That’s where Virtual Hallucinations comes in. The training device, created by Janssen L.P., is a rig with earphones and goggles that plunges the wearer into the mind of a serious schizophrenic. The system offers two interactive scenarios. In one, you’re riding a bus in which other riders appear and disappear, birds of prey claw at the windows, and voices hiss, “He’s taking you back to the FBI!” The other features a trip to the drugstore, where the pharmacist seems to be handing you poison instead of pills, and hostile customers stare at you in disgust.
Developed with psychiatrists and endorsed by advocates for the mentally ill, Virtual Hallucinations is being used by law enforcement, corrections, and health care professionals in at least half a dozen states. “It’s very effective,” says Margaret Stout, executive director of the Alliance of the Mentally Ill of Iowa, who’s tried it herself. “It really allows you to feel like your mind is just not working well.” For cops who have gone through the training, she says, that can make all the difference when it comes to understanding what a mentally ill person is going through. And there’s nothing crazy about that.
This entire project seems cool and trendy and it’s pretty inevitable that like most of the techy things covered in Wired it would be and like most things covered in Wired it’s also impractical and utterly pointless. Why go through this entire routine anyway of strapping someone into video screen goggles and earphones like a lame repetition of the brainwashing gadget in Clockwork Orange. Just run a clip from a David Fincher movie or anything by Uwe Boll and get the same bloody result. No pun intended.
Anyone can duplicate the lunatic perspective but that doesn’t tell you anything about what it’s like to be crazy anymore than wearing blackface tells you what it’s like to be African-American. It may show you how people will treat you based on appearances but it doesn’t give the interior perspective because you aren’t either crazy or black.
Crazy people don’t just see wacky stuff. They believe them. They take them to be utterly real and a reflection of the world. More to the point the visual aspects of mental illness are only a minor part of mental illness. It’s the aberrant thoughts that are far more significant than any visual hallucinations. Attempting to duplicate mental illness with visual hallucinations is like building a facade. It looks credible from the outside but has nothing inside.