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Virtual Reality Could Rehabilitate Offenders of Domestic Violence

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Virtual Reality Could Rehabilitate Offenders of Domestic Violence

Jul 03, 2019

Virtual reality therapy is being investigated as a way to induce empathy in violent offenders. Dr. Maria V. Sanchez-Vives has been studying potential uses of VR in cognitive therapy and neuroscience. She talks about how the interventions work, the results of her research, and how this groundbreaking technology could change the way we approach treating individuals with violent tendencies.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: Could virtual reality be used to help rehabilitate offenders of domestic violence? Could this technology help change deep-seated attitudes of perpetrators and actually help induce empathy?

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Interviewer: It may seem like science fiction, but that's exactly what Dr. Maria V. Sanchez-Vivez has been studying. She's an MD with a PhD in neurosciences, the head of systems neuroscience group at the Institute of Biomedical Research in Barcelona, and the co-founder of Virtual Bodyworks, Inc. She's one of the foremost researchers in the transformative power of V.R. Her latest research involves taking domestic violence offenders and placing them in virtual scenarios where they are the victims of violence. This V.R. intervention aims to change their perspective on violence through the induction of empathy during the V.R. experience.

We sat down with Dr. Sanchez-Vivez to discuss how these interventions work, how effective they are, and what it could mean for how we approach rehabilitating violent individuals.

In society we tend to see a lot of efforts that support victims in cases of domestic violence, and we tend to highlight prevention efforts and awareness efforts, but rarely do we see efforts focusing on the perpetrators of domestic violence. How did you decide to look at the subject from this angle?

Dr. Sanchez-Vivez: I've been working with my team for quite some time on technique used in virtual reality that we work on developing for several years, which is called embodiment. How do we feel our virtual body as our own. Some years ago, some nine years ago, we were thinking what can be a very good application to apply this powerful technique that's embodiment. We knew it could be very interesting in order to develop empathy, and we thought of the rehabilitation of offenders of domestic violence.

We knew there were programs since the '80s. There are programs in many counties for the rehabilitation of domestic violence offenders, and we investigated into these, and we saw whether we could use virtual reality within these programs in order to improve the process of rehabilitation.


Interviewer: How did you determine with your control subjects that they were not offenders? Obviously, they had no record but was there a way to determine whether they had actually ever participated in any domestic violence?

Dr. Sanchez-Vivez: Mm-hmm. So it's true we always compare the population of violent offenders against control and it's true that in the controls they have to fill up some questionnaires and some of the questions are on this aspect. So we accept they say they are not, they don't have any history of domestic violence. We take that as true but it's true that there may be some cases in which there is some of it.

Interviewer: Tell me how your experiments with virtual reality and the rehabilitation of domestic offenders, how this will affect their recidivism or how this will make a difference in their lives.

Dr. Sanchez-Vivez: So we know that in the rehabilitation programs often there is training through roleplaying or they watch videos where they can see situations of domestic violence and they can discuss them and see how the victim may feel, for example.

However, what we can provide in most virtual reality and through embodiment in the victim. So, what we can provide is the perspective of the victim during situations of domestic violence and what we aim to is to provide an experience that kind of eventually has them empathy and actually we have measured, scientifically, with all the measures that we can take in our experiments, we have measured that this has an effect.

This allows, for example, to improve the emotion recognition in the faces of women. It improves the fear recognition in the faces of women, for example. It has also explicit effects that one can report but also, we like to have objective effects that we can quantify and what we think is that we provide these different perspectives and eventually this translates into sense of behavior and this is what we aim at.

So, nowadays we are inducing different environments where we can not only provide this different perspective, from the perspective of the victim, but we can also train into nonviolent responses.

Interviewer: It looks like you've had some good responses to this, too. You've had some follow up on this. One of the things you discovered that sort of surprised me was the perception of faces that we would perceive as fearful, but the perpetrators perceived it as happiness or excitement. What are some of the things that came out of your research that surprised you?

Dr. Sanchez-Vivez: Yes, this is very interesting. So, it's been described before that the fact that in violent groups or in violent people, people with a history of violence often, they have a deficit in emotion recognition and we have seen this very consistently in the groups of offenders that we have studied. That they had when we give, there are sets of faces, and there are tests that are validated tests of emotion recognition, and there we can detect whether they are biases toward of the recognition of one emotion or another emotion.

So, we see, we ask people to identify in different faces that can have also different bodies, we ask to identify and categorize, is this a happy face or is this a fearful face? Or is this an angry face or a happy face? And, at some point they switch, right? Because there is gradation, let's say, between emotions.

So, in the offender populations we consistently find that there was a deficient in the identification of fear in the faces of women and they tend, there was a bias towards classification the faces as happy. And we see that after these interventions in virtual reality where one has this experience from the perspective of the victim, there is a change in this bias and they recognize better the fear in the faces of women. Probably because through the experience, one can perceive this kind of fearful situation when one is the victim. So, we know that expression of the emotion is in the brain and it's very association with the recognition of the emotion that they activate very similar brain networks. Therefore, by experiencing the emotion it improves this identification.

Interviewer: Could this project be scaled up for a larger offender audience or offenders that are outside of domestic violence but maybe murderers or other cases of criminal activity?

Dr. Sanchez-Vivez: Yes, we think similar strategies or in general these techniques in virtual reality can be extended. Actually, we have worked, for example, with abusive parents also in some studies and there are other, like, bullying in schools is very important problem also that I think can be helped by using virtual reality environments for this purpose. And there are different violent behaviors.

There's also a lot of situation where there is abuse from the kids to the parents, especially from certain ages from sons against mothers. This is also a case we've been asked for, for example, by the Justice Department, where we could create environments because it was an increasing problem, for example. So, yes, we think it can be used in different violence, or different behaviors, violent behaviors. We have also been asked, there's an interest for some people in prisons to use it as a tool in the therapies there.

Interviewer: Do you feel like there is some cultural adaptation that would have to be performed if you wanted to do these similar experience in different countries? Or if you develop a rehabilitation program that could be exported to different places, do you think there would have to be some cultural adaptation that would have to occur?

Dr. Sanchez-Vivez:Yes, yes, and we have considered this. It is very interesting. We not only need to do proper translations and so on, but often it needs some cultural adaptations. So, this is something we have been considering, yes.

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