Even if there was greater empirical support for interacting with dolphins for therapeutic purposes, swimming with dolphins is generally impractical for most people, particularly on a regular basis, which may be required to achieve or maintain any improvements that could occur.
Encountering dolphins in a virtual reality (VR) environment has been suggested as a way to overcome this problem (McCulloch, 1998). VR produces a three dimensional experience in which one is immersed in an alternate environment (Briggs, 1998a). A defining characteristic of VR is inclusion - being surrounded by an environment (Bricken, 1990). In a simulation, the signifier may not have a direct referent to the real world, nor is one required since the signifier takes on a reality of its own. This is the psychoperceptual state known as presence (Hoffman, Prothero & Wells, 1995; Winn, Hoffman &Osberg, 1995 in Osberg, 1998). Some individuals who have experienced VR find it difficult to relate the virtual environment to the real world. Others do not need to relate the virtual space to anything other than itself (Osber, 1998). The latter are able to suspend disbelief long enough to generate a sense of presence (Osberg, 1998). VR technology provides specific stimuli that can be used to remove distractions, providing environments that may capture attention for longer periods of time than stimuli presented in ordinary environments, increasing concentration ability (North, North & Coble,1996). The scenes encountered have been reported to enhance short tem memory and increase attention span (Bartoli & Boker, 1998), as well as enhance perceptual processes implicated in childhood attentional disorders.(Strickland et al., 1996). Mild attention deficit symptoms reportedly decreased during VR sessions, limited to visual stimuli, in an exploratory study. However the study's methodology was not reported clearly (North, North & Coble,1996). Whether these type of improvements would transfer to everyday activities, has not been assessed. Although there are hopes that VR may become a useful educational and motivational tool because of its immersive qualities (Rose, 1995), it is in the unique position of being commercially available before its effects on human functioning are fully understood (Briggs, 1998b). It has been suggested that immersion or a sense of presence appears to be a fundamental factor in using VR therapeutically (North, North & Coble,1996). If learning occurs during VR sessions, it appears to be mediated by intrinsic motivation, which in turn affects the duration that VR can hold the subjects' attention (North, North & Coble,1996).
With goals to develop an immersive platform for realistic simulation of dolphin interaction, VR technology may provide opportunities for widespread experience of the phenomenon. It may eventually obviate use of captive dolphins, and prevent exploitation of known wild dolphin haunts, if therapeutic applications are validated and popularised (Blow, 1998). However usefulness of artificial replication exists on the premise that the reproduction is intense and realistic enough.
Commercially available CyberFin, which transports participants into an underwater sanctuary populated by dolphins (AquaThought Foundation, 1997), and other VR endeavours, have not yet accomplished this aim with healthy subjects within the parameters examined. Anecdotal reports of success with cognitively impaired subjects are yet to be substantiated (Birch, 1998).
It could be argued that attempting to replicate a phenomenon that hasn't been validated sufficiently is premature. However, the opportunity to exert greater control over therapeutic applications and research in a VR setting may actually be useful in addressing some of the fundamental questions that remain unanswered concerning therapeutic dolphin interactions. It may identify if visual, tactile or acoustic aspects of live dolphin encounters (Bartoli & Boker, 1998) contribute to therapeutic benefits that have been attributed to interaction with dolphins, and how human participants' expectancies and physiology may mediate any potential effects.
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