People with certain kinds of obsessive-compulsive disorder feel a need to repeatedly perform certain physical rituals or routines, such as washing their hands, to gain relief from obsessional thoughts. Now research suggests that when we see someone else perform an action, it triggers the same regions of our brains as when we do the action ourselves.
According to a new study by Baland Jalal at the University of Cambridge and VS Ramachandran of the University of California, San Diego, this kind of "vicarious exposure" could lead to new kinds of treatments for OCD. From New Scientist:
"Watching a video of someone washing their hands might be enough to reduce the urge to perform the action in real life," (Jalal) says. "We could put these videos into an app."
Exposure therapy is a popular treatment for OCD, and involves people experiencing their obsessive trigger without being allowed to perform the compulsion that makes them feel better. Jalal says that an app may make it possible to do this kind of treatment virtually, rather than with a therapist in a clinic, making it easier and accessible to more people.
At the very least, such an app could be a less harmful substitute for individuals who have compulsions that are bad for their health, he says: "For instance, we might be able to give people who pull their hair out obsessively relief from their urge by watching a video of themselves doing it instead. It might at least act as a kind of benign substitute that's used alongside more conventional treatments."