Finding Fun in Dark Times: How Memes and VR Offer a Mental Health Lifeline

Photo by Scott Webb

As 2023 draws to a close, it’s hard to ignore just how polarising and distressing a lot of the news flooding our inboxes has been this year. With wars and climate disasters in different parts of the world, as well as the cost-of-living crisis plunging many families into poverty in our own backyard – bad news has been difficult to ignore.  Max Kraynov, Group CEO of FunCorp and advisor to several VR and neurotech startups examines how memes and virtual reality can provide mental health benefits amid challenging times.

This constant barrage of information with negative and distressing content can contribute to heightened levels of stress, anxiety, and feelings of overwhelm. So how can we create a mental sanctuary, reducing the impact of information overload and promoting a sense of calm?

While heading off to the country for a day-long hike or jetting off to a yoga retreat in a far off, sun-drenched location is not a practical option for most busy adults, technology can provide a much-needed escape in the form of funny memes and virtual reality (VR) games. 

The average millennial views a staggering 20-30 memes every day, swapping them on Whatsapp, social media or on platforms like iFunny that are specifically devoted to short-form entertainment. So it’s hardly surprising that brands increasingly use memes to connect with customers and employees. 

When deployed strategically, memes can also be leveraged to support employees’ mental health by providing a reason and an outlet to switch off and laugh a little. Memes serve as a collective coping mechanism, providing a shared space for people to find humour and connection in the midst of adversity. They have a unique ability to distil complex emotions into bite-sized, relatable content, offering a therapeutic release. 

They can also create a sense of shared experience, helping people from diverse backgrounds find common ground in the humour of a well-crafted meme, making shared laughter a unifying force. Memes often encapsulate the absurdities of life, helping individuals feel understood and less alone in their struggles. In a time of heightened anxiety, the empathy embedded in a clever meme can be a comforting reminder that others share similar sentiments.

The case for VR is even more straightforward. VR by definition creates an escape route into another reality, and is accessible to people of all different ages and physical abilities. For example, Meta’s Reality Labs division, which makes the Quest 3 VR headset, has found a growing fan base among middle-aged and senior citizen users – a surprising cohort to be early tech adopters – who have helped make Supernatural, Quest’s top fitness app, its first real hit, according to The Information. Mixed reality, which is the superimposition of virtual objects on the real world, is becoming much friendlier to people who are prone to motion sickness. The mixed reality “helpers” may assist patients with minor cognitive decline in carrying out their day-to-day tasks.

Metaverse-enabled mental health treatments which incorporate VR are already employed to mitigate the effects of the mental health crisis, which has increased to unprecedented levels since the COVID-19 pandemic. Ongoing tech innovation means that new applications for VR-based solutions are popping up in the field of wellbeing and mental health all the time.

Gaming platforms have already proven useful in increasing patient engagement, while at the same time helping to destigmatize mental health issues, according to a recent research report by World Economic Forum and the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. For example, DeepWell Therapeutics has created video games to treat depression and anxiety; UK-based Xbox studio Ninja Theory has incorporated mental health awareness into mass-market games and plans to expand into treatment with their Insight Project; and TRIPP has created Mindful Metaverse, which enhances well-being through VR-enabled guided mindfulness and meditation.

Maturing interface technologies could further augment social and emotional connections between distant participants, according to the research report. Emerge Wave is one tabletop device that already uses ultrasonic waves to simulate touch, enhancing users’ social experience. There are also companies like Neurable or NeuroDive, which leverage noninvasive neurotechnologies to glean feedback attuned to a user’s emotional state. 

For example, NeuroDive headsets use electrodes to measure the cognitive complexity of tasks at hand, like checking if a particular game mission is too hard for a person, or if a person is exhausted and needs an urgent break. It’s not inconceivable that the metaverse will eventually connect to therapeutic neurotechnologies, such as direct brain stimulation to treat intractable depression.

VR can even affect the real world, creating tangible and measurable health and wellbeing results. Some VR games are designed to encourage physical movement, providing a holistic approach to well-being. Whether through dance, sports simulations, or fitness programs, these games not only entertain but also contribute to improved physical health, which in turn has been proven to positively affect mental health.

As we navigate the complexities of the world, digital expressions of humour and immersive experiences provide a refuge, fostering connections and helping individuals build the resilience needed to face an uncertain future. In laughter and play, we discover the strength to confront adversity and find solace in shared experiences, proving that even in the darkest of times, the human spirit can thrive through creativity, connection, and the healing power of laughter – with just a little bit of help from innovative technologies.

About the author

Max Kraynov is the Group CEO of FunCorp, a developer of mobile entertainment technology. He is a serial tech entrepreneur and an advisor to Xocus, a VR game developer, and NeuroDive, a healthtech startup.

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