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This is Your Brain on VR … The Neuroscientist’s Perspective

As we reach the tipping point for VR, neuroscientists are racing to understand the many ways the technology can affect our brains ...

I don’t want to jinx it, but all signs point to us peering over the edge of the tipping point for virtual reality here in the States.

That tipping point is tied to two trends.

On one end is the surge of investments in location-based VR experiences like VR escape rooms, VR roller coasters, and adult arcades like LA’s Two Bit Circus. These destinations allow friends, families and colleagues to play and explore VR together.

On the other is the launch of the Oculus Quest — a VR headset with no wires, no need for a high-powered PC to operate, and a $399 price point that makes it comparable to the nearly 40 million video game consoles currently in American homes.

If you build it and make it affordable — they will come.

Both trends point to an onslaught of immersive VR experiences both inside and outside the home — and as a technology enthusiast and gamer, I’m excited for what’s to come.

But as a student of media, technology and how the two impact our everyday lives, I wonder how the widespread adoption of VR will affect our collective sense of mental and physical well-being. 

After all, no one thought smartphones would become a leading source of depression in teens or lead to increased anxiety amidst the convenience of having always-on internet access, did they?

We need to understand what VR actually does (or doesn’t do) to our brains, in order to understand any potential impact on our mental health. And who better to give us a basic understanding of what happens to our brains in VR, than a neuroscientist?

Dr. Sook-Lei Liew is an Assistant Professor and head of USC’s Neural Plasticity and Neurorehabilitation Lab, and among other things, she’s working on studies to see if VR can help stroke patients recover their mobility.

To be clear, we’re still in the early phases of understanding how VR might affect the brain and body — let alone the psyche. But unlike all the hand-wringing and remorse we feel because of the studies that continue to expose the negative impact of devices like smartphones, perhaps we have the opportunity to gauge the potential impact of VR before everything turns into a dystopian tech wasteland (a la Ready Player One).

Tameka Kee: Healthy neurons and rehabilitating those that aren’t is the name of the game for a neuroscientist — but not necessarily studying virtual reality. What made you turn your interest to VR and its potential for “rehabbing the brain?”

Sook-Lei Liew: VR offers a few unique strengths that I believe [may be] really useful for brain recovery and training.

First, the embodiment aspect — VR gives people a chance to take on a new body, and tricks the brain into exhibiting behaviors associated with that body.

For instance, studies by Mel Slater and Jeremy Bailenson have shown that if you’re given a child’s body in VR, you start to show more childlike behaviors. Similarly, if you’re given the body of a different gender or race, you start to act accordingly.

When I learned about this, I started to ask, what if someone who can’t move their body after a stroke gets a body they can move in VR? Can this help trick their brains towards recovery? That’s when I started to look more into VR for research.

What has your own experience been like in a headset?

SL: I’ve definitely been impressed by the embodiment aspect — I get real butterflies in my stomach when I’m walking a plank above a city, even though I know I’m in my lab on solid ground.

That said, there are still some challenges with [the current state of] VR that will keep us from becoming some sort of sci-fi world where people love VR so much [that] they don’t want to be outside of it. I’d say at this point, I haven’t worn a headset that I would want to be in for more than an hour, just due to comfort, eye strain and other factors.

Speaking of eye strain, VR headsets currently have restrictions for children under the age of 13 because of the potential for eye damage. There are also physical challenges for adults in terms of motion sickness and dizziness. Have you uncovered any intel about VR and a potentially negative impact on the brain?

SL: There is so much we don’t know about how VR affects the brain yet!

Most research studies with VR have primarily looked at changes in behavior [as opposed to] looking at direct changes in the brain. We are starting to measure brain activity using EEG while people use VR, and also fMRI (or functional magnetic resonance imaging) before and after people use VR, but we’re just at the beginning of what I believe will be a long foray into this topic.

One thing we do know is that when it comes to learning motor skills, [the way] people learn in VR is not the same as how they learn in the real world. That indicates to us that what happens in the brain when it processes stimuli and tries to do new computations in VR is different from in the real world. How exactly it differs I think will depend largely on the task, but in any case, as we learn more, we can take advantage of these aspects for more tailored approaches in VR.

Specifically regarding the eye damage/strain, I would be wary of this as a problem. I think we’re learning more and more about what happens when our eyes look at screens for an extended time, and have very little knowledge about what happens when they look at screens in VR.

Specifically regarding motion sickness and dizziness – it’s definitely a limiting factor. The hope is that as the technology improves, these symptoms will be reduced, but it’s a wait and see scenario.

There have also been some studies that show VR has the ability to help people slip into a flow or meditative state. What are one or two things you’ve learned about VR and its ability to heal?

SL: Well, preliminarily (and fresh from the lab), we’re seeing some promise for our VR-based brain computer interface actually resulting in motor improvements for stroke — both in [the patient’s ] better ability to move, and in subtle brain changes with our brain imaging and brain stimulation. We need to do a lot more research, but we are starting to see that it has some ability to promote physical recovery and neural plasticity, so that’s really exciting.

In terms of more psychology flow, I am not the expert but my USC colleague Dr. Vangelis Lympouridis works on VR for pain management and meditation, and does see this happen.

Are there any physiological factors that make some VR experiences “feel” more immersive than others?

SL: Yes, research from Mel Slater and Mavi Vives-Sanchez’s group has shown that you need to build a sensorimotor contingency between the [virtual version of yourself] and your own body to feel more embodied.

That is, you move your real hand, and your virtual hand moves exactly the same. Or you see something touch your virtual hand and you feel something touch your real hand in the same way.

Linking the visual stimuli in VR with real world sensory stimuli really helps you to feel more embodied in the environment.

What’s been the most surprising or unexpected pattern or insight you’ve uncovered in your research thus far?

SL: Although we’ve been focused on helping people regain motor function after stroke, some of our participants have reported more general changes in their mood, cognition, sleep and the [overall way in which] they view their bodies. That’s been pretty exciting. We aren’t sure yet what specifically about the [VR] intervention does this, but it is encouraging and promising!

Dr. Liew will share more of her findings when she headlines The In.flux Reality Mixer in Los Angeles on December 1. 

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