Although virtual reality technology is most often associated with video games, the emerging medium offers the potential for more than just entertainment. According to the research of Dr. Heidi Wayment, professor of social psychology at Northern Arizona University (NAU), in some applications, virtual reality has the ability to reduce stress and anxiety, and increase mindfulness among users – part of a concept Wayment describes as the “quiet ego.” *
This idea is supported by other researchers in the field, including Dr. Ann Futterman Collier, associate professor of clinical and health psychology at NAU, but Collier and Wayment are among the first to begin clinical applications to test virtual reality’s effectiveness on mental well-being interventions in their Applied Research with Immersive Experiences (ARIES) lab at NAU.
“In a recent study, we have found that by encouraging people to think about these key [quiet ego] principles through a contemplative intervention, people not only increased these quiet ego characteristics, but improved pluralistic thinking […] and reduced mind-wandering,” continued Collier. “Thus, our findings suggested that a simple intervention with the quiet ego may help people going through stress to cope more effectively.”
Currently, Collier and Wayment are examining the quiet ego when delivered through virtual reality technology, which uses a combination of audio and visual stimulation, often in the form of nature scenes, to users.
Unlike standard-format audio recordings, which they previously used in the quiet ego trials, virtual reality offers a more comprehensive and immersive environment, thus allowing users to better engage quiet ego characteristics.
“Virtual reality seemed like a natural way to increase engagement and arousal when delivering psychological interventions,” explained Collier. “Previous research on virtual reality suggests most psychological interventions, when delivered through immersive and interactive technology, are more effective than standard treatments […] so far, our preliminary results do indeed support this.”
Currently, the ARIES team is in the midst of conducting studies with university students – a population that exhibits higher-than-average levels of stress and anxiety – but in the future the team plans to develop quiet ego applications to also help individuals coping with severe stress, PTSD, and those undergoing cancer treatments.
In the meantime, however, the team’s goal is to make use of cutting-edge technology for clinical interventions and research.
* According to Wayment, there are four characteristics of the quiet ego: (1) detached awareness, or mindfulness, (2) sense of interconnectedness with others, (3) perspective-taking, and (4) growth, or the ability to conceptualize challenges as an opportunity for meaningful personal development.