Virtual therapy

Introduces psychologist Ralph Lamson, Ph.D., of Kaiser Permanente Medical Group use of virtual reality to help acrophobes overcome their fear of heights. Computer-generated universe's replacement of the real world; Average age of patients; Total minutes of sessions.

By PT Staff, published on November 1, 1994 - last reviewed on January 23, 2015


The bridge suddenly ends at mid-span, and you're standing on the
brink, staring down at the icy waters below. Your heart is racing, your
palms are sweating. The sole consolation: the bridge exists only on a
computer chip.

Welcome to virtual reality, until now, a technology in search of a
purpose. Psychologist Ralph Lamson, Ph.D., of the Kaiser Permanente
Medical Group, says it's just the thing to help acrophobes overcome their
fear of heights.

Don the special helmet and the real world is replaced by a
computer-generated universe. As you turn your head, the headgear senses
the movement and alters the image accordingly. Turn the handgrip and you
seem to move forward or backward, allowing you to tour this cyberworld at
your own pace.

More than 60 patients (average age: 54) have explored the bridge in
40-minute sessions. They begin their travels in a cafe and gradually make
their way to a raised wooden plank outside. To cross the plank, they must
confront their phobia. Patients perceive the plank's height
differently--some see it as 10 feet, some as 10 stories--but the
experience can be dizzying, even if it isn't real.

"When people look down, their heart rate and blood pressure go up,"
Lamson says. "They get a little shaky. They say, 'Oh my God, I can't do
this.'" Lamson encourages patients to stay where they are until they feel

The plank leads to the bridge, where the truly daring can peer over
the edge of the truncated span. By the time the patients return to the
plank, they are somewhat desensitized and their vital signs are closer to
normal. High technology indeed!

After treatment, more than 90 percent of the participants
successfully endured a 15-story ride in a glass elevator and completed
self-assigned tasks ranging from cleaning out their roof gutters to
driving across the Golden Gate Bridge. Benefits were still apparent after
three months. One woman who wouldn't climb above the second step on a
ladder now mountain climbs. Her next destination: Lassen Peak, 10,453

PHOTO: Man wearing a virtual reality suit