How does our brain respond to Virtual Reality?

Virtual Reality technology has become extremely popular in the last decades and has shown its potential in different fields such as gaming, health and mental health. 

Scientific bibliography has merged VR benefits while implementing therapies such as the possibility to reproduce situations that would be difficult or impossible to emulate in real life. Imaging the high value to fear of flying cognitive-behavioral therapies that use gradual exposure as the main technique. It would be unthinkable to buy flight tickets, go to the airport, and board the plane as many times as needed to overcome this fear. But how does our brain act while immersed in virtual reality?

Does VR mess with our mind? 

Although VR technology has improved a lot since its early days, it has some limitations including the gap between virtual environments and real life, which have consequences on your brain activation. 

The ideal VR immersion would include – besides the headset – a pair of headphones and the possibility to also stimulate our smell and touch. However most of the time the VR experience only consists of visual stimulation.  

Due to this reduction of sensorial stimulation in comparison to real-life experiences, many researchers have demonstrated how VR weakens some brain connections.

Neuroscience experiments with mice have merged interesting results. Research aimed to investigate spatial cells has shown a deactivation of the so-called “head direction cell”, which tracks the orientation of the head and is responsible for navigation. With no possibility to move the head while immersed in VR, these cells can’t work as usual. 


Does VR affect our neurons?


But what about brain cells? Does VR affect our neurons? 

Another investigation on rats has shown that VR reduces by over two-thirds the frequency of spikes – electrical signals through which neurons communicate between them – which means a high decrease of the information sent. On the other hand, the activity of place cells – which give information for navigation – is reduced to about 30% in comparison to place cells’ activity in real-world situations that is around 80%.

And what are the effects on memory? An experiment on rats has shown that 60% of hippocampal neurons, the ones that are linked with memory and learning processes, turned off while exploring a virtual room.

These researches give us information on which areas of our brain respond to virtual reality immersion, but they can also leave us with a doubt: does VR kill brain cells? 

The answer is no. The reduction of connections caused by VR is temporal and it only means that brain activation during virtual immersion is weaker than in real life.

Moreover, it is important to remember that these experiments have been made on mice and that most neuroscience research on humans use the electroencephalogram (EEG) to measure biometric data and overcome subjective questionnaires, still the compatibility of VR and EEG and the quality of the signal – and consequently of the results – has been barely investigated as the publication of Hertweck, S. et al. (2019) highlights.

Further validation tests of EEG and investigation on VR effects on humans are needed to better understand how our brain acts while immersed in a virtual world.

In Virtualtimes, we are analyzing and studying the sense and structure of time by generating a flow state with the use of VR gaming. The experience of time can be distorted due to certain psychopathological conditions. Funded by the European Union, this project aims to provide individuals with opportunities to re-experience and normalize a variant and distorted sense of time.


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