Virtual reality has been described as “the most psychologically powerful medium we’ve ever had.” It has the ability to essentially bypass normal learning pathways and implant information into our brains as experiences. This, obviously, has huge implications for how we teach people. In healthcare, companies like BehaVR are using virtual reality to immerse people in experiences as a way to drive behavior change. In this conversation, Founder Aaron Gani and Chief Medical Officer Pete Buecker, MD, discuss the role of VR in helping people make lifestyle changes that could improve their own health and, collectively, lead to massive savings and improved outcomes across our healthcare system. Gani and Buecker talk about how VR can target many issues, including mental health, behavioral health, diabetes, heart disease, weight loss, and other chronic diseases.
On the toughest problem in healthcare
We believe the biggest, toughest problem in healthcare is activating and sustaining behavior change. We know we’re losing the battle, and of the $3.2 billion a year in spending in the US, perhaps 80, 85 percent of that is driven by chronic disease and […] maybe 60 to 80 percent of what drives chronic disease is lifestyle and poor choices.
On BehaVR’s decision to spin up a virtual reality solution
In 2016, we were aware of the coming renaissance of virtual reality. VR has been around for literally decades in clinical settings. Lots of clinical studies about various health and medical use cases, but what was changing in 2016 [is] there was a big infusion of capital into the space and some really high performance, low cost consumer grade technologies [like Oculus] were about to hit the market with VR as a medium.
It’s been described as the most psychologically powerful medium we’ve ever had. So with that in mind, we thought, when you combine VR with cloud and mobility and AI and all those other great things that are happening with technology, we think there’s a new opportunity for addressing this very, very tough problem in health behavior change.
On the progression of technology to allow for better care:
Part of what we are applying here in the work we’re doing is virtual reality. But it’s not any one technology. It’s a confluence of things that are going on around us from an abundance of data, cheap computing in the cloud, machine learning techniques. These things are coming together in interesting ways. We think VR is a very important ingredient in what we’re creating here because of that differential effect of how our brains experience VR.
In the virtual reality space, very critical in the development of our product line or our interventions [was scale and affordability]. For instance, Oculus went to the Oculus Go. Going from a setup where we had to come in, set up a high-end computer with a headset, with a sensor, [to now] we’re able to do this in a more mobile way. So it took the cost way down. So that is one example of how you can say, okay, we can take this powerful technology and put it in the lap of people in a much easier, more accessible way.
So if we can meet people [with technology] in their own home environment, meet people in environments where they’re comfortable and deliver powerful interventions, well, now we’re on to something.
On the effect of virtual reality on our brains
There there are multiple decades of clinical studies about the effects of VR on our brains and our bodies. So you can easily find studies proving the efficacy of VR for things like acute pain relief or for enhancing or amplifying the effects of mindfulness, or a measuring emotional affect – negatively and positively – coming out of VR. And, in the age of fMRI studies, we can even see the net effects of VR experiences on our brains.
I’m not sure that collectively, as a species, we know precisely how these processes work. We just have a lot of evidence that they in fact do work.
Sometimes people will say, ‘well, why do you need VR, [or augmented reality]? Why can’t you just hand somebody an iPad or a tablet and let them watch a video about pain?’ And so I say that the difference is if […] you’re at the beach and you see this beautiful sunset and you snap a picture with your phone, you get home and look at it and go, ‘okay.’ [Or], I can drop you on the beach with the sunset surrounded by the sound, surrounded by the birds flying overhead. And you get to have the emotional experience of that. […] It’s a much more integrated experience.
It is the difference between some cognitive exercise – looking at something flat, taking in some symbolic information and processing it – and having an experience. We experience the world through our senses. Virtual reality is replacing some of those senses, so we are experiencing the virtual world.
This is why you can find any number of fun, gimmicky videos on YouTube of people in a scary virtual reality experience, whether it’s a horror game or a tall building or whatever. And they’re not saying, ‘well this is interesting.’ They’re freaking out and you’re like, ‘what’s wrong with you? You know this is not real, and yet you’re afraid of what’s going on.’ Well, it’s that sort of involuntary level where this feels real to your lizard brain.
We didn’t create that. Nobody involved in the VR industry created it. We’re just sort of hijacking our senses and replacing the input of what we consider the real world.
With VR, you’re sort of short-circuiting [the learning process]. We’re hacking that process and you’re driving that experience directly into the brain. So we’re not having people in VR headsets learning and taking notes and writing things and trying to learn something cognitively. […] With VR, you’re taking an experience and you’re implanting it directly into the brain so it’s theirs. And now I’m remembering it as if I actually did it. As opposed to trying to take the information from outside in, we’re putting it straight in there so it’s going from inside out.
On the idea of holistic medicine
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