Virtual reality can induce mild, transient symptoms of depersonalization and derealization, study finds

New research sheds light on how virtual reality (VR) can influence a person’s sense of reality. The results were published in the journal Computers in human behavior.

There have been some preliminary indications that the use of VR technology can induce feelings of alienation from oneself and a sense of detachment from reality – phenomena known respectively as depersonalization and derealization. To better understand the true effects of virtual reality, the authors of the new study conducted a longitudinal randomized controlled trial.

“Since VR is a technology that can strongly influence people’s experience of reality, at least during exposure to VR, we wondered if VR could also affect their experience of reality vis-à-vis -visit the ‘real world’ after exposure to VR,” explained study author Niclas Braun, the director of the Virtual Reality Therapy and Medical Technology research group at the University of Bonn.

“And indeed: After a short internet search, we found forum posts in which VR gamers complained of various dissociative symptoms and experiences of alienation, which they attribute to their VR consumption. This prompted us to conduct the study to find out if virtual reality could indeed cause such symptoms of depersonalization and derealization.

For their study, the researchers randomly assigned 80 participants (without psychiatric or neurological disorders) to play the game. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim either using a head-mounted VR display or using a typical PC computer screen. Participants completed the German version of the Cambridge Depersonalization Scale at four different time points: immediately before the game, immediately after the game, one day after the game, and one week after the game. emotional reactivity, virtual reality-induced motion sickness, and perceptual reality immediately after play.

Braun and colleagues found that depersonalization and derealization tended to be higher immediately after gambling among both groups of participants. However, they observed a greater increase in those who played Skyrim via a head-mounted VR display. The researchers also found that the perceptual reality of Skyrim was noted significantly higher in the VR group than in the PC group.

“What our study shows is that half an hour of virtual reality use can induce mild symptoms of depersonalization and derealization, which, however, do not reach clinically significant levels and do not manifest than directly after using virtual reality,” Braun told PsyPost.

However, Braun noted that “whether symptoms of long-term depersonalization and derealization may also occur, and to what extent long-term use of virtual reality leads to intensification or lessening of symptoms of depersonalization and of derealization, is still unclear and requires further investigation”.

“Our study indeed leaves many questions unanswered,” he added. “For example, we’ve only reviewed one VR game so far, so it’s unclear to what extent our found effects are transferable to other VR games or VR apps. Additionally, we have so far only studied healthy individuals, but not different potential risk groups (for example, individuals at increased risk of psychosis, or individuals already suffering from an anxiety disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder).

The study, “Virtual Reality Induces Symptoms of Depersonalization and Derealization: A Longitudinal Randomized Controlled Trial,” was authored by Carina Peckmann, Kyra Kannen, Max C. Pensel, Silke Lux, Alexandra Philipsen, Niclas Braun.

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