Forty-five percent of smokers try to quit every year; and of course, most fail. Scientists in Quebec believe that virtual reality (VR) might help those smokers finally stop. In a test of smokers enrolled in a smoking-cessation program, smokers who crushed cigarettes in a VR environment (built on the Unreal 2 engine) were significantly more successful in quitting smoking than the control group, who followed the same treatment program but who collected balls in the VR environment instead of crushing cigarettes. “Crushing cigarettes in a 3D environment with a virtual arm led to decreased nicotine dependence and increased retention of patients in treatment,” the research group concludes.

At the end of the 12-week program, 15 percent of subjects in the cigarette-crushing group had stopped smoking, while only two percent in the ball-collecting group had. In a six-month follow-up, the number of subjects in the cigarette-crushing group who had not smoked in the last week was double that of the ball-collecting subjects.

Subjects in the cigarette-crushing group were also more likely to stay in the program.

The scientists admit that there are several hypotheses for the cessation, not all of them related to the VR experience. But their findings do suggest that we can indeed be conditioned by virtual stimuli as effectively as in the real world and that conditioning in the virtual world can determine our responses in the physical world.

“Perceiving oneself in an embodied experience [. . .] could facilitate the automatization of a new conditioned response,” the researchers write.

The scientists believe that VR’s interactivity could be the key to conditioning, as crushing cigarettes with a virtual arm “could be seen as a sensorimotor stimulus or an action-cue exposure.”

Previous studies have shown that 3D virtual reality stimuli elicit a significantly stronger response than 2D still images, but how VR conditioning affects real-world behaviors has yet to be significantly explored.

“The use of cue-exposure therapy using VR is still in its infancy,” the researchers write.

By Mark Alvarez