Virtual reality, in the form of a unique avatar-based experience, can help people be less self-critical and more self-compassionate, scientists have found. The new study published in PLOS ONE showed positive results in naturally self-critical individuals and is now being tested in people experiencing depression.
Psychologists and computer scientists from University College London (UCL) designed a virtual reality experiment in which, by the use of avatars, people could experience the compassion they would show to another, but directed towards themselves.
43 healthy but highly self-critical women used virtual reality technology to embody a life-sized avatar. They were shown a separate avatar of a distressed child and taught to give compassionate feedback, both verbally and using physical gesture, which was specifically validating and non-judgemental. As they spoke to the virtual child it appeared to respond positively to them.
After a few minutes, 22 of the women were swapped into the perspective of the virtual child. From here they saw their original virtual adult self showing compassion and speaking using their own voice. This allowed them an unusual self-to-self virtual experience of themselves being compassionate, using their own voice and mannerisms.
The remaining women viewed this situation as if they were a third person.
"This is very different from an online gaming experience where you're looking at a body on screen the size of your finger," explained Professor Mel Slater, co-author from ICREA-University of Barcelona and UCL Computer Science. "In virtual reality everything is life-size. You turn your head and look down and you see your virtual body. As you move your virtual body does the same. The brain very quickly accepts that this is your body."
A: Participant in the virtual reality setup B: Virtual crying child C: View of the participant being compassionate, seen from within the body of the child D: Third person view
The participants who experienced the virtual perspective which received compassion from their previously embodied adult avatar showed a large increase in self-compassion, whereas the group which watched this interaction from the third person perspective did not. Both groups showed reduced self-criticism.
"I was surprised that it was such a potent effect" said Dr Caroline Falconer, first author from UCL Clinical Educational & Health Psychology. "An increase in self-compassion was what we had predicted but it was such a large effect size. It was very encouraging. It's a simple paradigm but that makes it even more beautiful really."
Both Slater and Falconer think virtual reality's increasing accessibility will make this type of intervention more feasible in the future, both in the clinic and at home: "The technology is becoming more accessible because of the gaming industry driving it," said Falconer. "Embodiment is potentially a very powerful tool. It is a very useful platform to address aspects of the self. I could imagine it in GP surgeries, and even businesses."
The team is already using the technology to investigate what would happen in a mixed gender sample and with people who are experiencing depression. They also want to see how long the effects can last.
"We're finding this self criticism in healthy individuals too." said Falconer. "People have a fear of self-compassion. It's quite alien for Western cultures. We think self-criticism keeps us on track or that we don't deserve self-compassion."
Falconer emphasises that self-compassion is a vital buffer to make us more resilient to negative life events: "It's alright to be kind to yourself," said Falconer. "That should be promoted more often."