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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2 Responses to Avatar, Inception, and Treatment of PTSD

  1. Kendall Short says:

    This Power Dreaming Project helps show the (largely unexpected) power of video games not just to provide entertainment but to help people tackle complicated real-world problems. A recent interview on NPR shed light on some of the military’s other uses of video gaming technology, specifically in the area of combat training exercises. (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=17308466). It would be interesting to see if the military could tie in a teamwork component like Collins Kilgore discussed in his blog post, “Gaming for the Greater Good” (http://www.jetlaw.org/?p=8381), either to help with combat training exercises or in the situations Katie described to support and assist each other in overcoming stressful and traumatic experiences. Allowing live interactions with other team members in these simulated PTSD environments in the Power Dreaming Project might create even greater privacy concerns, however, by intentionally exposing personal information to others. The military should already be providing strong security measures to deter hackers on the outside. But it would also need strong confidentiality protections to deter abuse by those who might legitimately work inside the system, to prevent them from revealing soldier’s private information.

  2. Swathi Padmanabhan says:

    Katie, very interesting topic. The widespread use of electronic storage systems has greatly reduced the opportunity for privacy today. Already, individuals voluntarily choose to store too much of their personal information online: credit card numbers, birthdays, home addresses, contact numbers, etc. If the military adopts the use of this technology, it will be just another piece of information that can suddenly fall into the wrong hands if not secured properly. However, despite these fears, if this technology is as successful in treating PTSD as preliminary studies suggest, I hope its use will become more common. The disruption that PTSD causes not only to service members but also to their family and friends is so great that the potential for a breach of privacy is almost worth the risk of hacking and/or misuse. Given that reduced privacy is here to stay in the electronic age, I think it would be unwise to forgo the adoption of this technology because of privacy concerns.