“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
Most people believe FDR was seeking to motivate the nation with this line from his first inaugural address. But he was actually referencing phobophobia, the fear of having a fear.
Of all the weird phobias out there, this is one of my favorites. It is a fear of your own mental state instead of fear of an external thing, which must be hell of a phobia to battle.
A recent post in Kotaku got me thinking about phobias and technology. In the piece, a brave gentleman with a fear of spiders recounts his experience with a new VR program, Arachnophobia. The concept is simple – put on the helmet and let virtual spiders crawl near you and on you (or on your virtual arms).
There are some stills of what the viewer sees in the post—take a quick gander. The VR images are not convincing; the spiders move in jerky motions and lack fine details. In short, they don’t look real.
But for the writer with the phobia, they were real enough. He barely made it past the first level before he had to tear the headset off. The virtual spiders freaked him out nearly as much as real ones.
This is particularly interesting because it suggests there will be no limits on what VR can make the human brain believe. The man trying out the phobias therapy knew the spiders were not real. What happens when we can make images that trick both our animal brain and our rational brain?
I get to visit Hoth and fight AT-ATs. That’s what happens.
And probably some other terrifying dystopia stuff. (see: science fiction)
The VR therapy article also taught me that something called the Virtual Reality Medical Center exists. How’s that for a dip into futurism?
I’m not trying to claim that tricking the brain into believing something unreal is a new miracle technology. We have been doing it since the invention of the moving image. In 1895, the first people to see the Lumiere Brothers “Arrival of a Train” jumped out of the way to avoid being crushed. But the difference is this: the 1895 people didn’t understand the technology. We do.
My own phobias are disappointingly mundane. Airborne stinging insects. Falling off a cliff. The future.
But there are some fun phobias out there. Will VR therapy be able to help?
Pteridophobia: fear of ferns. Seems silly, but Sigmund Freud suffered from this. Would have have walked in a virtual fern garden? Also: I may or may not dress as a fern for Halloween.
Deipnophobia: fear of dinner parties and dinner conversation. I might have a touch of this. Maybe fear isn’t the right word. Torture? That seems right. Small talk is rough. I also have a fear of torture.
Scriptophobia: fear of writing in public. This is most of my day every day, so it apparently doesn’t affect me. But it fits the image of the tortured writer hunched over a manuscript deep in the woods.
Dutchphobia: fear of the Dutch. I think everyone knows what this is like. Even the Dutch. VR could easily project tall, well-dressed blonde people on bicycles.
Mangionephobia: Fear of Chuck Mangione. Imagine: You put on the VR helmet and find yourself on a late 1970s NYC street corner. The city is empty. The first bars of “Feel So Good” waft in from an alley up ahead. Your spine runs cold. Unable to move, you watch the opening…
He appears, peeking out from around the old brick. Flugelhorn, neckbeard, that fedora-ish hat. Do you run? Your rational brain knows he’s not real, but your animal brain screams for you to get away…
Full disclosure: I made this one up. A friend of mine is afraid of Chuck Mangione, so I decided to classify it as an official phobia.
Spectrophobia – fear of looking at ones’ own reflection in the mirror. Hold on – who ISN’T afraid of mirrors? Anyone who has ever seen a horror movie knows that mirrors are how the evil gets you. If any of your mirrors allow reflection of a doorway, shower curtain, or closet in the background, SMASH IT IMMEDIATELY.
I could keep going, but you could also just google “weird phobias” and have a go at it yourself. The more interesting takeaway is that when VR becomes ubiquitous, phobia therapies will, too.
As will the ability to manifest nightmares and send them straight into a person’s eyeballs.
So which do you think will be more common? The VR nightmares or the treatment for those nightmares? I’m gonna take a wild guess and say the former.
What are some of your worst fears? Could you see yourself tackling them in VR therapy? Would it help to see your fear manifested but know that it is only a digital fiction?