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Fight Your Fear of Cockroaches With Augmented Reality

2010 May 15

ResearchBlogging.orgAugmented reality (AR) is a new technology where information is virtually layered on top of reality.  For example, you might point your smartphone’s camera at a Washington D.C. landmark and see not only a live video feed of that landmark on your phone, but also information about that landmark (size, age, hours of operation, etc.) on top of  the video.

As a very new technology, there’s not much research available on AR, and even less psychological research.  But one study appeared in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking that caught my eye.  It’s called “An augmented reality system validation for the treatment of cockroach phobia.”[1]

Bugs don’t bug me as much some people I know, but this system creeps me out.  Participants in the study sit at a desk with a computer wearing a virtual reality headset.  The headset has a camera attached, such that the person wearing it will see a video representation of the desk that they’re looking at.  But with cockroaches.

That’s right.  You sit at a desk, wear a virtual reality headset, and then see the desk that you’re sitting at covered in cockroaches.

My operational definition of this is "creepy." (picture from the article)

That sounds a lot more horrible than it probably is.  One major therapy technique for treating phobias is called exposure therapy, which is the gradual exposure of a person with a phobia to the source of that phobia – essentially “facing your fears,” a little bit at a time.  A therapist in control of this system would make judgments as to what level of cockroach exposure the patient was ready for, gradually increasing the prevalence of cockroaches over many sessions.  So over time, the patient would see more and more cockroaches but nothing bad would ever happen to them as a result, and eventually, their phobia is extinguished.

This article is only a first step.  Their goal was to elicit a realistic phobia response using simulated cockroaches, and that seems to have worked.  Six female participants with cockroach phobia reported extremely high anxiety levels when presented with the simulated cockroaches.  Thus by using the AR system, participants experienced symptoms similar to what they would experience with real cockroaches.  That’s important, because if people with cockroach phobia don’t really think cockroaches are near them, there’s no way for them to face their fear.

There are only six participants in this study, which I think is most likely the result of difficulty in finding people with cockroach phobias, which may limit the generalizability of this system in provoking fear responses.  But I do think it’s enough evidence to move on to the more important question anyway: Does exposure therapy on phobias using AR work as well as traditional exposure therapy?  If so, it opens up the possibility of simulating even more phobias virtually that are difficult for therapists to expose to patients without risk or high cost, like fears of falling, flying, heights, and dead things.

Footnotes:
  1. Breton-Lopez, J., Quero, S., Botella, C., Garcia-Palacios, A., Banos, R.M. & Alcaniz, M. (2010). An augmented reality system validation for the treatment of cockroach phobia. Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 1-16 : 10.1089/cyber.2009.0170 []
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43 Responses leave one →
  1. Mohammed Abdelghany permalink
    May 17, 2010

    Great
    using AR to treat Cockroach Phobia should also be used to other kinds of Phobia which has been treated with virtual reality.

  2. Daby permalink
    May 17, 2010

    Hi,

    While VR/AR do help stability and clarity (well, for now, mostly of visual sensations, though -and in the case presented, they apparently do not even use tactile/resistance gloves), you can do all this using simple visualization (and even incubated and/or lucid dreams, if you really want to go that far). I sometimes use it for bed-covered spiders, drowning upside-down in a large tube with mud, worms, and rain, or falling on spikes like in movies.

    Well, it’s all quite brutal though (and more a global experience, rather than simple fear exposure). Exposure sure can be more limited and positive, depending on the fear in question.

    Bye.

  3. May 17, 2010

    Dugg for those large & creepy cockroaches

  4. anon permalink
    May 17, 2010

    What about fear of virtual reality systems?

  5. May 17, 2010

    im afraid of cockroaches and would like to try that out.. haha.. =)

  6. May 18, 2010

    think of all the other things we could treat!
    aversion therapy for various weird and wonderfull things. Interesting post, good read

  7. May 18, 2010

    Will this work with coworkers instead of cockroaches?

  8. May 18, 2010

    You might be on to something doc. Since you have ties to the medical world, might I suggest you apply for a grant to secure funding for that research. You might also want to look into helping digg users with their fear of females.

  9. May 18, 2010

    This is dumb, we should be scared of them for the same reason we think ***** and rotten meat smells bad. These things spread diseases and you should avoid them.

  10. Elisa permalink
    May 18, 2010

    I have very high anxiety due to my cockroach fears. I would love to participate in this study! Please contact me if you need another participant. This fear has become a huge problem for me and I want to get over it very badly!!!

    Email me @ elisa9el@gmail.com

    Thanks!
    Elisa

  11. May 18, 2010

    Elisa – I didn’t conduct the study, I just read about it in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. If you’d like to contact them, their names are on the journal article’s page: http://www.liebertonline.com/doi/abs/10.1089/cyber.2009.0170

  12. Steve13 permalink
    May 18, 2010

    Can they make one that helps with my phobia, that life is just being a virtual reality simualtion?

  13. AmyC permalink
    June 15, 2010

    My sister and I have a ridiculous fear of tree roaches (cockroaches) and have had this problem our entire lives. We both hate it and would do anything to find relief from this torture. She is all for trying this treatment out if she could (even though she cried – literally – at the thought of it), but I don’t think I could do it. The idea alone is freaking me out!

  14. June 17, 2010

    I like this idea. Hopefully they will try it with phobias of snakes which is a lot more common and for which it may be easier to find participants. I don’t like studies with very small numbers.

  15. kaklrf5 permalink
    October 11, 2010

    There is NO way I could bring myself to do this. I was browsing how to get rid of the fear of roaches, some of it seems do able, but there is NO way I could look down and see a roach that close to my hands… not even virtually. I couldn’t even look at the image example.
    For the 6 that did the study my guess would be that they had a moderate fear… Mine however I feel is out of control. This evening I saw one, had a panic attack, had to have someone else kill it,and who knows when I will get to sleep?!? If/ when I get to sleep nightmares are a possibility.
    Yes, I know its irrational most fears are.

  16. October 11, 2010

    Hi kaklrf5 – this kind of treatment would be a part of a larger (and longer) therapeutic strategy, so don’t think that you’d just get thrown to the virtual roaches right out the gate. Phobias are probably the most common mental disorder, and can be caused by any number of experiences and genetic factors – I’ve heard anywhere from 5% to 15% of people have had a phobia at some point. Irrationality is certainly nothing to be ashamed of – it’s a part of being human.

    If your fear is disrupting your ability to live your life (and chronic nightmares certainly sounds like it is), there is absolutely no shame in seeking out a clinical psychologist. They are trained to use proven techniques to help you live like you want. And they will certainly be more effective than the random information you can find on the Internet – and much faster, too.

  17. kaklrf5 permalink
    October 16, 2010

    Mr. Landers,
    Thanks for the reply… as far as seeking some help, I can’t help but laugh that I have never thought of seeking help on that scale. Hypnosis is something I had considered but one things that turns me away from that is that if i am “cured” that they would make me do something extreme like hold a roach or something like that. LOL
    I know my fear is bad but honestly until now I was the only one that believed just how bad it is… The family is more than done with it, and yes if your curious that makes it worse for me.
    ~A

  18. K.S.MOHAN permalink
    November 13, 2010

    I tell this shamefacedly that I have cockroach phobia since childhood. Right now
    I am 58 years old but only difference is I am not that scared as I used to be in
    my childhood. Whenever I see them I kill them mechanically and I ensured
    cockroach invasion of my house by frequently using insecticides. At this age
    I am not scared if I see the roaches around and jump if they sits on me.
    One funny thing is I am not scared if a human being tries to assault me I get
    angry and hit back. Humans are much more dangerous I know.

    It is strange that I am not scared of humans but get frightened when a see a
    roach. ksm

  19. Jackie Cooper permalink
    April 6, 2011

    I have a severe case of cockroach phobia and have had it since childhood. I lived in an old 100 yr. old farm house growing up in the midwest and they (the big black kind) were everywhere! What I find shocking is that my father had told me that I would play with them when I was a toddler!

    My phobia is so bad that I will not visit areas where they are pluntiful (Florida, Hawaii), Mexica, etc.). This has been a challenge for my husband since he wants to take me with him whenever his job requires him to travel to remote areas of the world where they live and breed bountifully.

    I wish I could get help for this rediculous phobia. Spiders, on the other hand, I’m just fine with.

  20. Tammy Judd permalink
    September 7, 2011

    I just wanted to add that it’s SO nice to read that I’m not alone with this! I mean, I’ve always known that there are a lot of people (women especially) who fear roaches… but I felt like my fear was above and beyond anything that I could possibly explain to someone. When I see one I go into instant “fight or flight” mode after which I start envisioning them everywhere!! For at least a couple of hours afterward I am constantly scanning the floor, the walls, the ceiling… because I feel terrified.

    The other night, my new roommates cat decided that he would welcome me into the new home with a “gift”… a huge sewer roach!! And he also decided to give it to me while I was sleeping so I would wake up and find it – right in front of my face!!!! I am actually freaking out a little now, just talking about it again… but the result of that was me – standing on a dining room chair – on one leg (because anything attached to a surface of any kind such as the chair to the floor was something a roach could potentially inhibit) – at 3am crying my eyes out because I couldn’t scan the floor the walls the ceiling fast enough to feel safe! It’s like once the mere thought of roaches enters my brain, it basically just starts multiplying out of my control to the point where I can’t think about anything other than roaches everywhere! To walk through the house (which consisted of walking through a very narrow, dark hallway) at that point to wake up my roommate for help was NOT an option . I stood on that chair for 3 hours waiting for my roommate to wake up and have him remove it. It took me about a week to trust the bed again enough to sleep in it… but still have major anxiety before laying down!

    This fear is ridiculous but absolutely as real as any fear can possibly be! I told someone the other day that giggled when my roommate said something about it to imagine what it might be like to have to come face to face with one of, if not the biggest, fear they had on an almost constant basis… it’s absolute terror, and it’s exhausting! I agree with the person above who said just looking at that picture was freaking her out! I am sitting at my desk at my PC (obviously) and that picture actually made me jump back from my desk and thoroughly scan it for any sign of them before I could continue reading!

    Even if I’ll never be cured of this debilitating fear… it’s at least nice to know I’m not the only one! :)

  21. Deraidos permalink
    November 13, 2011

    I’m fear of cockroaches. I will do anything to avoid cockroaches walk into me.

  22. Conniejoe permalink
    March 23, 2013

    A cockroach in a room amounts to a sleepless night until its taken out. I feel its presence in a room no matter how deeply asleep I was. I almost fainted just seeing ur pictoral illustration. That could kill. I am not after getting rid of the phobia but is there something that repels them completely…so I could carry with me.

  23. farah permalink
    July 10, 2013

    This is so freaky Nd nasty. I wont make it to the first. If i would it wouldnt b a fear . If i get exposed like that i would most probably have a heart attack!!!!! I just saw one and i cant go to sleep i havent slept for days coz i saw one last week. Its summer here so theyre comin out n im not sleeping im going nuts

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