Somatic sensibilities in VR: crossovers with pain

In this blog post for Coventry University, dance artist and researcher Lisa May Thomas introduces ideas from her work in Virtual Reality (VR) and somatic practices, exploring how this might enable participants in exercising choice over perceptions and experiences of chronic pain.

Somatic sensibilities in VR: crossovers with pain

The visual environment seen from within a VR headset moves in correlation with the movement of the eyes and head, and this creates a sense of immersion in that environment. The senses are dominated by vision, and the brain rallies to fill in the gaps. This results in a sense of ‘being there’ – being present in the virtual environment. Whilst the physical world has not gone away, it becomes ‘backgrounded’, even momentarily lost.

Somatic and dance improvisation practices train a synaesthetic modality for sensing – the body, other bodies and the environment. That is, they use processes which de-habituate vision as a dominant force over and above the other senses, while tuning up non-visual, tactile relations with the body in relation to others.

Putting on a VR headset, I felt an immediate tension between my feeling, sensing body and the visual virtual environment presented to me through the headset. A perception gap between seeing and feeling. Lisa May Thomas (2016)

Many technologists and artists working with VR technology have sought to reduce the perception gap (Thomas and Glowacki, 2018), so that the participant can be fully immersed in the visual world. In contrast, in my work – developing participatory workshops and performances with VR technology – I have been exploring the uncovering and opening of the perception gap.

I bring the participants attention toward the visual pull of the technology, and invite ways through which to discover alternative ways of sensing whilst in the visual, virtual environment. The aim is to find a shift of attention – and therefore of perception and embodiment – between the virtual and physical environments and the bodies at play within them. This work has led to many insights into the ways in which the senses are habitually used and the ways in which technologies (of vision) use these sensory traits.

VR and pain

There have been successful uses of VR for pain relief, and Jo Merchant (2017) suggests that shifting focus away from pain could help. She writes about Snow World, a VR application used for pain relief developed by Hunter Hoffman and David Patterson, noting that ‘Visual imagery is a particular potent form of distraction’ which helps to ‘focus attention away from the pain’ (2017, 118-119).

Furthermore, ‘Researchers see the effects not just in subjective pain scores but also in brain scans too, with activity in pain-related brain areas almost completely extinguished’ (2017, 120). However, whilst Snow World is very good at relieving pain for short periods of time, ‘the effects disappear as soon as they take off the goggles’ (2017; 124) and the relief is, of course, reliant on the technology.

I am interested in the possibilities for combining somatic practices and VR technology to explore and ‘train’ human attention to support pain relief in the longer term. This could be to investigate imagery of the body in the virtual environment (VE), and then later to play with the physical body (which is in pain) whilst in the VE. That is, exploring the possibilities for increased agency in directing attention toward and away from the pain, as a way of being able to choose when to focus on it.

Technology could be used to access a backgrounded physical world and physical body, in combination with somatic practices to enable a sensing back into the body. The question remains of whether there might there be ways in which it would be possible to ‘recall’ this shift of attention towards and away from pain after using the technology.

Social, physical, phycological aspects of pain

In my experience of running VR workshops, participants comment that being in a multi-person VE with others, can ‘level the playing field’ shifting perceptions of body and identity and habitual conventions of social engagement or interaction. Participants can become more playful and explorative in these environments. VR is also used very successfully in addressing physical and psychological distress (Slater and Sanchez-Vives, 2016), and experiences of pain interconnect with both of these. These VR applications could therefore support other routes into dealing with pain.


A key element in working with technologies is the consideration and ethics of care (Madary and Metzinger, 2016). There are three key areas of care here. The first concerns the relations and roles of those participating, whether on the inside of the VE or present in the physical environment. The second, is the consideration of the participant in their entry into and the exit out of the VE. Lastly, is the understanding of the effects the technology has on the participants – physically, mentally, emotionally. Dance-somatic practices can support a giving of agency to the participant in their own understanding of the ways in which the technology changes the body – in its sensing, perception, and physicality.


Jo Marchant, 2017, Cure: a journey into the science of mind and body, Canongate Books.

Lisa May Thomas and David Glowacki, 2018, Seeing and feeling in VR: bodily perception in the gaps between layered realities, International Journal of Performance Arts and Digital Media, Volume 14, Issue 2.

Mel Slater and Maria V. Sanchez-Vives, 2016, Enhancing our lives with immersive Virtual Reality, Frontiers in Robotics and AI.

Michael Madary and Thomas K. Metzinger, 2016, Real virtuality: a code of ethical conduct. Recommendations for good scientific practice and the consumers of VR-technology, Frontiers in Robotics and AI.


Lisa May Thomas is a member of the International Network for The Somatic Practice and Chronic Pain, which brings together researchers from dance, health and digital design as well as people living with pain to explore chronic pain management. In particular, it focuses on a group of dance and movement approaches called ‘somatic practices‘.