Instead of signing up for A&E's reality tv show "Hoarders" as a desperate cry for help, a new study from Stanford University proposes that people with a hoarding problem can make progress by donning a pair of virtual reality goggles to simulate throwing away the mountains of trash that have accumulated inside their homes.
First, to combat their hoarding problem, the participants took part in online group therapy for 16 weeks.
Then, for the VR portion of the study, the participants captured visual documentation of 30 objects they own along with videos and pictures of the most overstuffed spaces inside their homes. These objects and rooms were then rendered into VR, allowing the hoarders to move within these simulated spaces and move the virtual objects.
During the study, the hoarders had VR sessions in these simulated places during which they practiced throwing away items, donating them or recycling them. For homework, they had to discard a real object in their house.
Though the study was small, the results were encouraging. Researchers said seven out of nine of the participants self-reported that their hoarding problems had decreased. On home visits, eight out of nine had visually less stuff inside their homes.
The researchers said the results match up with the impact of using only group therapy, but therapeutic uses of VR may add another tool to the arsenal that psychologists and other clinicians can use in the future. They also said the older patients took well to the VR setup.
Hoarding is a poorly understood mental disorder that brings much shame to the patients and their families, just by judging from an episode of "Hoarders" alone.
But some think hoarding is a natural impulse within humans, who evolved during much scarcer periods in the past. Abnormal amounts of hoarding can also signal a mental disorder caused by a brain injury, a traumatic life event, or even substance abuse, among other causes.
Still, moving around a VR environment of their most cluttered rooms is a "kind of stepping stone," according to Stanford psychiatry and behavioral sciences professor and the study's principal investigator Carolyn Rodriguez, who hopes this tech takes the sting out of a problem that people want to keep hidden.
"People tend to have a lot of biases against hoarding disorder and see it as a personal limitation instead of a neurobiological entity," Rodriguez said in a statement. "We just really want to get the word out that there’s hope and treatment for people who suffer from this. They don’t have to go it alone."
More on virtual reality: DARPA Seeks to Protect Virtual Reality Against "Cognitive Attacks"
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