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Virtual reality can help relieve an all-too common terror

Most dentists these days have the good sense to display a nice poster on the ceiling, above their chair-of-pain.

Gazing at this useful diversion, patients can switch their attention from the hairs inside the medical practitioner's nostrils, away from the incoming steel, whirring and singing and sharp, to something less unpleasant. All those reflexes, to cringe and beg for mercy, are suppressed.

Anxiety is lessened when there is something else to think about. My dentist is hip to popular culture and so has a poster of The Simpsons cast. Somehow the torture is lessened by my frantic search for Ernst & Gunter, as if they were bestowing instant Percocet. But what if that alternative sensory experience was something much, much more powerful than a yellowing poster of yellow people?

The Guardian's admirable Simon Parkin wrote a report last week about an experiment at the Perpetuo Socorro hospital in Gran Canaria, where a patient donned an Oculus Rift headset during a nasty knee operation, instead of a full anesthetic.

Josefa Ramírez, understandably stressed out by the notion of having her leg opened up, had asked for a full shot of 'knock-me-out-before-you-poke-about'. But her doctors suggested she try the VR headset and some local anaesthetic. She agreed.

The Oculus Rift created a soothing environment of lapping classical music and the dreamy ballet of the night sky. It was all very nice. She could not feel, or see, the knives and saws that were repairing her knee. She did not have to endure the operation room's stress-hormone splash-athon of medical professionals being competent and reassuring. Few prospects are more terrifying.

"At first I was overwhelmed," said Ramíres. "But gradually I relaxed and I forgot where I was."

If this is the future of surgery, count me in. I know it's cowardly to opt for not-reality instead of reality (The Matrix said so, after all), but given the choice between Moonlight Sonata and fireworks, or white coats and stainless steel, I know where I'm going (medical insurance coverage notwithstanding).

VR is still in development but, as anyone who has tried it understands, it's pretty magical. Its potential applications for general life-improvements are presently only poorly understood. But where once the idea of games consoles in hospitals was strictly for the kiddies wing, this new experiment could make existence just a little more bearable, at just the moments when life is at its most challenging.

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