Reducing Pain with SnowWorld

One of my favorite pieces at the Cooper Hewitt 2006 National Design Triennial was ”SnowWorld.” It was beautiful, absorbing, and other-worldly.

The basic concept and execution are pretty simple… Wearing VR goggles, you fly through a snowy landscape and throw snowballs at woolly mammoths and penguins, while listening to Paul Simon’s “Graceland.”

But the purpose of the piece is to help relieve pain of burn victims, by distracting them from the reality of actual treatment.

“Because humans are so visually dominant, wherever you’re looking typically that’s where your attention is focused. (For patients) during wound care, when they’re getting their bandages changed, they’re looking at these different tools that the nurses are using to treat them, and just looking at those objects makes them anxious. They begin to associate objects in the room with high pain so you can imagine that day after day they start to develop psychological associations between the treatment room and pain, amplifying how much pain they experience.”

And the data indicates it works, with results as substantial as a “50-90% reduction in pain-related brain activity in all five pain regions of the brain.”

The project was created by Hunter Hoffman and his colleagues at the University of Washington. I haven’t read much about the research since it was shown at the exhibit, but hopefully work is being done so that it can reach an wider audience.

(For more information see this BBC story and the researchers documentation.)