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The U.S. Army is attempting to harness some of the innovative technology and creative thinking that gave us Hollywood blockbusters Avatar and Inception to help veterans combat nightmares associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 52% of veterans with PTSD report having frequent nightmares, compared with 3-7% of the general population. The Army has responded with the Power Dreaming Project, and most recently awarded ICF International half a million dollars to research “virtual reality to assist veterans suffering from PTSD/TBI related nightmares.”
The Power Dreaming Project’s objective is to develop a software-based system that allows a veteran to put on 3D goggles after waking from a PTSD nightmare and enter a virtual world that is calming, familiar, and completely customized. Power dreaming builds on existing therapeutic models that use biofeedback (like heart rate) and utilizes the popular, virtual world platfom Second Life. Second Life is a simulated environment in which users can become virtual citizens by creating their own self-representations called avatars. The platform is designed to facilitate interaction between virtual citizens, allowing for collaboration for social, professional, or educational purposes.
The Army is looking to reserve a Second Life “island” that is strictly for “warrior trainees” and other personnel suffering from PTSD. The island would be “customized by the trainee and neurologically ‘distracting’” so that it encourages relaxation. To that end, the island would be free from imagery that could trigger traumatic memories, such as “uniforms, weapons, [or] explosions.” A trainee would create an avatar and virtual environment within Second Life and would interact with that space while awake to enhance the strength of those new images, making it easier to recall and submerge himself in that imagery following a nightmare.
Some studies suggest that those who interact with virtual worlds more frequently - like avid video game players - are better able to cope while in the throes of a nightmare. By conditioning themselves to react in an alternate reality, gamers develop a heightened ability to perceive threatening situations in a virtual space as exciting or fun rather than frightening. Gamers are more apt to take control of their dreams, to turn and fight and conquer the figures in their nightmare. This is not to suggest that veterans could or should be made to percieve their nightmares as exciting, but this element of control and the idea that it can be learned via exposure to virtual reality is intriguing.
Going forward, the success of the Power Dreaming Project could raise significant privacy concerns. The government would store and have access to potentially intimate information about soldiers; it would have a direct line into the minds of personnel. There are strong analogies here to the debate that began in the 1990s about military collection and storage of DNA samples. Setting aside positive uses for such individualized content, the potential for nefarious abuse by the government or those who hack the government’s system was unsettling to some. Notably, challengers to military DNA collection programs did not win the day.
– Katie Kuhn
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