Virtual reality changes your brain

By: Suzanne Guillette

The many unexpected ways VR can impact your mind

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Can becoming Einstein make you smarter?

If you envision yourself as a genius, will that make you “smarter”? That seemingly inane idea was the basis of a study at the University of Barcelona. Researchers asked the subjects to slide a virtual reality (VR) headset over their eyes, wear a tracking suit, and take virtual control of Albert Einstein’s body, replacing their own identity with a genius’ for the duration of the experiment.

Upon identification with the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, participants with low self-esteem scored better on cognition tests. In short, “being” Einstein made them smarter, or at least better at the tests.

That wasn’t the only impressive takeaway. During the experiment, subjects also demonstrated less implicit bias against older people. Both outcomes suggest that virtual embodiment has the potential to positively impact cognition and executive functioning in the brain.

The Einstein study is one of several exploring the impacts of VR on neurological functioning, asking important questions about how the immersive digital experience can shape and transform not only the brain, but how we live and experience the real world.

Virtual reality goes beyond gaming and entertainment

While VR headsets first came to the mass market in 2016, scientists, teachers, military generals and business execs are finding innovative ways they can be utilized beyond the most common use cases: gaming and entertainment.

One of America’s biggest big box retailers recently started using VR to assess employee performance and promote thousands of employees. The company has used VR since 2017 for various training purposes, too, including preparing employees for Black Friday shopping and increasing empathy with customers.

The U.S. Army has been using VR to train soldiers in Synthetic Training Environments that represent potential combat scenarios across the world.

These real-world examples demonstrate that VR can have an impact on learning and behavior, but there’s much about the underlying neurological mechanisms that remains a mystery.

Research into VR treaments is promising

For the last decade, Dr. Mayank Mehta, a neuroscientist at the University of California, has been studying the neural activity of rodents in VR settings, recording brain signals from the hippocampus, a region of the brain associated with memory, learning, and spatial mapping. Since rat neurons and human neurons are remarkably similar, understanding how rat brain activity is impacted by VR could translate to a better understanding of brain processes in humans.

Humans and rats both have neurons that act like GPS systems in the brain, helping them to locate where they are in space and time. Mehta and his team were curious about whether or not the simulated reality of VR could result in the same type of brain mapping.

During the experiment in which the rats were in a virtual maze, their mental mapping did not function as it would in the real world. Remarkably, this suggests that rats are able to tell the difference between real and virtual worlds, despite appearing to know where they are in a virtual one. For example, when they came to the edge of a virtual table they would stop short to avoid falling off.

Even more interesting: 60 percent of the neurons in the hippocampus shut down during experiment. Mehta thinks VR’s ability to shut down the hippocampus may have rewired the brain. Pathways in the brain can be formed and reinforced through repetition. For Mehta, this raises questions that must be answered about the positive and negative effects of long-term VR use on the mind.

The development of VR for rats also opens up unique ways to test rodents in the same conditions as humans, possibly leading to potential treatments for conditions that are associated with the hippocampus, including Alzheimer’s, PTSD, epilepsy, and schizophrenia. Currently, pharmaceutical companies spend hundreds of billions of dollars developing medical fixes for these ailments, with “limited success,” says Mehta.

“With no surgery or pills, we can shut down the hippocampus using VR,” Mehta says. “VR could lead to treating disorders and helping people, but like any brain-altering drug, we need more study to understand the side effects and know what’s happening in the brain before prescribing VR therapy.” 

At the University of Southern California (USC), researchers are looking at ways that VR can impact health, specifically via virtual embodiment. Dr. Sook-Lei Liew, the head of USC’s Neural Plasticity and Neurorehabilitation Lab, was inspired by the results of a study by Dr. Mel Slater—a co-investigator in the Einstein experiment—in which adults who were given a child’s body in VR settings displayed childlike behaviors.

Liew recently published a study in which chronic stroke patients who had suffered physical impairments trained with a VR-based computer interface to regain mobility. Theoretically, the immersive experience tricks the brain into embodying the attributes of an impairment-free avatar.

The subjects who experienced the greatest gains were also the most impaired, suggesting that VR may offer severely impacted patients engagement with their environment in a way that traditional therapies cannot.

“VR allows patients to be totally immersed in an environment, and this sense of immersion can lead to changes in the way brain processes the body,” says Liew. 

Beyond mobility, Liew observed that study subjects were enthusiastic about using VR. Many said it made them feel tired, much like a good workout might, and subsequently reported better sleep.

Her work is part of the USC SensoriMotor Assessment and Rehabilitation Training in Virtual Reality Center (USC SMART-VR Center) where a multidisciplinary team of investigators works on virtual and augmented reality health care interventions.

We’ll soon have the ability to turn on the brain’s activity without any drugs, fascinating possibilities to treat many neurological disorders. In the recent TED talk 'Space, Time & Imagination: How Virtual Reality Changes the Brain,' I described the exciting possibilities for VR-related treatments.



Dr. Mayank Mehta 

Neuroscientist at the University of California. 

“We’re now [developing] the next generation of virtual reality where we can activate the brain by more than the real world,” says Mehta. “We’ll soon have the ability to turn on the brain’s activity without any drugs. Fascinating possibilities to treat many neurological disorders.”

He also underscores why it’s so important that the rodents in his experiments are able to tell the difference between the real world and virtual reality. “We’ve discovered something else that we never thought we could ask scientifically: What is reality?” he says. “Now we can scientifically ask questions about how space, time, memory, reality and music are related to create lasting memories.”

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About the author:

Suzanne Guillette has previously written about technology for Verizon and her work has appeared in O Magazine, Quartz and the Rumpus. She lives in New York City.

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