Virtual insanity

Wired and The New York Times have just each published an article about the use of virtual reality to simulate the experiences of schizophrenic psychosis. This is a PR success for its creator, Janssen-Cilag Pharmaceuticals, but its hardly news, as they’ve been showing the system since 2000.

The system originally had the appalling name ‘Paved With Fear’ and was unveiled in September 2000.

The company, who manufacture the antipsychotic drug risperidone (aka Risperdal), toured the world with the ‘Paved with Fear’ truck.

The rig allows users to put on the VR goggles and explore a virtual world, while the software is programmed to simulate hallucination-like experiences – abusive voices, visual scenes transforming into sinister images and so on.

It was covered in 2002 by an NPR radio show that has some audio and images from the simulation.

In one simulation, a schizophrenic has auditory and visual hallucinations while trying to refill a prescription, and sees the word “poison” on a bottle of pills.

Its not often you meet psychotic patients who hallucinate drug company PR, but Janssen seem to think that refusing their product is a sign of madness.

The system has been taken around the world and show to police, psychiatrists and families of people with mental illness.

The system has since been re-branded with the less stigmatising name ‘Virtual Hallucinations’ and continues to make the headlines, despite the fact that many other people have used VR to simulate psychosis.

I wrote an article in 2004 about some of the systems and talked to their creators, and got some feedback from a programmer and a psychologist who have experienced psychosis themselves.

They concluded that while VR simulations might be a useful simulation of the perceptual disturbance in psychosis, it also involves distortions of meaning and thinking that can’t be captured.

The systems covered in the article were based on experiences taken from patient interviews and were made independently.

Psychiatrist Dr Peter Yellowless recently published a paper on the system he developed, and one system has been built in online virtual word Second Life. There are instructions online so you can try it yourself.

Link to NYT article ‘A Virtual Reality That’s Best Escaped’.
Link to 2004 article on using VR for psychosis simulation and research.
Link to summary of Yellowlees’ paper on psychosis simulation.
Link to instructions for Second Life simulation.

One thought on “Virtual insanity”

  1. I had an odd experience in SL that appears to be part of a larger project of involuntary human subjects research. The SL part appeared to include various types of priming – priming to believe a certain type of stalker situation in RL, and worse things. I reported the “stalkers” in SL to no avail, but with time began to understand what they were doing in terms of their tactics. This appears to be a simulation of psychosis but in a much different way – using threats posted elsewhere, damages to my car, hacking, etc. to create a situation in which I would resort to the primed information (“organized stalking” etc.)

    I saw conversational NLP tactics, anchoring, priming with similarities to people I know in real life (indicating I was a mark from the beginning), and worse – priming for Fregoli’s syndrome. That one never transferred to real life. The idea of a Fregoli delusion on the internet is almost laughable though, since it’s hard to know who is on the other end of the communications.

    I’m glad that there are psychologists and neuroscience people who try to make things better for others. But the fact that any group could be involved in something this disgusting is an indication that those professions need a serious ethics overhaul. Their objectives don’t merit this type of crime.

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