Avatars Can Help Schizophrenia Patients Control The Voices In Their Head

A UK medical trial has found that showing schizophrenic patients an avatar that represents the voices in their heads makes them better able to deal with their hallucinations.

The patients who received this novel form of therapy showed a remarkable level of improvement - becoming less distressed and hearing voices less compared to those who only received counselling.

So how does it work? Well, according to the study published in the Lancet Psychiatry journal, researchers sat down with 150 people and asked each one to describe what their voice could look like - selecting details such as skin tone, face shape and even eyebrow thickness. Each avatar was crafted to each individual’s specifications, and the voice of said avatar was altered in both pitch and tone to sync up what was in their head.

From this point, a therapist site down for a three-way conversation with both the patient and the avatar. This allowed the patient to directly confront the voices they hear in a visual manner and since the voice could be controlled, it always gave the therapist and patient they upper hand over the hallucinations.

This part is crucial, as it gives patients the confidence to stand up to the avatars and (by extension) the voice in their head. And on the main hand, it was successful, with 83% (124) of these patients successfully controlling these voices.

However, it’s not something that all patients could cope with, as some found the experience too distressing. But for the majority, it seemed to help.

“Our study provides early evidence that avatar therapy rapidly improves auditory hallucinations for people with schizophrenia, reducing their frequency and how distressing they are, compared to a type of counselling,” said Professor Tom Craig, who led the study. “So far, these improvements appear to last for up to six months for these patients.”

So what’s the future for this work? Well after the success on a handful of patients at one clinic, the researchers want to expand it and see if the same results can be replicated elsewhere. If so, this could introduce a whole new understanding of this mental health condition and a new way of treating it.