At its core, the program brings patients beyond the physical limitations of their bodies, or to “think outside the body,” as Ancliffe says. One cancer patient named Suzy, unable to travel because of her condition, had a dream of returning to Jerusalem before she died. They brought her there
. Another, named Hege, floated through the canals of Venice, where she’d gotten engaged, before ticking a visit to the dancing Northern Lights off her bucket list. Her husband participated, too; a key aspect of palliative care is support for patients’ families. So often, hospices bring families back together around a loved one, though they’ve potentially shared no common experience in decades. Virtual reality could possibly bridge that gap by helping them bond over old, or new, experiences.
But beyond the thrills of escapism, the technology has potential to fundamentally improve patients’ level of pain. Under the basic concepts of distraction therapy, commonly used for depression and anxiety, it diverts a patient’s attention away from their reality, says Perna-Forrest. It also draws from reminiscence therapy, used to trigger past memories in dementia patients.
It also has the potential to encourage transformation of the brain. Unlike acute pain (an ankle sprain, a bee sting) chronic pain gets wired into the brain. Alternative therapies—using images, music, scent—fire up other parts of the brain, like the visual cortex, breaking established pathways and creating new ones.
A recent patient, a woman named Susi with a cancer diagnosis, was taken to the white-sand beaches of the Maldives. “We asked her to give us a number, to quantify her pain before the VR,” says Perna-Forrest. When they took off the goggles, she cried tears of joy; her pain had dramatically dropped from a seven to a three. “It gave us what we’re hoping to achieve through our research,” says Perna-Forrest. “Finding that link.” Both Perna-Forrest and Ancliffe, however, are quick to acknowledge that this research is in its early stages.