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50 - Research Suggests That High Levels of Scanning Behavior Indicates High Levels of Anxiety

Participant wearing the head-mounted
display showing the virtual classroom
Source: Journal of Cyberpsychology, 
Behavior, and Social Networking
Researchers find that high amounts of lateral head movements indicate high levels of anxiety. A state consisting of psychological and physical symptoms, brought about by a sense of apprehension at a perceived threat, is defined as anxiety


Diagnosing anxiety can be difficult so researchers turned to virtual reality to track head movements and link them to mental states


According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, most people are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder before the age of 10. Evidently, most children aren't able to recognize or communicate that there is an issue, so it is up to parents, teachers, and caregivers to watch for the common signs and symptoms of an anxiety disorder. One study conducted by researchers at Stanford University, used virtual reality to analyze the body movements associated with feelings of anxiety.

An electronically simulated environment filled with computer generated images experienced by the user via head mounted googles, and various other technological mediums is virtual reality. For this study in particular, users wore googles which displayed a classroom. Depending on where the users moved their heads (up, down, or to the sides), their view of the classroom shifted accordingly, making their presence in the virtual scenario seem as real as possible. A system was then used to plot, track, and analyze their head movements.

Knowing that body movement patterns can be correlated to mental states, researchers wanted to know which body movements, in particular head movements, are correlated with self-reported feelings of anxiety in a virtual classroom.

37 female and 20 male non-STEM college students were recruited for this experiment. They wore the virtual reality headset as their head movements were tracked. After getting acquainted with their virtual environment, they were told that they were testing a new implementation of online classes and to pay attention to the lecture, and learn the presented material as they would in a normal classroom.

They were also told that the other avatars shown in the classroom were other participants (but they were actually controlled by the computer). Also their own avatar, which matched their real world appearance, was visible to the "other avatars".


Research results show that high amounts of lateral head movement is positively correlated with high levels of self-reported anxiety



All participants then took off all technologies, and took a post-test consisting of a 1-6 point Likert Scale gauging their levels of anxiety. It included questions such as, "In the virtual classroom, I wondered what the other students thought of me", and "In the virtual classroom, I was concerned about how I appeared to other students".

Researchers found that there is a positive correlation between lateral head movements, or scanning behavior, and anxiety. This study is one of many examples how virtual reality has provided more insight into medical disorders. 


Anxiety can be helpful as it keeps us safe, but too much anxiety is detrimental as it results in negative symptoms such as prolonged stress


While it's common to hear people complain about their anxiety, it's actually quite normal and beneficial in a lot of cases. It's a protective mechanism, or an automatic alarm that goes off when we feel threatened, under pressure, or stressed. It prompts us to move out of the way of that speeding car, or ignites motivation to study for that important exam, or to stay away from that spider that may possibly be poisonous. 

Some levels of anxiety can improve our performance, but too much anxiety can hinder it. Anxiety occurs when we perceive or think we are in danger. But what happens when anxiety is present and danger is not? The body still prepares for danger resulting in irritability, restlessness, shortness of breath, trouble concentrating, rapid heartbeat, sweating, etc. Levels of anxiety can become so high that it disrupts daily living. This is harmful, especially in children and teenagers that are in crucial stages of development.

Children who suffer from an anxiety disorder may experience frequent sadness, fear, nervousness, shyness, low self-esteem, and avoidance of places, activities, or people. It may also affect their performance in school, academically and socially. Knowing how much anxiety is too much anxiety is crucial.  Untreated anxiety in children often continues on into adulthood, so early diagnosis is key, and virtual reality can aid in this.


Virtual reality is currently used in numerous professional fields, and is expected to become mainstream to the general public in the next 6 to 8 years



Virtual reality is most commonly known as the next big thing for gaming, but it has countless other uses beyond entertainment as well. It's used in healthcare for diagnosis and treatment, in space to search for life on other planets, in automotive manufacturing to design car prototypes, and in the military to train soldiers. The applications are endless. 

Virtual reality is expected to become mainstream within the next 6 to 8 years, according to Greenlight InsightsThe general public is excited about the growth of virtual reality, but much about it's functionality is still unknown. Nonetheless, this technology has a lot of potential to accelerate many fields, especially healthcare.

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