How V.R. Might Help Fight Recurring Nightmares

Researchers at Boston University School of Medicine think that Virtual Reality could benefit people, particularly children, suffering from recurring, scary dreams.

You might say that Patrick McNamara is in a frightening line of work. As a sleep researcher, he’s hunting for new ways to treat people with nightmare disorder (also known as dream anxiety disorder). Being chased by a malevolent entity, McNamara says, is one of the most common recurring nightmares that patients report experiencing over and over again.

“Very often, people with chronic nightmares report dreaming about being chased or attacked by supernatural or demonic beings,” says McNamara, a Boston University School of Medicine associate professor of neurology. “They can’t really see their attackers’ faces, but they know their intent is to harm them.

Imagery rehearsal therapy, the current gold standard for treatment, attempts to teach patients to replace nightmare imagery with less frightening versions. According to McNamara, the success of the treatment is varied and typically short-term because it relies on a person’s ability and willingness to conjure up realistic nightmare imagery in their mind’s eye, which some patients can do better than others.

Platforms like video games that exercise a person’s ability to control and manipulate simulated imagery—rather than imagery conjured up in their mind’s eye—could have therapeutic benefits for people with nightmare disorders. Looking out to the next evolution of visual technology, McNamara became very interested in whether virtual reality could be an even more effective tool.

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