Which role can art and VR play in the treatment of psychiatric patients?
This is the premise of the Soulhacker research project. The artists of CREW, in collaboration with teachers and students of RITCS, will develop virtual environments in which neurologists and psychologists (represented by Brai3n, Dr. Georges Otte, Dr. Dirk De Ridder and Dr. Sven Vanneste) will guide and treat patients.

Regular psychotherapy enlarges the affective distance between the actual memory and the overwhelming emotional response caused by the reactivation of that memory. Within the context of a healing process this often does not suffice and other means have to be employed. For example the rate of success in treating depression through classical methods is very low.

Soulhacker aims to realize a different kind of virtual research environment which allows direct connections to be created between individual emotions and the virtual environment.

The project applies Dr. Milton Erickson's ideas as expressed in his work on hypnotherapy. He preferred to converse with clients using metaphors, contradictions, symbols, and antidotes to influence their behaviour rather than direct orders. "Indirect hypnosis" can also be obtained through VR. It is important that the patient is able to work himself with the metaphors, throughout therapy.

With this new VR-project, CREW aims to utilise their years of expertise to create worlds and scenes rich in transformative dynamics and psychosynthesis potential. The project concentrates on the empowerment of patients and puts them at the centre as the main actor of their own healing process. This allows patients to experience the power and potential of self-activated mental healing.

Therapeutic sessions in a virtual environment

How does this work? The patient wears a VR headset and biometrical sensors (e.g. heart rate variability, galvanic skin response, EEG...). The therapist also joins them in the immersion. Both can move freely in the virtual environment and can see each other as avatars. The biometrical data provides the therapist with a more complete picture of the patient's behaviour.

Different parameters are extracted from the patient and are employed by artists through biofeedback mechanics to change visual and auditory aspects of the environment in realtime.

The emotions of the patient have a direct influence on the visual and auditive aspects of the scene. The interaction with environments is converted into the visual metaphors of Erickson. The combination of the immersant's emotional parameters and his actions bring forth a metamorphosis, for example from dark and grey to light and colourful, from arid to lush, static to dynamic, closed to open. The patient creates his own catharsis and transformation.

New scientific and artistic insights

The blending of art and VR can lead to new therapeutic solutions and insights in psychiatry. Art is brought into play to recondition people with psychological problems.

Soulhacker offers the artists the possibility to create worlds unencumbered by classical dramaturgy and necessities. In a series of hackathons, students from different departments of RITCS will collaborate with CREW artists to translate freshly obtained insights into new artistic expressions.

Both artistically and scientifically, data received through biofeedback (from not only patients, but also regular visitors or actors) will provide new insights into these processes. The researchers of RITCS will apply this biofeedback data into research in perception and semi-automated audiovisual techniques.

Soulhacker is supported by the Flemish Community (Innovatieve Partnerprojecten).

Text by Isjtar and Eric Joris.