Practicing Mentalization skills in VR

In the treatment of people with intellectual disabilities, remedial educationalists are involved. To organize care what the person feels comfortable with, a relationship of trust is essential. By using mentalization-based skills persons with intellectual disabilities’ information processing can be supported, reducing their stress levels. Mentalizing is the skill to understand the behavior of ourselves and others by linking them to mental states. If we could not mentalize, we would not recognize that someone is sad and we would make the mistake to laugh in front of a sad person.
Therefore, healthcare professionals must practice mentalization skills. The department clinical child and family studies at the Vrije Universiteit train students to communicate with people with intellectual disabilities. Mentalizing is currently practiced by role-playing with another student.

Veerle Andries and Paula Sterkenburg wanted to see if practicing using VR improved the Mentalization skills of the students. They enlisted the help of the Tech Labs of the Network Institute to develop an interactive Virtual Environment (VE) to test these ideas. The VE was built over the course of several months and features an avatar based on a real person with a mild  intellectual disability. The animations, facial expressions, and voice are based on videos of this individual. This pilot VE contains five scenarios with different topics.

Students are placed in the VE using a VR-headset so they feel more present in the room with the avatar. The students respond out loud to the avatar, so that the experiment leader can then interpret their answer and choose the appropriate response of the avatar. The student’s response will either be positive (helpful) or negative (not helpful). The avatar then reacts on by either remaining calm or becoming agitated. At the end the teacher then discusses the session with the student to help them improving their mentalization skills.

Due to the pandemic, it was not possible to conduct a true VR study in a lab. In order to run the experiment, the VE was adapted to a web version. The students could then use the VE from home in an online workgroup. If successful plans exist to further develop the VE and use true immersive VR next year.