For people suffering from obsessive and compulsive disorders related to cleanliness (fear of contamination, etc.), some treatments are not always easy. British researchers and doctors have developed an alternative therapy based on an illusion.
Obsessive-compulsive disorders are “a prison of the mind”, according to Baland Jalal, a psychiatric researcher.
Between 2 and 3% of French people are said to suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD. To help these people, behavioural and cognitive therapies offer them the opportunity to overcome their discomfort and fears, sometimes in a very direct way. These therapies are often so difficult that nearly 25% of patients abandon them. A new technique developed by British psychiatric researchers and doctors, based on a mental illusion, aims to make this treatment less restrictive.
For example, some people with O.C.D. are very reluctant to touch the toilet seat, cling to a bar on the subway, or interact with any object or material that may be contaminated with potentially infectious elements. This fear of contamination is usually dealt with in a very direct way: therapists invite their patients to touch really contaminated surfaces and to refrain from washing their hands immediately. The objective is, from a psychological point of view, to overcome fear and thus reduce the intensity of O.C.D.
Baland Jalal, from Trinity College Cambridge, and his colleagues were inspired by a mental illusion to experiment with an alternative therapy. In the “rubber hand illusion”, a person is invited to place both forearms on a table. These are visually separated from each other by a cardboard or wooden plate, fixed vertically. A fake rubber hand, as if coming out of a shirt sleeve, is placed between the cardboard and one of the two hands. The experimenter strokes the same fingers of the real hidden hand and the fake hand at the same time using brushes. As a result, the person feels, after a while, that the brushstrokes made on the fake hand feel as if it were his real hidden hand. An American neurology researcher demonstrated this in 2013 for the BBC :
In the version designed for people with O.C.D. (recently published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience), the brushes are replaced by two sheets of toilet paper: one clean and the other stained with faecal matter. Thus, unlike other so-called “exposure” therapies, the object used does not actually present any risk of contamination and remains a mere illusion. The researchers practiced this technique on 29 people with diagnosed O.C.D., divided into two groups – one where the illusion was synchronous and the other where it was out of sync, which would normally make it ineffective. 65% of the people in the first group showed a feeling of deep disgust, against 35% in the second group, showing a real illusion effect. Then the experimenters made a swap: they touched the real hand hidden with the falsely contaminated paper. They then observed a 23% increase in disgust for the first group. As the experience unfolded, in addition to disgust and fear, some people expressed surprise and even laughed, suggesting a certain amount of distance on their part. “While traditional exposure therapy can be very stressful, the illusion of the rubber hand can make patients laugh and feel more comfortable,” concludes Baland Jalal. According to the latter, with enough repetition and the right supervision, this alternative and inexpensive technique could help to alleviate certain obsessive disorders in suffering people.