How does the brain react to virtual reality?

How does the brain react to virtual reality?

Technology and the brain

Virtual reality mimics the effect on our “real” senses of life, so a VR environment is virtually indistinguishable from reality. When you look at something in VR, you see it in 3 dimensions, as you would if it were actually there. It’s a stronger immersive experience than anything you get by watching something on a flat screen, and your brain reacts as if it’s really happening.


The only difference is that intellectually you know that the world you see is illusory, and this knowledge allows you to act there without fear of danger.


A person suffering from phobia, for example, can face things that terrify him or her knowing that he or she will not be hurt. Getting close to snakes or virtual spiders, for example, or watching from a virtual height teaches the person’s brain that the dreaded event can be lived without disaster.


This prepares the person to brave them in a non-virtual environment. Two-dimensional computer simulations cannot do this to the same extent because the transition from these to the sensory impact of real life is too important.


A distraction from pain

A professor of neuroscience explains, “The brain can only process a limited amount of information at a time, so engaging it quickly with something else after an incident decreases the feeling of injury.”


VR offers a particularly impactful experience – brain scans of patients undergoing painful procedures while immersed in VR show reduced activity in five distinct pain-related brain areas, suggesting that it acts on all the various aspects of pain: sensory, emotional, intellectual and attentional.


In some studies, VR has proven to be as effective as drugs such as morphine. José Luis Mosso Vazquez, a 54-year-old surgeon at the Pan American University in Mexico City, uses it in tandem operations with a local analgesic, instead of giving his patients a general anesthetic. The anxiety levels of his patients generally remain low throughout the procedure. As one of his patients described it: I was transported. Normally I am very stressed, but now I feel so, so relaxed».


The placebo effect

In addition to distraction, RV is a powerful placebo. The placebo effect is one of the most complex physiological processes ever studied. At its core, it involves changes in electrical activity in the frontal lobes of the brain, which deal with “higher” cognitive functions such as belief, judgment, memories and expectations. These changes in turn trigger the secretion or inhibition of several hormones and neurotransmitters, some of which are similar or identical to analgesics. Different VR contents can manipulate these biological effects. An exciting VR event, for example, increases adrenaline that reduces pain by directing neuronal activity from the brain to the peripheral parts of the body rather than the other way around. The switch causes a reduction in pain signals (from peripheral areas to the brain).


The future of virtual reality

With technology and neuroscience moving at a rapid pace, the future of virtual reality is very exciting. There is a natural fit between these two galloping sciences. A future possibility is to link the experience of virtual reality with simultaneous brain imaging. Recent advances in computer science have made it possible to create images of the entire brain using EEG, a relatively simple technique that involves reading brain waves (a measure of neuronal activity) using electrodes mounted on the skull. This type of brain analysis effectively shows what the brain is doing and could be used to evaluate content for various clinical applications (for example, anxiety reduction, pain relief, attention dysfunction).


An additional step could be to improve the effect of VR by stimulating the brain directly rather than through the senses. Transcranial electrical stimulation (TES) involves sending a tiny electric current through the skull to stimulate or inhibit particular parts of the cerebral cortex. The technique is non-invasive, safe and painless – nearly two thousand research papers have shown it is effective in reducing anxiety, pain and depression. Rescape envisions when these three technologies – EEG monitoring, TES stimulation and VR – could work together to help our brain create a world of experience free from unnecessary pain and anxiety.


How RV «deceives» our brain

To understand how virtual reality works, we must first understand a little how the brain gives meaning to the world around us. Let us pause and reflect on the senses that allow us to experience the world: vision, hearing and touch, to name a few. To make sense of the world, the brain must first provide information from sensory organs, such as eyes, ears and skin. But bringing information only describes the feeling


The different ways in which our body provides us with information about the world around us (for example, vision, hearing, touch and taste) and the act of sending this information to our brain for it to perceive it.


What happens next is that the brain interprets that information, which allows us to understand what’s going on in the environment. The brain’s interpretation of the senses that create our understanding is called perception, this process of our brain interprets our senses into experiences. For example, we can see a dog running through the room, hearing it bark and feeling its fur grazing our skin – these are sensations that we understand and perceive as experiences. The sensations all come together through perception to give us the experience of the dog. It is this interaction of sensation (using vision, hearing, etc.) and perception (the interpretation of this information by our brain) that creates our experience of reality.


There is a big difference between learning something by reading or watching documentaries and experiencing them. We often learn about topics such as astronomy through manuals and videos. In the future, however, science classes could simply include field trips to virtual reality environments, where we can explore and feel what it might be like to walk on a Martian dune. In the end, this technology «deceives» our brain, giving us the impression of being elsewhere by imitating the perceptive experiences we have in the real world and by convincing ourselves that we are inside our games or on the surface of another planet.

How will you use this exciting technology?

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