Un projet Labex Arts H2H
en /fr
2012 - 2016

Immersion of the Subject, Codification of Trauma: Head-mounted Displays in Virtual Therapy
By Michael Friedman & Kathrin Friedrich

Research associates at the Cluster of Excellence "Image Knowledge Gestaltung. An Interdisciplinary Laboratory", Humboldt University, Berlin.

The trauma - in all of its different characteristics - marks a cornerstone in the understanding of modern subjectivity. While traditional exposition therapy and psychotherapy have developed various techniques for treating the symptoms of traumata, the use of virtual reality applications is a new therapeutic concept. Therefore, it is highly interesting to explore how the trauma, the patient and therapeutic options are conceptualized and encoded within such applications.

In this paper we aim to explore different levels of encoding and respectively treating post-traumatic disorders of soldiers by virtual therapy. Starting with clarifying the  notion   of trauma in comparison to Freud’s and Lacan’s conceptions, we will sketch out the underlying rationale of what is considered to be the ‘code’ of trauma and its disorders. Thus for example, Freud, in "Jenseits des Lustprinzips" suggests that the trauma and its repetition encode a principal, which does not acknowledge the conscious subject and his wishes. Extending this theme, Lacan, in his 9th seminar, claims that this repetition beckons to an element of difference, which cannot be  integrated into  the symbolic order of the subject. However, in  comparison to the “talking cure” that psychoanalysis offers in order to process the trauma, we claim that head-mounted displays transform the place of the trauma, considerably different from Freud’s and Lacan’s conception of trauma.

By employing the example of virtual therapy we will show how current technologies shape and reshape our subjectivity; since one might say that it is encoded by (the repetition of the) traumata. The virtual reality applications operate on a completely different field of subjectivity that is inevitably bound to the conditions of the algorithmic, spatial and visual regimes of such technologies. Therefore, the relations between technology, trauma and subjectivity are newly established.

We aim to use the example of the virtual application Bravemind, developed by the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies. Thereby we will explore its conceptions and encodings of traumata and its strategies for a subjective re-engagement through virtual reality and head-mounted displays. Bravemindis a clinical, interactive, VR based exposure therapy tool”  that aims to help soldiers to reduce their symptoms caused by traumatic experiences during missions. By using an Oculus Rift device and an accordingly programmed virtual scenario that adapts to the movements of the patient, Bravemind seeks to immerse the traumatized soldiers again in those situations. In contrast to the psychoanalytical conception, re-enacting the trauma is here considered to be effective and to have a healing effect; the developers report more than 50% decrease in symptoms of a group of 20 soldiers in first clinical trials. 

But when is the virtual scenario visually accurate and technologically adaptive enough to evoke a traumatic situation and its healing afterwards? Do virtual reality and head-mounted display treatments imply also another reality for the trauma itself? And what is the ‘ideal’ type of patients for these kinds of treatment regimes, in particular concerning the perceptual readiness to engage with the virtual scenario? In short, how are users conceptualized by and encoded within virtual therapy as ‘treatable’ subjects in relation to trauma?


About the authors

Dr. Michael Friedman is a research associate at the Cluster of Excellence «Image Knowledge Gestaltung. An Interdisciplinary Laboratory» at the Humboldt University in Berlin, where he works in the group «Science of Structures and Three-Dimensional Code». He obtained his PhD in Mathematics from Bar-Ilan University and his MA  in Philosophy from Tel Aviv University, which investigated the relationship between Lacan and Heidegger. He was a post-doctoral re- searcher at the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in Bonn, Germany, and a researcher at the Fourier Institute, Grenoble, France, under the Chateaubriand Fellowship. Among his main publications are several works and articles on algebraic geometry and group theory. Currently he is working on the role of mathematics in structuralism and on about the philosophical and cultural conception of mathematical objects.  


Dr. des. Kathrin Friedrich works as a research associate in the project «Image Guidance» at the Cluster of Excellence «Image Knowledge Gestaltung. An Interdisciplinary Laboratory» at the Humboldt University in Berlin. Recently she defended her PhD thesis “Media Diagnostics. Digital Imaging and Diagnostic Radiology” at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne. From 2009 to 2013 she worked there at the Chair of Aesthetics and in the collaborative research project «Embodied Information. ‘Lifelike’ Algorithms and Cellular ‘Machines’». In October 2014, she was a guest researcher at the Department of Thematic Studies, Technology and Social Change at Linköping University. She studied media studies, law and sociology at the University of Marburg. Her publications explore the relations between imaging, materiality and actions in medicine, warfare and biology.


Key words

Trauma; head-mounted-displays; Freud, Lacan, Bravemind. 

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Un projet Labex Arts H2H