Canberra counsellor using virtual reality to tackle spider, bird and needle fears

If humans are only born with two fears – the fear of loud noises and the fear of falling – why are so many of us terrified of spiders? Or birds? Or having blood taken?

According to Canberra behavioural counsellor Mae van Rensburg, any fears outside of loud noises and falling are all “learned fears” that can be unlearned. She’s using bleeding edge technology to help Canberrans “unlearn” their fears – from dogs and MRI scans to public speaking and the dark.

Ms van Rensburg works with virtual reality to conduct what is traditionally known as “exposure therapy”, except with this technology clients can take off in a plane, drive down a highway or lay down in an MRI scanner all from the comfort of the Brand New Mindset office in Calwell.

By donning a pair of Samsung Gear virtual reality goggles and a set of headphones, patients are literally transported into a virtual world that exposes them to the very thing they fear the most.

“The spider therapy starts by simply watching spiders on a television screen, but within the virtual reality environment,” Ms van Rensburg explained.

“In the next session, you watch spiders in a glass tank that’s sitting on a desk right next to you. And after that, the tank is removed, and the spiders are crawling right on the desk in front of you.”

The final step in spider therapy is the use of a separate technology – augmented reality – where clients place their actual hand on a sheet of paper and watch through a mobile phone as virtual spiders crawl all over it.

“I put biosensors on my clients so I can always tell what their heart rate is and how they are reacting to any given experience,” Ms van Rensburg said.

“At any point in time I can intervene, turn the experience off and pull people out of the experience for some relaxation therapy.

“That could never happen in a real life situation  – if things got challenging I would have to run around frantically collecting real spiders and asking the captain politely to land the plane.”

The virtual reality experiences are a combination of live action video and 3D animation, and built by Spanish-American company Psious. New experiences are being developed weekly.

“A fear is literally created at the speed of thought, within an instant,” Ms van Rensburg said.

“If you’re scared of spiders, a lot of the time it’s because a spider ran over your hand or someone scared you with a spider.

“What we’re doing with virtual reality is convincing your subconscious mind that it is going through a set of experiences so you become desensitised to your fear.

“So if you go through taking off in a plane, or watching and being near spiders, over and over again in a virtual world, your brain starts to think ‘aha, I’ve done this before’ and starts to let go of the fear.”

The virtual experiences included in Ms van Rensburg’s library include public speaking in front of an auditorium of 5000 people and having blood taken while Ms van Rensburg lightly touches you with a pen – in lieu of a needle prick – in the real world.

She said fear of magpies and the dark were common fears for Canberra children, while a fear of cotton wool was one of the most unusual phobias she’d seen in her seven years as a counsellor.

“The exciting thing for us is that we now know virtual reality can help our returning soldiers with PTSD,” Ms van Rensburg said.

“We’re excited to be working with a Canberra development company on a virtual reality solution for the Australian Defence Force.”

The solution is due to launch early next year.

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