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Bodily resonance: Exploring the effects of virtual embodiment on pain modulation and the fostering of empathy toward pain sufferers

Resource type
Thesis type
(Thesis) Ph.D.
Date created
Author: Tong, Xin
Globally, around 20% of people suffer from chronic pain, an illness that cannot be cured and has been linked to numerous physical and mental conditions. According to the BioPsychoSocial model of pain, chronic pain presents patients with biological, psychological, and social challenges and difficulties. Immersive virtual reality (VR) has shown great promise in helping people manage acute and chronic pain, and facilitating empathy of vulnerable populations. Therefore, the first research trajectory of this dissertation targets chronic pain patients' biological and psychological sufferings to provide VR analgesia, and the second research trajectory targets healthy people to build empathy and reduce patients' social stigma. Researchers have taken the attention distraction approach to study how acute pain patients can manage their condition in VR, while the virtual embodiment approach has mostly been studied with healthy people exposed to pain stimulus. My first research trajectory aimed to understand how embodied characteristics affect users' sense of embodiment and pain. Three studies have been carried out with healthy people under heat pain, complex regional pain syndrome patients, and phantom limb pain patients. My findings indicate that for all three studies, when users see a healthy or intact virtual body or body parts, they experience significant reductions in their self-reported pain ratings. Additionally, I found that the appearance of a virtual body has a significant impact on pain, whereas the virtual body's motions do not. Despite the prevalence of chronic pain, public awareness of it is remarkably low, and pain patients commonly experience social stigma. Thus, having an embodied perspective of chronic pain patients is critical to understand their social stigma. Although there is a growing interest in using embodied VR to foster empathy towards gender or racial bias, few studies have focused on people with chronic pain. My second trajectory explored how researchers can foster empathy towards pain patients in embodied VR. To conclude, this dissertation uncovers the role of VR embodiment and dissects embodied characteristics in pain modulation and empathy generation. Finally, I summarized a novel conceptual design framework for embodied VR applications with design recommendations and future research directions.
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This thesis may be printed or downloaded for non-commercial research and scholarly purposes.
Supervisor or Senior Supervisor
Thesis advisor: Gromala, Diane
Thesis advisor: Shaw, Chris D.
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