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The VR breakthrough that could change mental health approach

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VR can now be used to accurately measure moment-by-moment emotional responses, raising new possibilities in mental health care.

That is according to new findings which could broaden the horizons of behavioural sciences.

A new white paper report, ‘Measuring what Matters in Immersive Environments’, explains how VR technology is revolutionising how emotion is quantified, making it more accurate than ever before.

This approach could enable far better understanding of the interaction between emotion and cognition as a means to develop new treatments for mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Emteq labs’ device

Traditionally, measurement of emotion has relied on rudimentary questionnaires to gauge how individuals feel in response to a given stimulus.

As well as the obvious over simplification of the complexities of emotion, this also introduces another inescapable flaw: human bias.

And even more considered frameworks like Ekman’s facial action coding system (FACS), which is used to evaluate facial expressions, do not account for the fact that not all individuals experience emotions in the same way.

But UK firm emteq labs’ VR technology, underpinned by an approach based on the ‘Russell’s model of affect’, is shedding a light on a new potential way forward.

The Russell model proposes that “all affective states arise from two fundamental neurophysiological systems, one related to valence (a pleasure–displeasure continuum) and the other to arousal, or alertness” (Russell, 1980).

By monitoring multiple physical responses including heart rate, electromyography (EMG), skin conduction and eye tracking, emotion can now be measured objectively to create a highly accurate 3D picture of a person’s emotions, the report states.

A research programme is now exploring the use of VR in the treatment of mental health conditions by creating controlled scenarios to stimulate physiological emotional responses that could then be monitored via the VR headset.

Emteq labs – VR use in a trauma patient.

Stephen Fairclough, professor of psychophysiology at Liverpool John Moores University, has extensive experience using the emteq headset in research.

He says: “VR provides an enormous and unique opportunity to collect data through the study of behaviour in realistic environments – something that has been almost impossible in the past.

“This whitepaper demonstrates how the emteq labs system is enabling research to break new frontiers and VR to not only resemble real life scenarios for research, but be adapted in real time to measure how users respond.

“Academics and researchers like myself can measure and understand emotion in a way we’ve never been able to do before. This opens the door for deepening our knowledge of human behaviour and in turn, enables us to develop treatments, particularly for mental health, that can actually resonate with individuals and make a difference.”

Emteq co-founder and CEO Graeme Cox says: ”

“Accurately measuring how a person feels or reacts to a situation is no easy feat. Embracing both valence and arousal in the development of our wearable technology has enabled us to measure a person’s intent as well as their emotional state, which is incredible.”

Considering how these measurements could help to improve treatment and management of mental health, Charles Nduka, co-founder and chief scientific officer at emteq labs said: “Developing new treatments requires an understanding of the range of “normal’ responses to interventions, particularly for important healthcare issues such as anxiety and depression.

We hope that we will begin the process of understanding the range of behavioural responses that will act as a baseline for future research and treatments of mental health conditions.”

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