Virtual reality and the brain

At the beginning of this semester I chose the question, “How does VR effect being human and the ‘human experience’?”, to inspire my research in my imaging class. At first I was drawn to the effect that virtual reality would have on our social and interpersonal relationships. Would it have the same effects that are caused by social media? Personally I found that these speculations are all very subjective, it is easy to point a finger and say that increasing technology will correlate with negative progresses in social human interactivity. It was said about the radio, the tv, the internet, and is being said now with social media, but I really feel like it comes down to the individual using the technology. Some people will use it as an advancement and progress whereas other people will continue to add to the negative views of technological advancement.

I then began to think, what even is reality? How do we perceive what happens in our daily lives? This led me to a lot of research on our brains and neuroplasticity. I watched a Ted Talk with David Eagleman, a neuroscientist, theorizing on if we can create new senses for humans. Essentially the things that we can perceive are on our sense spectrum as humans, this is called the umwelt. So to expand our umwelt we need to expose it to new and varying types of information. Our brain wants to make sense of our world so it naturally begins to try and form patterns with incoming information. Eagleman spoke of a project he is working on with a graduate student for people with hearing impairments that is more affordable than cochlear implants. The idea is a wearable vest that picks up sound and transforms it into vibrational signals that the user can feel. Over time the brain begins to form patterns of the incoming information and the user can understand what is being said to him through vibrational signals.

The other part of my research and what inspired most of my work throughout this class was targeted on how virtual reality can or is being used to help treat phobias, anxiety, and other psychological and physical disorders. What I found most fascinating was the Walk Again project. This study uses virtual reality and robotics on paraplegics to simulate walking. Some patients have seen an improvement in mobility. While the debate of being able to walk normally is still a long ways away from being determined the first report of tests did have optimistic results. Scientists believe that the brain activity stimulated from VR therapies have awoken dormant neural pathways that were not completely severed.

I love the idea that we can change the way our brain operates, thinks, and perceives by being aware and altering our reality. I plan to continue my research on how vr can help us design these different realities and help us possibly expand our umwelt. Changing the human experience might not be such a bad thing.