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brain tears

VR developers are getting good enough at fooling your brain in virtual reality that they also have to start worrying about your safety. Scientists and researchers really have no idea whether and how long-term exposure to VR changes the brain. This begs a discussion about responsibility as to what we create. There are decades worth of research into how motion simulators affect people, etc. and we have some insight into the psychology of the software interaction, and the physiology of the how the body and mind react.

What we're able to do with the technology that has come available in the last couple years is exciting, and so much more impact than other forms of media. We need to think long and hard about what long-term exposure looks like.

The way VR fools your brain into thinking that a virtual space is real is by knowing what pieces your brain uses to construct reality, and then giving your brain the same information, presented in virtual reality. The vestibular system in our ears tells our brain about our position in 3D space by helping us achieve balance. But there's a lot more to it than motion sickness, which Chris Dede from Harvard University, says affects roughly 3% of VR users.

With recent mapping data from the Human Connectome Project revealing 180 distinct regions of the brain, imagine what's possible when you consider that VR is being used for pain reduction, PTSD, and social anxieties like fear of speaking.

The key to achieving these goals is to first understand the senses that the human brain uses to intuit what is real, in the real world, and then give those senses the same types of data, but in the virtual world.

Creators need to take great care in how they prepare users for their experiences, something that so far I don't see enough of yet. Because your brain can be so thoroughly fooled into thinking the virtual world is the real world, those who experience VR may need to be warned about the content that awaits them. First impressions are important, something scary in VR could be offputting at least and in worse cases disturbing.

Adding enough sensory and directional data in virtual experiences is important not only in keeping the brain believing that the virtual world is real so that we can enact situations to enlighten and educate ourselves but also to avoid potentially negative or even traumatic experiences unintended in VR.

At a recent Cannes Lions Festival appearance, Google VR vice president Clay Bavor said: “When you look at your brain under an fMRI, remembering and experiencing look very similar.”

They also impact you similarly.

Please also read our white paper: "Using Virtual Reality for the Reduction of Anxiety: An Introduction to How Immersive VR Can Improve the Treatment of Anxiety"

Let's talk about SpiritualVR in terms of the new media platform of VR and what it offers in ‘emotional bandwidth’. VR is not just a technology, but also a new type of media.

With each new media form, comes more emotional bandwidth. Take, to begin, the written word. At first, few had access to books and newspapers. In fact, most were illiterate.

When the radio was invented, and we could hear voices, our minds could now pick up on the emotion in those voices and more of our imagination was captured.

Further, when television added imagery and context to the scenes and situations, the subconscious was now activated in ways it hadn't been before.

VR is the most powerful medium so far, by far. VR contains more information, more emotion, and has a bigger effect on your subconscious than any other media.

Here's why. VR is a fully immersive 3D virtual environment. Because so much of your mind is engaged, one feels as though the experience is real. The sense that the virtual environment is real, is called ‘presence’ or ‘telepresence’.

Emotional bandwidth reaches a new level within the VR experience, in part because we can bend time and space in ways we cannot in the real world, and also because we can be intentional about how we use those spaces.

Here's more about how we're creating in the virtual environments.

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A limited proof of concept study using virtual reality (VR) for treatment of depression was recently published by researchers from the University College of London and Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies.

In this study, 15 patients with depression, ages 23-61, utilized a head-mounted display and participated in a virtual scenario. The study aimed to investigate if immersive virtual reality could help improve self-compassion in patients with depression. Study subjects first played the role of comforting a crying infant, then roles were reversed and they were presented with their own expression of comfort, over 3 scenarios. 

Multiple outcome measures were utilized, including the Self-Compassion and Self-Criticism Scales, the Patient Health Questionnaire-9 (PHQ-9, primary outcome measure), and Zung Self-Rating Depression Scale. Initial findings were reportedly positive with a majority of patients showing improvement, utilizing the PHQ-9 measurement of outcomes in depression treatments. This was noted both upon completion of the virtual reality environment scenario and at 4-week follow up. However, Only 4 of the patients showed clinically significant improvement out of the group of 15 for the PHQ-9, which requires a decrease by at least 5 points. Self-criticism scores and Self-Compassion scores also both improved, although the amount required for clinical significant change is not listed. Furthermore, the baseline Self-Compassion scores were already similar to the general population.

It's interesting to note the choice of virtual reality device (the NVisor SX1111) was not one of the much-discussed consumer-grade products, such as the Oculus Rift, Samsung Gear, Google Cardboard, or Gear VR.

Virtual reality offers tremendous potential for treating a variety of medical conditions, thanks in part to the rapidly-increasing immersive nature of the technology. Possible applications include not just mental health, but also physical rehabilitation, pain management, and more. Several companies are investigating such uses, including VRecover (focusing on developing VR rehab exercises back or limb injuries). Further details on why less than 30% of the patients benefited from the intervention would be helpful in better localizing which subsets may most improve with virtual reality treatment. This very limited study may serve as a useful data point for further virtual reality studies in mental health, but is too limited at this time to offer a new venue for depression treatment.

 

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Meditation is a 2,500+ year old practice for training the mind. Historically a practice reserved for quiet monks, disciplined kung-fu masters, yogis, and ochre-robed swamis, it’s now the preferred performance-enhancing practice of R&B moguls, Super Bowl Champions, Olympic athletes, and A-list celebrities.

Meditation has gone mainstream.

One reason for that is that meditation is generally considered one of the most effective ways to train and focus your attention. And now, science has shown us that the meditative state has extremely positive physiological and neurological effects. What's to come in VR is very exciting. Why? Because meditation goes well beyond stress relief, although in itself, stress relief is a fine goal. Meditation unlocks the subconscious and allows you to tap into all kinds of self-improvement and reprogramming of poor habits and thinking. Here are some research-based findings on meditation.

The therapy, previously tested by healthy volunteers, was used by 15 depression patients aged 23-61. Nine reported reduced depressive symptoms a month after the therapy, of whom four experienced a clinically significant drop in depression severity. The study is published in the British Journal of Psychiatry Open and was funded by the Medical Research Council.

Patients in the study wore a virtual reality headset to see from the perspective of a life-size 'avatar' or virtual body. Seeing this virtual body in a mirror moving in the same way as their own body typically produces the illusion that this is their own body. This is called 'embodiment'.

While embodied in an adult avatar, participants were trained to express compassion towards a distressed virtual child. As they talked to the child it appeared to gradually stop crying and respond positively to the compassion. After a few minutes the patients were embodied in the virtual child and saw the adult avatar deliver their own compassionate words and gestures to them. This brief 8-minute scenario was repeated three times at weekly intervals, and patients were followed up a month later.

"People who struggle with anxiety and depression can be excessively self-critical when things go wrong in their lives," explains study lead Professor Chris Brewin (UCL Clinical, Educational & Health Psychology). "In this study, by comforting the child and then hearing their own words back, patients are indirectly giving themselves compassion. The aim was to teach patients to be more compassionate towards themselves and less self-critical, and we saw promising results. A month after the study, several patients described how their experience had changed their response to real-life situations in which they would previously have been self-critical."

The study offers a promising proof-of-concept, but as a small trial without a control group it cannot show whether the intervention is responsible for the clinical improvement in patients.

"We now hope to develop the technique further to conduct a larger controlled trial, so that we can confidently determine any clinical benefit," says co-author Professor Mel Slater (ICREA-University of Barcelona and UCL Computer Science). "If a substantial benefit is seen, then this therapy could have huge potential. The recent marketing of low-cost home virtual reality systems means that methods such as this could potentially be part of every home and be used on a widespread basis."

 

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