MD to fight stress in Second Life

Relaxation Response program will be tested in the virtual world

Email|Print| Text size + By Mark Baard
Globe Correspondent / March 3, 2008

In another sign that Second Life is beginning to resemble the first, doctors are stepping into the virtual world to reach patients they might otherwise miss.

A Massachusetts General Hospital neurologist, Dr. Daniel Hoch, wants to learn whether therapy administered in Second Life, the virtual world created by Linden Lab, can have benefits in the world that we share with our spouses, kids, death, and taxes.

In coming months, an instructor from Mass. General will lead 20 to 40 Second Life recruits through guided meditations designed to reduce their stress levels.

The technique is the one introduced by Dr. Herbert Benson in his popular 1970s self-help book, "The Relaxation Response."

"There are an awful lot of people creating their own meditation spaces" in Second Life, said Hoch, sensing a patient need. "We will make some adaptations, but we also want to take advantage of the multi-use strengths of Second Life."

Studies such as Hoch's could draw doctors, patients, and money to Second Life, if they prove that therapies offered "in-world," as Second Lifers refer to their realm, can be effective in the real world.

"We are at a tipping point," said John Lester, Boston operations director for Linden Lab, a San Francisco company. "This is one of the first attempts to see if Second Life can help people in a scientific, quantifiable way."

The relaxation response study is part of a cooperative agreement between the Center for Connected Health (the telehealth and remote care division of Partners HealthCare, at and the Benson-Henry Institute of Mind Body Medicine ( at Mass. General.

Anywhere you can put 35 chairs in a circle, BHI clinical training director Peg Baim can teach people the techniques that elicit the relaxation response, a state she describes as having "an alert mind, but a quiet one."

Baim teaches people to meditate on a particular word, phrase, or image. The practice has been shown to reduce blood pressure and pulse rates, heartbeat, and to help patients cope with chronic pain, according to BHI.

Going from a classroom setting to a virtual classroom should be easy enough, Baim said.

"It only makes sense that we could teach people to elicit the relaxation response" in Second Life, said Baim, who works with patients suffering from post-traumatic disorder and inflammatory diseases.

Indeed, SL might make teaching some concepts easier. Guided imagery meditations, such as walks through meadows or forests, could be generated in the SL teaching space, Baim suggested.

But none of this will work if the meditators cannot stay focused on their instructor.

An in-world artist and Emerson College associate professor, John Craig Freeman, ( recalls speaking at a Museum of Science lecture about Second Life. The conference, attended by many Second Life users, seemed to have all the chaos of an in-world event.

"The audience members were having all of these backchannel conversations, talking to each other in full voice, right over the speakers," Freeman said. "I wonder how they are going to do this in-world."

Hoch said he is making some adjustments to the Second Life classroom setting, which will be held in a patient-oriented, multi-use space.

Each session will be trimmed from two hours (as they are at BHI) to one. Students will be discouraged from engaging in the chatter Freeman described.

But individual students will be encouraged to send text messages directly to the instructor while she is teaching over the voice channel, providing the kind of feedback many teachers dream of.

Participants will have to be from the Boston area, Hoch said, so they can complete questionnaires about their perceived stress levels and quality of life, before and after their in-world training.

The volunteers will also be signing their consent forms in a real-world setting.

"We thought that getting consent forms signed in Second Life was too problematic," Hoch said.

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