The New York Times
July 8, 1999
A Virtual Reality That's Best Escaped
by Alicia Ault
Virtual Reality can offer users a chance to enter into a
variety of fantasies. Most are appealing.
But at a recent meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, psychiatrists
and others could spend three to five minutes experiencing an animated version
of the auditory and visual hallucinations that plague many schizophrenics.
The impact of the experience is unsettling. Wearing a headset, you are immersed
in a video in which it seems that you walk into a psychiatrist's office and
sit down in front of his desk.
Once there, you are immediately aware of the classical music playing lightly
in the background, but it is not clear if it is just Muzak or it is in your
As the psychiatrist asks you about your weekend, voices denounce him, saying
he doesn't really care.
To the right, a mouse scurries across the carpet.
Looking back to the doctor, the digital clock on his desk has moved ahead
an hour or so.
The magazine on the opposite corner says "Man of the Year," but
a second later, the headline melts into, "They're trying to Poison You."
A spider crawls through the air.
As you desperately try to focus on the psychiatrist, he morphs into a three-eyed
monster and sprouts horns.
The voices are reaching a fever pitch, telling you aren't human, nothing matters,
get out, run.
The idea behind the video, is to give psychiatrists some sense of what their
patients might be going through. It was developed by Janssen Pharmaceutica
of Titusville, N.J., as an amalgam of the real experiences of several schizophrenics.
Janssen makes an antipsychotic medication used by schizophrenics.
Angry voices, white noise and disturbing visions haunt many of the nation's
two million schizophrenics. It is a hell on earth, says Ken Steele, a schizophrenic
who spent 32 years under the yoke of a constant auditory tongue-lashing and
the occasional sighting of the Virgin Mary.
Steele, who says he now has his illness under control with medications, says
he believed that radio and television personalities were speaking directly
to him, telling him he was a loser. This was layered over a background of
static and suicidal thoughts.
"You can imagine what that's like when you're on the streets of New York,
" Steele says. recalling that he spent many years wandering homeless
through Manhattan. Steele's nightmare was used as raw material, along with
the experiences of other schizophrenics, to create the animated video.
Of course, schizophrenics, unlike psychiatrists, can't walk away.
"I can turn down the volume of a radio, I can shut off the TV, or close
the door to my office when I want to concentrate," said Mary Rappaport,
a spokeswoman at the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. " But when
people with schizophrenia experience this, there is no button they can push
to shut it off."
Several psychiatrists at the meeting said they found the experience useful.
Zenadia Mangonon, a staff psychiatrist at the Ancora Psychiatric Hospital,
a state institution in New Jersey, said, "It's really something to experience,
yourself, what your patients feel." Another, Jim Jacobson of Mercy Hospital
in Pittsburgh, said the simulation might be useful to help doctors realize
that a patient who appeared distracted was actually hallucinating.
Janssen first showed the system to psychiatrist, but when it can be scaled
down -- each headset at the exhibit was linked by 50 feet of cable to its
own 400-megahertz Apple G3 -- it may be offered more widely. Janssen is considering
bringing it to physician's offices, community support group meetings, and
medical schools, so families, social workers, and psychiatrists-in-training
can get a glimpse of the reality of schizophrenia.
Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company