The Guardian


London scientists have found a new way to investigate paranoia — using virtual reality spectacles and joysticks. Research says it could identify a sense of persecution.

Daniel Freeman and colleagues from the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London and University College London asked 24 volunteers with no history of mental illness to don three-dimensional VR glasses and “enter” a virtual reality room occupied by computer-generated people, known as avatars.

The study, published in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disorders, found that nine of the 24 felt, to some degree, that “someone in the room had it in for me”. Thirteen felt either slightly or strongly that “they were talking about me behind my back”. The virtual characters had been designed to be neutral.

Dr Freeman said that in the real world about 10 per cent to 20 per cent of the population were likely to feel uneasy about their fellow citizens at any one time. “The thoughts people have vary from ‘people are watching me, observing me’ to thoughts that they may be trying to harm them in some way,” he said.

An obsessive belief that people are hostile to you becomes paranoia. Dr Freeman said virtual reality provided an ideal opportunity to test whether these fears were appropriate or not. He found that after five minutes the volunteers had reacted to the digitally generated strangers in the way they would to real people.

Dr Freeman said the team hoped to find out more about paranoia to improve psychological treatments. “Paranoia is very common, it can be a clinical problem; this is a laboratory way of understanding it,” he said. “In the future, virtual reality could be a treatment. What you could do is repeatedly go into a situation that troubles you and act or think differently. You think about your thoughts in that situation, and what experiences you are interpreting. Paranoia doesn’t spring from nowhere: it is partly how you interpret things.”