Screening for Study Success: Selecting the Right Participants

The study recruited participants through diverse channels, including university classes, social networks, and recruitment posters. From 138 applicants, 60 undergraduate and graduate students were selected based on specific criteria. Participants needed to have personal problems with a discomfort level of at least 2 on a 10-point scale and must not be undergoing any other psychological treatment. To ensure safety, the study excluded individuals with conditions such as pregnancy, epileptic seizures, mental disorders, and other serious medical conditions.

Participants were divided into three groups: one group engaged in VR self-counseling (VR-SC) with intimate persons (IP group), another with a virtual Sigmund Freud (Freud group), and a control group. For the IP group, intimate persons were scanned to create 3D avatars used during VR sessions. The study was structured into three sessions: an initial session, an intervention session, and a follow-up session, with outcomes measured at four different time points to evaluate the effectiveness of the intervention.

The VR setup included creating 3D avatars using an iPad 6th generation, Structure Sensor Mark II, and the itSeez3D application. The 3D data was processed using Blender and Mixamo. The VR environment was crafted using the Unity 2019.3.12f1 game engine, and participants experienced VR through the Oculus Rift CV1 head-mounted display (HMD) paired with Oculus Touch controllers. The entire system operated on an OMEN HP 17-cb0004TX gaming laptop, ensuring a high-quality immersive experience.

During the initial session, participants were briefed on the experiment and underwent a body scan to create their 3D avatars. They also entered two VR spaces briefly to familiarize themselves with the VR environment. The intervention session, held a week later, involved a VR-SC session comprising a guidance session, a practice session, and the main VR-SC session. Participants alternated between their own avatars and those of their counseling partners (intimate person or Freud) to engage in self-dialogue.

The study yielded compelling results, demonstrating a positive impact of VR-SC on mental well-being. Discomfort levels of the problems addressed significantly decreased by the follow-up session compared to the baseline. Participants reported lower levels of depressive and anxiety symptoms. The VR environment’s effectiveness was validated through questionnaires measuring the sense of presence, body ownership illusion, and sense of agency.

Notably, the IP group exhibited a higher degree of perspective-taking compared to the Freud group, suggesting that the presence of an intimate person avatar could enhance the effectiveness of VR-SC. Additionally, VR-SC was associated with a positive increase in the degree of help and the perceived significance of the problem. These findings underscore the potential of VR-SC in offering a novel approach to self-counseling by leveraging the immersive nature of VR technology.

The study opens up several avenues for future research. One intriguing area is the role of the lookalike virtual body in the success of the VR-SC paradigm. Another important consideration is the potential of integrating VR-SC as a supplementary procedure in real counseling or psychotherapy practice. The study also raises questions about the necessity of a clinical psychologist’s presence during VR-SC sessions and the feasibility of using this method unsupervised.

The research on virtual reality self-counseling with intimate other avatars provides promising evidence for the potential of VR in psychological treatments. The ability to engage in self-dialogue through embodied perspective-taking offers a unique approach to addressing personal problems and mental health issues. As VR technology continues to evolve, it holds the promise of becoming an invaluable tool in the field of mental health, pioneering new ways to enhance well-being and alleviate psychological distress.

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