Why VR is a Learning Machine: Addiction and Rehabilitation

Posted by Todd Maddox & Tim Fitzpatrick on May 21, 2020 9:05:45 PM

Meet Bill.

Bill is a 60-year-old former construction worker and Desert Storm veteran. He has been divorced for 20 years and has two grown children. He has struggled with alcohol addiction for nearly 40 years and it has affected his personal and professional life. Bill is estranged from his ex-wife and children, has difficulty with personal relationships and has been unable to find work for the past 5 years, in large part due to the negative impact of his addiction on his treatment of fellow employees. Bill is losing faith in himself, the healthcare system, and has contemplated suicide more than once.

Bill has been in and out of rehabilitation for years. In every case, he has been successful at curbing the desire to drink while in rehabilitation, but invariably “falls off the wagon” after leaving. Bill finds this incredibly frustrating because he leaves rehabilitation feeling like he has kicked the addiction and has the coping skills needed to stay sober. When he gets home though it is as if all of the learning in rehabilitation does not apply anymore, the coping skills don’t seem to work... and he relapses.

It is as if the rehabilitation process causes Bill’s abusing behavior to disappear only temporarily. Once out of rehabilitation and back in society, the abusing behaviors return. The rehabilitation process suspends the bad behavior for a short period but does not induce true unlearning of the abusing behavior.

Bill is tired of this revolving door in and out of rehabilitation. He wants to kick this addiction, once and for all. He has been working with a mental health professional who has given him some amazing insights into the nature of addiction and is introducing Bill to a new therapeutic approach that utilizes virtual reality.

Bill’s therapist has a background in the neuroscience of learning and addiction and informs Bill that the real culprit is context. Learning and unlearning are exquisitely sensitive to context. The idea is that the rehabilitation center serves as a new environmental context that causes new learning, rather than unlearning of the previously acquired addictive behavior. As a result, the addictive behavior reappears when the “rehabilitated” Bill re-enters his original addictive environment. The context needs to be unlearned.

As outlined in our recent report, Bill needs a learning solution that broadly engages experiential, emotional, behavioral and cognitive learning centers in his brain in synchrony, and in the interest of providing realistic contexts within which Bill can learn and develop coping skills. A learning solution of this sort must be immersive. It must utilize consistent, high quality content and must be available on demand, when and where Bill needs it most.

This is where virtual reality comes in to serve as a complement to the in-person therapy that Bill receives from his therapist. The idea is to use VR to “transport” Bill into virtual environments that share many of the contextual cues associated with his typical “using” environment. With the help of his therapist, Bill can learn to apply behavioral extinction or unlearning coping skills within the VR environment. This approach is effective because the virtual environment is similar in context to the “using” environment, but because Bill is not drinking in the environment, true unlearning of the addictive behaviors within this virtual “using” context takes place.

Bill not only uses the VR headset in his therapy sessions, but Bill also uses it at home. Because VR is available on-demand where Bill needs it, and when he needs it (e.g., when he has an urge to drink), Bill can get the necessary, targeted repetitions that are so critical to unlearning of destructive behaviors. In this way, Bill gets the best of both worlds. He obtains the critical hands-on therapy from his mental health professional that is so critical to his recovery. At the same time, when he is not with the mental health professional, he has a means to address his urges and to continue to fight against his addiction.

VR is consistent, efficient and available on demand. It can help Bill, and many others suffering from alcohol or other drug addictions (e.g., opiates) to fight the urge and get clean. It can help build the coping skills needed outside of the VR headset. VR broadly and effectively engages Bill’s brain and helps him learn the skills that he needs—one experience at a time.

Topics: Learning, Addiction, Rehabilitation, Mental Health, Virtual reality

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Now you will be.

At the end of the day, your healthcare journey begins and ends with you. Using virtual reality to improve education and training in healthcare has limitless potential to impact the lives of everyone you meet along the way.

Remember, evidence shows VR:

  • Improves satisfaction
  • Decreases anxiety
  • Improves learning
  • Improves retention
  • Increases actionable empathy
  • Outperforms classroom-based learning
  • Is the medium preferred by learners

The benefits of VR have never been more accessible.

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