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

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

There is some preliminary evidence that the use of VR technology can induce feelings of alienation from oneself and a sense of detachment from reality—phenomena known as depersonalization and derealization, respectively. To better understand the true impact of VR, the authors of the new study conducted a randomized, controlled, longitudinal study.

“Since VR is a technology that can strongly affect people’s experience of reality, at least during VR exposure, we wondered if VR might also affect their experience of reality in terms of the ‘real world’ after VR exposure,” explains Study author Niclas Braun, head of the research group Virtual Reality Therapy and Medical Technology at the University of Bonn.

“And indeed: After a short internet search, we found some forum posts in which VR gamers complain about 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 VR could actually cause such symptoms of depersonalization and derealization.”

For their study, the researchers randomly assigned 80 participants (who were free of psychiatric or neurological disorders) to play the game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim either via a head-mounted VR display or via a classic PC computer screen. Participants completed the German country version of the Cambridge Depersonalization Scale at four different times: immediately before playing, immediately after playing, one day after playing, and one week after playing. They also conducted assessments of emotional responsiveness, VR-induced motion sickness, and perceivable reality immediately after playing.

Braun and his colleagues found that depersonalization and derealization tended to be higher immediately after gaming in both groups of participants. However, they observed a larger increase in those who gambled Skyrim via a head-mounted VR display. The researchers also found that the perceivable reality of Skyrim was rated significantly higher in the VR group than in the PC group.

“What our study shows is that half an hour of VR use can induce mild symptoms of depersonalization and derealization, but these do not reach clinically significant levels and are only apparent immediately after VR use,” Braun told PsyPost.

However, Braun noted that “whether long-term depersonalization and derealization symptoms can also occur and to what extent long-term VR use leads to an increase or decrease in depersonalization and derealization symptoms is still unclear and requires further investigation.”

“Our study indeed leaves many unanswered questions,” he added. “For example, we have only examined one VR game so far, so it is unclear to what extent the effects we found can be transferred to other VR games or VR applications. In addition, we have only examined healthy people so far, but not different potential risk groups (e.g. people with an increased risk of psychosis or people who already suffer from an anxiety disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder).”

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

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