Virtual Reality approaches in Psychotherapy

Virtual reality approaches in psychotherapy are expanding into the modern age and with immersive techniques to target and decrease Veteran combat stress, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and anxiety disorders.  Check out the Carbon Culture link shared link shared above and explore how these technologies are being used.

Breakthroughs in Storytelling

Digital storytelling is the practice of creating a narrative with digital content by including texts, images, sound, video and/or interactivity. The audio and visual technology provide limitless creative latitude and opportunities to reach a wider audience. The tradition of telling stories is universal across human culture and technology based media simply assists in creating a richer and more dynamic mode of transferring one’s experience to others. We are creatures that not only desire to listen to, but also at least momentarily experience other people’s stories. The psyche is intrigued by and imagines various exciting, pleasurable, and sometimes distressing momentarily experiences that allow us to understand the story of another person. With immersive technology, we can now willfully step into an artificial world created by the storyteller without any spatial barriers.

This year Columbia University’s Digital Storytelling Lab (DSL) introduced twelve digital films to “recognize breakthrough achievements along the wide spectrum of media that rely on digital technologies, including cinema, video, journalism, advertising, marketing, games, art, fiction, virtual reality, and experimental narratives.” I think it is worthwhile for art therapists to check out Columbia’s Digital Dozen for 2015 because many of them explore important social and psychological boundaries and issues that resonate in our practice. Door into the Dark created by May Abdalla and Amy Rose of the UK studio Anagram is particularly interesting as an “immersive documentary” experience.

Door Into The Dark trailer from may abdalla on Vimeo.

Another interesting new digital storytelling experiment is Karen by Blast Theory. This is a “life coach” app that profiles you psychologically and then provides you a report at the end.  With all the self-help and life coach apps that are currently on the market, someone may easily confuse this one with of those, not realizing it as an artistic experiment. This is a personalized storytelling experience that explores the boundaries of one’s social and psychological space through the interactivity of an app. The data component counters and challenges any notion of privacy and confidentiality that one might expect with a psychotherapist and perhaps highlights the vulnerability of one’s personal space in this digital age.

A message from Karen from Blast Theory on Vimeo.

Creative Digital Media in Therapeutic Processes

This symposium will bring together art therapists, artists, and video game designers and collaborative teams who are curious about and investigating digital media for therapeutic processes and healing narratives.  Through this platform, we hope to support and create continued dialogue for interdisciplinary interest around digital media for therapeutic purposes.  There will be a sharing of ideas and projects including methods of implementation and the implications of digital media use in therapeutic practice. CreaDigiMedTherPro-4x6.jpg

Read This Before You Buy a Tech Gift for the Digital Mind


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Computer technology used to be intimidating, novel, and pretty much non-essential in our lives when I was growing up in the 70s and 80s. Today, the ubiquity of technology shows how it has been marvelously adapted to our needs and wants, becoming essential to our lives. However, I sometimes think that, at some point, we have adapted ourselves to technology more than the other way around. This is true, in my case, with my frequent use of the Global Positioning System (GPS) app. I used to be able to just glance at a Thomas Guide map and find my way to my destination and return back on my own. And on my next trip to the same destination, I wouldn’t even need a map since my mental GPS had already stored its location. Nowadays? I still can’t find my way to my doctor’s office that’s only a city over without my GPS after all these years! It’s true I only see her once or twice a year and never took notice of the street signs and directions since there was no need, but it shows how I have buried my inner GPS ability due to my reliance on my phone’s GPS app. I see how plausible those funny stories I read about the people who actually drove into lakes and storefronts because of un-updated GPS system could be.

Last year, John O’Keefe, May-Britt Moser, and Edward I. Moser won the Nobel Prize in medicine for their work on the cells that form our brain’s GPS system. Their research has important future implications in Alzheimer’s research because of the parts of the brain those cells lie in the hippocampus and the entorhinal cortex where they are broken down early on in Alzheimer patients. It also pinpoints “a cellular basis for higher cognitive function,” the Nobel Assembly said. Thus, I wonder if my decreased usage of my inner GPS system would have an impact on my cognitive abilities later on in my life.

In other case, I believe that I am more aware and mindful due to apps that have reminders mainly because I’ve never been focused and mindful of birthdays, meetings, and scheduling to begin with. Everyday, I anticipate a reminder of some sort and look at my phone to check if I don’t hear the reminder bell. I am also able to check my calendar more frequently since my phone is always easily accessible. I used to be the one who’s frequently late and forgetful of meetings and meaningful days despite carrying around an agenda notebook, but not anymore thanks to technology.

This year, I noticed a huge increase in gadgets and apps that are aimed at improving our healthy mind and body. However, I wonder whether some of them would actually demote our innate ability to mindfully self-care and self-monitor. Would our minds actually adapt to technology and simply react rather than the technology helping our minds become more robust and proactive? I think the answer is a very personal one. For some, it may have tremendous benefits, but for others it may encourage the loss of one’s own ability.

Below are some of this year’s gadgets and apps that are promoted as great holiday gifts that encourage a healthy and improved lifestyle, and I think one should deeply consider whether it’s a want or a need before purchasing one 🙂

Digital Experience in Psychotherapy


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One of the most prevalent technologies used in psychotherapy intervention is Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR). Both technologies are used as a tool to help guide psychotherapy treatments in patients who can benefit from interactive digital experiences. Below are two notable projects or organizations that are utilizing VR to enhance the patient’s traditional mode of psychotherapeutic experience.

MyPsySpace is a project by Missouri State University’s Second Life (SL) Prototyping Center for Psychotherapy Technologies that explores SL as a prototyping tool for HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) to offer “virtual translations of traditional expressive therapies (e.g. virtual sandplay, virtual drama therapy, digital expressive therapy, and virtual safe spaces).”  The VR element is used to increase accessibility and flexibility to those who may not have the practical means to receive proper expressive therapies. MyPsySpace is designed to securely connect the therapist to a group or an individual patients located anywhere in the world. Moreover, one can virtually create any type of imaginable scenarios, images, or enact behaviors safely in the virtual space.


The Virtual Reality Medical Center located in San Diego, California specializes in using VR exposure to treat many different types of panic and anxiety disorders. Although the exposure occurs in the virtual space, the center uses non-invasive sensors to measure the patient’s heart rate, breathing rate, sweat gland activity and skin temperature. The therapist will then explain visual feedback of physiology to the patient.


Does ‘Digital’ always equal ‘Virtual’?

I recently viewed and listened to Pablo Garcia’s video “Adventures in Virtuality” and found it most interesting to the subject matter regarding the history of virtuality as unlinked from computer-mediated tools but also regarding our relationship to art forms of illusion and ‘machine’ generated artworks.  You can watch this engaging presentation at the following Vimeo link or:

Creating Digital Stories


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All therapists recognize the power of storytelling. In essence, our clients come to tell their stories and we need to know their full story in and out including characters, background, plots (and subplots), point of view, etc. With children, their personal stories often come out in fantastical and metaphoric ways and an expressive therapist has the skills to bring those out and enact change, if needed.  Below are multimedia apps that can provide engagement as well as therapeutic, communicative, and expressive opportunities for a child client:

Plotagon: This is a creative animation app that is very easy to use. I have a 8-year-old who learned how to make a full 5 minute story in 10 minutes.


Puppet Pals 2: This is a essentially digital puppetry and you can even use your own picture to create a character.

Puppet Pal

Comic Book: This is a bit challenging to use for those who are not comic book creators. But, if you have a kid who likes to create comic books, this app has many layout options, caption tools, and stickers in its library.

Comic book

Storehouse: Helps you easily create, edit and share visual stories. Perfect for teenagers who want to use their own digital photos without much text to tell a story that is meaningful to them.


These apps help create a multimedia story rich with complementary combination of text, still image, audio, and/or video that can be interactive and edited at any time. I encourage art therapists to try experiencing these apps for themselves to see if they can be a valuable tool in empowering the developing stories of our children and teenagers.

Surveillance and Privacy: Art and Social Practice


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Recently, Natalie Carlton, chair of AATA’s Technology Committee, sent me a link to Open Informant an art project that “attempts to confront the unsettling realities of surveillance in a networked age”. The art project involves using an app and e-ink badge to publicly display the NSA trigger words for surveillance in one’s own e-communication. By wearing the badge out in the public, one’s body becomes an integral part of challenging and exploring the narrative told about surveillance in our society.  The simplistic explanation of “for our safety and security” is immediately confronted and thrown into our psychological, physical, and emotional space to produce issues layered with complexity as we encounter or wear this badge.

On the other side, we have artists who use surveillance themselves as an art form. Surveillance Art takes advantage of the technological advance of a camera that can zoom, fly, and be hidden practically anywhere. Art News has a great article on exploring the meaning of invading other’s privacy in the name of art and you would be surprised at how this provokes your own personal feelings about surveillance, art, and privacy. With greater access to advanced technological devices and online information, the line between transparency and privacy is very blurry. Privacy laws and social ethics have still not caught up with the wave of technological change in our culture. Whether surveillance is being conducted in the name of art, safety, security, convenience, or simple voyeurism, we need to acknowledge that boundaries are being crossed and control is being created.

As an art therapist, we have to be mindful of the potential fragility and power digital information and visuals hold. What does it mean to store a client’s digital artwork in digital space? And how does the client feel about this? What if the client wants to post his or her artwork on social media? These are conversations we need to have before we engage in digital media with our clients through informed consent. This year at AATA’s annual conference in Minneapolis, a panel (“The Ethics of Digital Identity”) will address these distinct ethical problems and issues our digital environments pose and hopefully provide a guideline for art therapists who utilize digital media.

Why cultural competence is important for art therapists in this digital age


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Multiethnic Group of People Socail Networking at Cafe

Art therapists gain artistic competence by personally working with art materials such as clay, collage, found materials, paint, charcoal, markers, etc. Yet, many are still oblivious or choose to ignore the usage of digital technology to create art. It is no longer innovative to use an app to externalize and process one’s creativity, feelings, thoughts, and relationships: it is characteristic and routine among digital natives. Despite the high prevalence of digital media use to tell one’s story, art therapists are slow in educating themselves about the various digital art media that are commonly accessed and utilized.

Cultural competence in psychotherapy has been the topic of countless articles since D.W. Sue et al. (1982) published a model of multicultural counseling competence (MCC). The model describes competencies in three domains: awareness (of beliefs and attitudes), knowledge (i.e. cultural values of specific cultural groups, cultural and linguistic characteristics, sociopolitical influences on clients, etc.), and skills (i.e. assessment, diagnosis, intervention, supervision, training, etc).  These three components are easily translatable to the cultural competence an art therapist should possess with art materials and media. An art therapist needs to familiarize oneself with various art materials and the media’s varying cultural significance.

Below describes the process of my own cultural competence development in art materials and media:

Awareness: Awareness of art therapist’s and client’s cultural worldview of art materials and media

– As a little girl, I never liked to use markers because the sound it made as I drew was highly irritating to me. Knowing my aversion to markers, my partner in third grade decided to torture me by scraping his marker on a piece of fresh matte paper until I screamed in pain. In my early training days, I didn’t even realize that I was suggesting crayons and colored pencils over markers to my young clients. In order to overcome my resistance to markers, I had to acknowledge and become fully aware how my bias was affecting my own behavior and client in the session. I, then, decided to truly examine each art material I used with my clients and reflect on my personal view of the materials. In regards to digital media, I realized that I was very comfortable using digital technology to create art and just as fluent in digital art making as the digital natives. But I also recognized that for some, digital art making may look foreign and “feel” inauthentic. The systematic attitude towards digital media among art therapists are still lukewarm and in some cases misunderstood. I believe that art therapists have a ethical responsibility in this digital age to examine and explore their own attitudes towards various art materials, including digital art media in order to develop cultural competency.

Knowledge: Knowledge of art practices in different cultures and worldviews regarding art materials and media

– What does it mean to paint your thoughts and feelings? I once had a client who thought painting was “so bourgeois”. She said, “I really don’t have time for this kind of high class activity.” Another client mentioned how it was “a bit childish” and “too messy”. While painting could be considered high art for some, it could be viewed as crafty and immature for others. These are all clinically and culturally relevant information we gather as art therapists. As art therapists, we also educate ourselves about the cultural differences our clients may have in the use of certain colors and images. In regards to the use of digital media, however, we are living among generations (regardless of culture) that view using digital apps as an integral part of their daily lives. Using digital tools to author one’s thoughts, feelings and creativity is becoming culturally universal, yet many art therapists lack the knowledge in understanding digital art making and insist on using only traditional materials. Cultural competency emphasizes the significance of establishing collaborative relationships between the counselor and the client. As I work with teenagers and young adults, I constantly make note of what kinds of applications are being accessed by whom and why. I also research popular art making apps to rate them in terms of usability, privacy, features, capability, etc. to assess their creative and therapeutic value.

Skills: Skills of utilizing various artistic practices, techniques, and media in art therapy.

– Just as a skilled counselor utilizes the interventions that are client based and serve clients needs (Chung & Bemak, 2002), an art therapist must update oneself with various art making tools and practices to meet the individual needs of the client. For that reason, art therapists cannot dismiss digital art making as it is being utilized by a vast and diverse population. Art therapists must be willing to educate themselves on digital art practices to connect and collaborate with clients. For this, I update myself with not only apps that simulate traditional media such as painting and drawing, but also with multimedia and interactive art making apps. Just because I educate myself about the various digital creative media does not mean I introduce them to my clients. However, if I don’t possess the skills and knowledge on the various digital art making processes, how would I know whether they are relevant or irrelevant, appropriate or inappropriate to my clients?

The digital revolution has changed the way we connect, create, express and collaborate and it is changing the way we create art. Digital culture is here and we are living in it whether we realize it or not. Art therapists can use the MCC model to evaluate and expand our artistic practices in art therapy to connect with our clients in this new cultural landscape.


Sue, D. W., Bernier, J. E., Durran, A., Feinberg, L., Pedersen, P., Smith, E. J., & Vasquez-Nuttall, E. (1982). Position paper: Crosscultural counseling competencies. The Counseling Psychologist, 19, 45–52.

Chung, R., C-Y & Bemak, F. (2002). The relationship of culture and empathy in cross-cultural counseling. Journal of Counseling and Development, 80 (2), 154-160.

The use of digital storytelling


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One of the main objectives of creating art in art therapy is to have our clients tell their own story using their own visual language. This provides insight into a perceived experience and some understanding of the formation process of our client’s identity or identities. In art therapy, stories are told, explored, validated, retold, and often transformed into new narratives through the use of art. Nowadays, we frequently encounter the telling of one’s story through social media. However, the storytelling with a wide audience can be quite different from the story you tell in therapy.

One thing we can learn from social media is the use of digital tools. Digital media makes storytelling widely accessible and convenient to explore in art therapy. Digital storytelling (DS) is a wonderful therapeutic process that unfortunately many art therapists overlook. It uses a combination of text, audio, images and video to create a rich narrative that stimulates our senses. But, Digital Storytelling is not about media overload. In fact, it is more about mindfully listening, seeing and sensing the powerful stories that unfold. We should also note that today’s children and young adults are aligned with technology and digital literacy is almost like second nature to them, and as therapists we need to educate ourselves in new platforms and tools to be culturally competent.

The Center for Digital Storytelling (CDS) is a a non-profit, community arts organization in Berkeley, California that uses the power of technology and creativity to promote positive change through storytelling. Although their public workshops are for mainly educators and social advocates, I believe art therapists can benefit from learning how Digital Storytelling is conducted, processed, and disseminated/contained.  Click here for CDS Youtube Channel and view the various Digital Stories.