As virtual reality explodes into the mainstream, many researchers are taking deeper looks at the role the brain plays in the undertaking of a VR experience. It isn’t hard to understand that the brain reacts completely differently to a virtual reality environment, but exactly what changes is still a blurry area of thought. The level of immersion and presence afforded by such technologies must make use of the brain’s inherent ability to tell what’s real and what isn’t, but how does this little headset dupe a human’s most profoundly complex organ into believing its lies?
Studies have been undertaken surrounding the role of the hippocampus in VR experience. The hippocampus is responsible for memory formation, as well as helping create the brain’s internal spatial maps – so we know where we are, where we’re going, and how to navigate. UCLA set out to test these hippocampal neurons in rats placed in a normal setting and a virtual reality setting achieved through large screens and treadmills. Researchers witnessed rats navigating the virtual space just as they would a normal space but with one key difference, the neurons in their hippocampus’s were firing randomly, indicating a complete disappearance of this internal map system.
Basically, the rats were able to navigate the space despite having no idea where they were. Other studies have taken a look at the changes we see in the brain’s ability to create memories in a virtual space. They show that the way neurons within the brain communicate is partly disrupted in the use of virtual reality.
So if our brains react in such a wildly different way when we put on the goggles, how is still fooled into thinking the projected pixels are real? The answer lies in the way your brain constructs reality around you in the normal world. We already know that the feeling of movement while staying still wreaks havoc for the brain, resulting in motion sickness, but what visual cues does VR give us to help us along with a construction of ‘reality’? The eyes collate information about your surroundings which in turn are fed to your brain to let you know where you are. For example right now i’m sat in my campus coffee shop, I can see chairs, coffee cups, tables, other students, and seagulls. My brain collates all this information together and tells me I must be in said coffee shop.
Virtual reality provides all these cues to your brain to construct a new reality using familiar items from the real world to trick your visual recognition. An excellent example is Job Simulator. You see computers, coffee cups, paper, telephones, and folders, so your brain dutifully turns this visual information into the knowledge of ‘i’m in an office’.
Another key way virtual reality tricks our brains into considering these cultivated experiences are real lies in the management of the player’s manipulation of the game world. That is, what we are and aren’t allowed to touch. If we are able to pick something up in a virtual reality game we feel instantly more immersed – we’ve manipulated the environment in some way, interacted with it and changed it – this must be a real place. However once we are able to interact with one thing, we must be able to interact with everything else. As soon as we come across an item that doesn’t yield to our touch the illusion is shattered and the brain recognises what is going on. If it doesn’t fit with our physical conceptions of space and of our own agency, it dislodges the brain’s understanding of reality.
Virtual reality and the brain is hot topic for neurological research at the moment. As with any growing phenomenon, its possible short and long term effects are being scrutinised in the interest of public health. For now however, we’re still getting to grips with this wonderful technology and how it manipulates are ever-wonderful brains.