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Ryerson PhD student uses virtual reality to better understand hoarding

A large pile of battered books and magazines

Through a unique project that brings together Ryerson's Department of Psychology and the Transmedia Zone, psychology doctoral student Hanna McCabe-Bennett is exploring the reasons behind hoarding disorder.

Using an Oculus Rift, a virtual reality (VR) headset, Hanna analyzed test subjects' responses to visual stimulus on the subject of hoarding. Test subjects viewed different, simulated scenarios, including rooms that become progressively more cluttered, and were also presented with different shopping scenarios to gauge their purchasing habits. Part of the study group self-identified as having hoarding tendencies; the other part of the group did not have those tendencies. The study looked at three different areas: information processing (how the clutter impacted memory or decision making); emotional impact (how stress compounded hoarding behaviours and purchasing); and preference or comfort with clutter (how gradually increasing clutter made an individual feel).

Psychology professor Martin Antony supervised the project, and RTA School of Media professor Richard Lachman was a collaborator. "To our knowledge, this is the world's first study to use VR to study cognitive correlates of hoarding disorder, providing researchers with a new tool for studying this significant problem," said professor Antony.

Hanna's research showed cognitive differences in individuals who described themselves as having problems with hoarding. In particular, the hoarding group showed difficulty with executive functions such as categorizing and attention. The hoarding group was also more likely to "acquire" a larger number of items during the virtual shopping scenarios and to discard fewer items than the control group.

Hanna was first exposed to the idea of utilizing computer simulations while she was supervising an undergraduate student who was using VR as a potential way to treat people with a fear of thunderstorms.

"Hoarding was fascinating to me, and I thought VR would be able to answer questions that we wouldn't be able to answer with traditional testing methods," said Hanna. For this study, hoarding was defined as "the acquisition of, and inability to discard, a large number of possessions that appear to be useless or of limited value." Those suffering from hoarding disorder are potentially living in spaces that are so cluttered that their use is limited, and which cause distress or social impairment.

After a public request for volunteers, approximately 80 people participated in the VR feature of the study. "People are interested in hoarding, but also the virtual reality component was a big draw," she said.

The current study is not attempting to treat patients using VR, but rather measuring their responses.  However, Hanna says that the anecdotal responses show that the technology has the ability to effect change. "They have indicated that it gave them a different perspective on their clutter," said Hanna of some of the participants who struggled with hoarding disorder.