A/D/O by MINI | Virtual Therapy with Andrew Anson

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AR/VR

Virtual Therapy with Andrew Anson

Unable to make it to your therapy session? Psychiatrist and A/D/O Workspace member Andrew Anson is appropriating VR technology to enable remote appointments and provide unique environments for his patients.

I’ve arrived at Sigmund Freud’s office for my therapy session. But the famous psychoanalyst is not who I’m meeting here. As the fire crackles and the grandfather clock ticks metronomically, I survey the dark-wood interior from the chaise-lounge before setting eyes on the figure sat across from me.

This figure is Andrew Anson, or at least, his avatar. He has whisked me away to early-20th-century Vienna by means of an Oculus headset, a model that he is also wearing. We’re actually sat a few meters apart in soundproof booths at the A/D/O Workspace in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. But either of us could be anywhere in the world with an internet connection, while we have a “face-to-face” conversation in a much more appropriate setting for psychoanalysis.

Having spent 12 years studying medicine, psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, Anson has recently been experimenting with virtual therapy as a means to offer patients non-traditional options, and allow his practice to fit in better with contemporary lifestyles.

“I still think that there is a little bit of a cultural black box around therapy and psychoanalysis,” Anson tells me. “How much of yourself do you really reveal to go into a space, whether it's a virtual space or real space, with a therapist during a first session, which is always scary.”

“Being one of the younger psychoanalysts to finish my program, I’m interested in how psychoanalysis or psychotherapy is relevant to Millennials and Generation Z... who on one hand, I think, are open to talking about their experiences and diagnostic language, but don't traditionally seek out traditional therapy environments.”

Anson's virtual therapy sessions occur via Oculus headsets worn by himself and the patient.

Freud’s office is just one of several virtual locations in which Anson is able to conduct his sessions. The pre-programmed spaces provided by Oculus include a tranquil evergreen forest, a clifftop bench, and a snowy tundra – all landscapes that could potentially benefit a patient’s mental state, or allow them to share more freely.

When I ask Anson if we can explore another setting, everything goes black for a moment, before we’re transported to the underwater world of a deep-sea shipwreck. Fish swim by periodically, and the silhouette of a whale occasionally passes overhead, while he and I discuss the merits and potential applications of the technology for his field.

“The more time I spend in the virtual world, the more I realize there are people who have many or all of their relationships in the virtual, and have other friends they just hang out with virtually,” Anson says. “How those people seek out medical care or psychological treatment, I think still has to be established.”

“If my work isn't able to sort of evolve to be relevant and exist where people are connecting with each other, where they're going to connect in the future, then why did I study psychiatry and psychoanalysis for 12 years?” he adds.

Anson also operates a physical home-office space in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, shown in these photos.

During our session, we also visit a space station that provides a celestial view of the Earth slowly rotating – interrupted only by a docking rocket ship – and we end by watching the sunset from a tropical beach. Anson has found that these environments are particularly useful for discussing patients’ dreams, since they’re much closer to the subconscious scenarios in which we find ourselves while asleep. His theory is that when the surroundings are visually closer to those we’ve witnessed while dreaming, it becomes easier for us to recall particular aspects of those dreams – giving him a better foundation for interpretation.

Anson also offers therapy sessions from his home office in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, just a short walk from A/D/O. Overlooking the East River, the plant-filled space offers a casual and comfortable setting to sit and chat. It’s no sunset riviera or tropical island paradise, but it provides a physical space for patients who prefer to meet in the real world.

It was after moving to Greenpoint, away from the psychoanalysis community on the Upper West Side, that Anson first experimented with VR among his colleagues – a collective known as The Young Freuds. Rather than crossing town to meet, they used the virtual world to discuss their work and their patients’ dreams.

“After a 45-minute session, it would feel like I was just in somebody else's head,” says Anson. “I don't know if it was my friend and colleague’s mind, or I was in what they were imagining their patient’s mind to be, or some combination of all of our minds that manifested in this virtual space.”

After moving to Greenpoint, Anson joined the A/D/O Workspace (not pictured) to be part of a local creative community.

Looking for a local creative community that might be similarly receptive to his ideas, Anson also became a member of the A/D/O Workspace. “I joined A/D/O realizing I was feeling more like a designer than just a clinician, or that I needed to explore that part of who I was,” he says. “So I rebranded myself as a designer and started going to a creative work space and talking to other creatives.”

“A week hasn't gone by when I didn't find my way back there, to be in a different kind of space and think about what I was doing in a more creative way,” Anson adds.

He began offering beta-testing of his VR therapy sessions to the other members. Sitting in the communal space with his Oculus headset and a sign, he relied on their curiosity to approach him and agree to partake in free trials. As word of his experimental sessions spread around the Workspace, more and more designers in a variety of fields got involved.

“My hope was that, even if the people that are beta-testing headsets are not looking for a therapist or a virtual therapist right now, they would try this and be intrigued enough by it that they would think of somebody else that needs this in their life,” says Anson.

Psychoanalysis is a fairly traditional clinical profession, Anson explains, though noting that many in the field have shown a keen interest in his work with VR. His aim is to publish a research paper on his findings, to spread the word among his peers.

“I'm still learning things every time I try it,” says Anson. “Every time I try it with somebody new, I have a different idea of what might be possible in the work with that person that I wouldn't have imagined, or wouldn't have been exactly the same as with people who've tried it in the past. So I still think I'm very much in the discovery phase of what might be possible using VR.”

Anson hopes that using virtual reality will help encourage younger generations to try psychoanalysis.

In our current situation – advised to social distance and self-isolate, and with anxiety and other mental health issues of increasing concern – virtual therapy seems like a perfect tool. Patients can speak to their therapist from their homes, but in an environment they’ve identified as separate yet still comfortable for themselves. Even a 45-minute escape to a virtual woodland or beach for a casual chat would be welcome at the moment.

Virtual reality is bound to see an increase in uptake from other industries beyond this pandemic, as real-estate brokers, interior designers, event planners and many others realize the benefits of being able to see and inhabit spaces without actually being there. We’re learning that a lot more can be done remotely than previously thought, and based on Anson’s work, therapy may well join that list.

“For therapy to make sense and to be relevant in the 21st century in New York City, it needs to fit into people's lives in a way lots of other modalities of healthcare are,” Anson says. 

As I remove my headset and find myself back in Brooklyn, I take a few minutes to process the experience. Although this was an interview, and not a therapy session, I certainly feel as if I’d just been transported to places that were both calming and stimulating – and could easily see the benefits of using these environments as safe spaces for sharing thoughts, emotions and dreams. So whether you’re more comfortable in a remote wilderness or on Freud’s cozy couch, I would recommend trying it for yourself.

Text by Dan Howarth.

Photography by Eun Hee Kwon.

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