Patients wore a virtual reality headset to see from the perspective of a life-size 'avatar' or virtual body. Seeing this virtual body in a mirror moving in the same way as their own body typically produces the illusion that this is their own body. This is called 'embodiment'.
While embodied in an adult avatar, participants were trained to express compassion towards a distressed virtual child.
As they talked to the child it appeared to gradually stop crying and respond positively to the compassion.
After a few minutes the patients were embodied in the virtual child and saw the adult avatar deliver their own compassionate words and gestures to them.
This brief eight-minute scenario was repeated three times at weekly intervals, and patients were followed up a month later. Of the 15 participants, nine reported reduced depressive symptoms a month after the therapy.
Virtual reality has also previously been used to treat psychological disorders including phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder, but this research focused on a new application for promoting emotional well-being.