Q+A: The Sights and Smells of Creative Arts Therapies in Virtual Reality

3-D art created by a study participant. Image credit: Arun Ramakrishnan

In early 2019, Drexel University’s College of Nursing and Health Professions and Johns Hopkins University’s International Arts + Mind Lab (IAM Lab) formed a collaboration to examine how art therapy can be integrated into virtual reality-based expression to enhance patient care.

Some of the latest research conducted through this collaboration focused on the benefits of virtual reality (VR) on creative expression, with the inclusion of a fragrance stimulus. Led by Girija Kaimal, EdD, an associate professor in the College, and Susan Magsamen, executive director at IAM Lab, part of the Pedersen Brain Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, the pilot study was published in late 2020 in Frontiers of Psychology.

Overall, the study showed participants responded positively to using VR for creative expressions through art making and the inclusion of the fragrance reduced negative affect—such as feeling upset, hostile or distressed.

The researchers spoke with Drexel News Blog about the study and what’s to come with VR in creative arts therapies.

What does the immersive environment (the VR with and without fragrance) do or add to a typical art therapy session?

Girija Kaimal (GK): The immersive environment offers a new way to being in space and allows for self-expression in three dimensions quite unlike anything in the real world. VR, although physically intangible, allows us to engage our senses in new ways, including our sense of being in space.

Can you describe some of the artwork participants created? How does what a person creates during a session impact the session?

GK: People created things from memory, scenes of nature, as well as images that depicted aspects of their life. Interestingly, and perhaps because of the context of VR and the unique expressive tool options, there were also a lot of fantasy and playful images that we haven’t typically seen when participants use physical and fine arts media.

Can you describe what the fragrance smelled like and why it was chosen?

GK: The fragrance was selected to offset the fact the VR typically transports us out of the physical environment into a new visual space. The fragrance was meant to be calming, help orient and support the novel experience of being in a virtual environment.

Was there anything surprising about this study or its findings?

GK: We were surprised at how invigorating the VR environment could be in terms of enhancing a range of mood states and self-perceptions of well-being and creativity. Fragrance which was a subtle diffused presence in the room seemed to help reduce negative affect (namely reduce negative mood).

Susan Magsamen (SM): What really shocked me was that the simple act of adding scent to VR did seem to impact participants’ art-making experience, by reducing negative emotions and improving self-confidence.

From a neurobiological perspective, we know quite a bit about the olfactory system and scent’s ability to evoke memories and reduce stress. But we don’t have as much insight into how scent might enhance creativity. 

But it makes sense that we should pursue these questions in the virtual realm. When you are designing a space in the physical world, like a restaurant or public park, you consider activation of all the senses, from the sights and sounds to the scents and textures. So, in bridging to a virtual world, we must consider all the senses at our disposal and how they might augment a VR experience targeting different therapeutic outcomes.

How do you address these findings going forward?

GK: I think it highlights the powerful role of creative self-expression, including in VR. VR studies typically have involved receptive experiences or doing activities. I am not aware of many studies that have examined the outcomes of engaging in creative expression in VR and it offers tremendous possibility for a range of populations, including those who might be intimidated or unable to use traditional art media. In addition, the positive impact of fragrance highlights the potential of the sensory system that can be harnessed further in therapeutic practices.

SM: This study demonstrates the opportunity—and many questions—about how we best adapt to virtual environments that support health and wellbeing. We launched this research well before the pandemic, but the need for digital therapeutic tools to get people access to help has exploded since then. 

VR offers us new places to explore a full range of human emotions—without ever leaving home, work, the hospital, school or any other location. This, in itself, democratizes access.  

So in the near term, we need to expand sample sizes and replicate what we’ve observed in this pilot study. But I also hope this study catalyzes further exploration of virtual reality in service of health, wellbeing and learning. The future of research in this area is wide open and exciting.

We know VR simulates the “real” world, but it also has other attributes that are not fully understood. Our lab is beginning to think about how this “intentional space” can be better understood and used to support a range of health issues, including stress, anxiety, trauma, burnout and even depression. We are also interested in the role of VR to unleash creativity.

Lastly, is there anything you would like to highlight?

GK: We are excited to share this study that highlights the value of multi-institutional and multi-disciplinary collaborations and in particular the importance of self-expression (with new digital tools like in VR) for health and well-being.

Media interested in speaking with Kaimal should contact Annie Korp, news manager, at 215-571-4244 or amk522@drexel.edu.

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