Your Brain on Virtual Reality
Virtual Reality via Your Brain
Yes we are already living in a construct of virtual reality. So, the idea that we could create a virtual environment that is as real or less real is a complicated question, because — just because it’s virtual doesn’t mean it’s not real. Given enough complexity of the stimuli, it could be indistinguishable. Right now, we’re inside a computer program? Is it really so hard to believe? This isn’t real?
Reality is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain. Somebody will appear on that rooftop and fire an RPG at your vehicle. Virtual Reality Exposure Therapy is a method whereby you take somebody with an anxiety disorder and you gradually expose them to what they’re afraid of.
With Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, we’re taking people that have been tramatized and we’re trying to help them to confront and process these difficult emotional experiences in a graduated way, at a pace they can handle, and if they stay with it long enough…
Since nothing really bad happens, eventually the anxiety starts to extinguish. As soon as you get into one of those environments that you recognize, it immediately brings you back. Those experiences are very deep and they mean a lot. So when you’re able to be put into that situation again, that’s a pretty powerful sensation.
When you tell people what you do, a lot of times they give me a funny look like, “Why the hell would you do that? Why are you torturing these service members, making them go through it all over again?”
The answer is really simple. It works and that’s pretty genius. Neuroplasticity is the phenomena by which our brains modify itself in response to interactions with the environment. Plasticity has no morality. It will go in a direction that the interactions take it.
So, if your interactivity leads to a negative outcome, there is certainly the danger that they can have a negative impact on people’s psychology. There’s a fairly robust literature that scientists largely agree upon, that if you play violent video games for many hours a week, you will be more aggressive in the physical world. What remains to be seen, is when these experiences become more immersive.
So you’re playing a game like Grand Theft Auto and the blood splatters and you feel it hit your body, and there’s Haptic Feedback, that when a body falls on you, it actually knocks you over. I think an important question that people need to ask is, “What happens when people have these very violent experiences that the brain treats as real?”
We want to do the opposite. If you give someone a VR experience, it’s very intense. And instead of killing somebody they’re saving someone’s life.
Will that experience transfer? With the Hero Study, you literally become a hero, and you become Superwoman or Superman by using your body to fly around. The wind is rushing through your hair. The floor is shaking. You then save a child’s life. The control condition is maybe you rode in a helicopter.
When you fly like a hero and save a child’s life, you’re more helpful to someone that has an accident outside of VR, compared to, if you didn’t get that gift of having a superpower and using it for good.
In the same way a single experience in your lifetime can be transformational, so can a well-crafted Virtual-Reality experience. It’s a long-standing philosophical issue that was raised way before movies like, The Matrix, although you see a lot of that there. And that’s why I think it’s a Hollywood favorite.
While there may be some things that people have questions about with virtual reality, “Will people become addicted to it?” And so on. I think the good that will come out of this far outweighs the bad.
We see the virtual reality landscape as an exciting potential for therapeutics to improve the functioning of the human brain and hopefully to improve the quality of human life. There’s ways that we can experience things, ways we can practice interactions with virtual people, ways that we can see things that we’ve never seen before or never will see.