but have never articulated like this. Then, you’re suddenly back in your own avatar, and Freud says the words you just said back to you with all the authority of the famed psychotherapist.
This was the setup for a recent study, conducted at the University of Barcelona by VR researchers and clinical psychologists which found that immediately after body swapping with Freud and counseling themselves in virtual reality, about 80% of the 29 participants reported feeling like they had a different perspective on their problem and that this would result in a change in the way they dealt with it (compared to 40% of another 29 participants in a control experiment, where there was no body swapping with Freud and the psychotherapist’s avatar used pre-recorded responses). More strikingly, a week after participating in the experience, the same percentage of people reported the change sticking with them.
The study, which was published in Scientific Reports in late July, is modeled on the “empty chair” technique, which is often used in Gestalt therapy, a method of therapy that focuses on the present moment rather than the past (making it perhaps the opposite of what Freud preached). Therapists who practice Gestalt therapy will sometimes have their patients sit facing an empty chair, where they’re supposed to imagine that the person they have a conflict with is sitting. They say their piece, but then switch chairs to attempt to embody the other person’s perspective, and respond in their words, before switching back to their own seat.
“To do [the empty chair technique], you have to have a good imagination,” says Mel Slater, a professor at the University of Barcelona, co-director of the Experimental Virtual Environments for Neuroscience and Technology Lab, and the lead author of the paper. “And [VR] occurred to me as a way to do that without putting any demands on the person.” Instead of asking the person to imagine another person, virtual reality can show them that person, and then help them feel physically embodied in that other person’s body as a way of seeing an outside perspective.
The research builds on one of Slater’s previous studies from 2015, where a smaller group of participants tried body swapping with Freud and with an avatar of themselves. Without a control group, Slater wasn’t able to understand whether it was body swapping in VR that was helping people solve their personal problems, or just talking about them (he did find that people much preferred talking to Freud than talking to themselves). The new study provides evidence that body swapping with Freud does in fact help people gain new perspective on their issues.
“The critical difference with the body swapping is you can think about it as if you’re another person listening to someone else’s problem,” Slater says. “That’s really what makes a difference.”
At first glance, Freud seems like an odd character to choose for a virtual therapist: After all, many of his theories have been debunked. Slater admits he wouldn’t have chosen Freud himself. But before the first study, he sent a survey to the population from which he recruited participants and asked who people would like to talk about their problems with and get advice from. Surprisingly, Freud was the number one choice. Unsurprisingly, Angelina Jolie was the second.
Slater’s technique, where participants counsel themselves via Freud, isn’t something that is ready for people facing serious mental health problems. In fact, Slater screened each participant to ensure that none of them were suffering from depression or psychosis, issues that were too severe for a new experimental therapy method like this. Instead, it was designed for the tribulations of daily life that may feel serious to the person experiencing them but aren’t life-threatening.
However, Slater’s next step in his research will be a clinical study with patients who are depressed, conducted jointly with clinical psychologists. It will use VR to help people with depression practice speaking compassionately to themselves through similar body swapping exercises (there’s no Freud involved in this one).
While unconventional, Slater’s new study provides some evidence to support the use of VR as a therapeutic tool, even if it is early days. For Slater, the most surprising part of the study was that the change of perspective stuck—even if the study only checked up after one week (there’s no telling how long the effects would continue after that).
“It was possible that people would feel better for 10 minutes and then their way of thinking comes back,” he says. “But it was something that lasted.”