This week scientists in the UK announced the results of a preliminary trial of a new method of therapy designed to help schizophrenics who suffer from auditory hallucinations, an experience more commonly known as “hearing voices.” Each of 16 test subjects was asked to describe what they imagined their voice sounded like and what the “person” behind it would look like. From the description, a digital avatar was created, which lead scientist Julian Leff used in six 30-minute sessions in which he played the roles of both therapist and avatar. Over time, Leff shifted the power dynamics to allow the subject to gain control over the avatar. After three months of listening to a recording of these sessions, all but one of the subjects showed significant improvement.
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Hearing voices “can stop people from thinking clearly and prevent them from working and sustaining social relationships. [They] are also typically abusive, telling the person to harm themselves or others.” The success of Leff’s study has encouraged the funding agency, the Wellcome Trust, to provide extra money to support a larger trial with 142 schizophrenics.