Wednesday Zen Moment: Can swimming with virtual dolphins help the disabled?

Dolphin therapy has been around for years. The health and mental benefits of swimming with dolphins have been documented and many people have it as a bucket list item.

The problem is many environmentalists rightfully condemn the practice especially with captive animals.

But now a non-profit in the Netherlands have found a way to bring people, especially the disabled, the ability to swim with dolphins but in a way that isn’t harmful to the actual cetacean. The Dolphin Swim Club is using virtual reality as a way to offer the benefits of swimming with dolphins without having to use captive animals to help out humans.

One person, Sarah, has lived with a motor neurological disease for 16 years that limits her body movement. She able to communicate only via her eyes and when asked if there were any experiences she wished she’d had – her reply was ‘I always wanted to swim with dolphins’.

For many years, Wim Veling used VR to help patients overcome phobias, or fears. As a psychiatrist, he treats patients with mental-health disorders, writes this article about the use of virtual reality to aid people.

Veling works at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands

A person with a fear of heights, for instance, might wear a VR headset and practice standing on top of a virtual building. When that person feels comfortable with a low-rise building, he or she can move to a higher one, Veling explains. This technique is called exposure therapy. It involves exposing people to frightening situations without putting them in true danger.

Veling also treats patients with other mental-health disorders. These include depression and anxiety. Such patients can have problems with nervousness, irritability, sleeping and concentrating. “It can be very difficult to relax if you are feeling depressed or anxious,” he notes.

Some people with these disorders try therapy with animals to help them feel calm. One form, known as dolphin therapy, has patients swim with the marine mammals. But there can be drawbacks to this. Dolphins are big, strong animals. So swimming with them can be dangerous. Some people, of course, cannot swim . They may even be afraid of immersing themselves in open waters. This activity also can cost a lot of money if it requires traveling to where the dolphins live.

Simply watching a television show about dolphins can feel relaxing too. But VR might create a much more powerful response in the brain, says Veling.

When you put on a VR headset, a virtual world surrounds you on all sides: Schools of tiny fish pass by. Waves splash overhead. These images and sounds trick the brain into thinking you’re really in the water with dolphins swimming all around you, even though you’re sitting on a comfy couch. And, Veling adds, “When you’re really immersed in that environment, you begin to forget your worries.”

Veling teamed up with a filmmaker who uses a special VR camera. This camera can rotate 360 degrees to make virtual-reality movies. The filmmaker took the camera into the ocean to make a VR video of a pod of wild dolphins.

But Veling needed evidence that the video actually helped people. So he started a small experiment to see if virtually swimming with dolphins helped his patients relax. To test this, he had his patients watch the video through a VR headset. At the same time, Veling watches them for signs of stress. He counts how fast his patients’ hearts beat. He also measures whether they’re tensing their muscles and how much they sweat.

A rapid heartbeat, muscle tension and sweating are signs that someone is not very relaxed, he says. He cannot say with certainty that the VR sessions are helpful. He’s still gathering data. But he does hope to have some answers soon.

Veling plans to make the dolphin immersion video available to the public in the next year so that anyone with a VR headset can try it at home. He hopes it will be a new way for people to relax.

About the author

Peg Fong is also in recovery from newspapers

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