VR does funny things to our brains — and we’re not sure exactly what. According to some research, up to 60% of the neurons in the part of our brain related to learning and memory is actually shut off in VR. Further investigations suggest that our cognitive ability could be even be enhanced by VR.
Both experiments were conducted by the same scientist, professor Mayank Mehta at UCLA, who believes his findings could lead to a huge breakthrough in how we treat mental health.
As he explains to Fast Company, while it’s counterintuitive that fewer brain cells would make for a faster rhythm and stronger thought, the truth is that overactivity of the brain can impede thinking, and even cause problems like epilepsy.
READ MORE: How VR could make you smarter (Fast Company)
“A more active neuron is not necessarily better,” Mehta says. “The brain consumes one-third to one-fifth the energy of the rest of the body, so it tries to optimize.”
Mehta’s recent work concerns theta rhythm, a neural oscillation that underlies various aspects of cognition and behavior, including learning, memory, and spatial navigation in many animals. In humans, hippocampal theta rhythm has been observed and linked to memory formation and navigation.
The UCLA has found a way to increase theta rhythms in rats by putting them inside a virtual reality simulation.
In the paper, co-authored with Karen Safaryan and published by Nature Neuroscience, they “show that theta rhythmicity is greatly amplified when rats run in virtual reality… [that] multisensory experience governs hippocampal rhythms” and that “Virtual reality can be used to boost or control brain rhythms and to alter neural dynamics, wiring and plasticity.”
READ MORE: Enhanced hippocampal theta rhythmicity and emergence of eta oscillation in virtual reality (Nature Neuroscience)
This video below shows a rat in the lab on a mini treadmill surrounded by immersive screens. During the investigation Mehta discovered that the rodents experience boosted theta rhythms while in VR that they didn’t experience in the real world, even though the entire VR environment was meant to duplicate the rat’s real-world environment as closely as possible.
Something about VR itself appears to be beneficial to human cognition. To Mehta, this could lead to a huge breakthrough in how we treat mental health and cognition, even though 60% of the neurons are still shutting down in the hippocampus in VR.
Mehta insists there aren’t any downsides, and also promises to release another paper in the coming weeks confirming that there are no measurable downsides. He also wants to make similar experiments on humans using VR systems like Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.
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“Fortunately, the way we developed VR, it can be readily used directly for humans,” Mehta says. “Now we want to take this to town, and potentially use this as a VR therapy.”
According to Mark Wilson at Fast Company, Mehta isn’t demonstrating that VR can have positive effects on the brain just because it feels like real life. He’s arguing that something within VR itself — or at least the VR system in his lab — can impact the brain at a deep, electrical level, which could impact treatment and learning separately, and on top of VR’s intense visual simulations.
“Much like light and sound waves across the universe are just harmonic frequencies playing out across space, so too is human thought powered by the oscillation of energy passing from neuron to neuron.”
Mehta believes that, with this common entry point between physics and neuroscience, he could begin to deconstruct the mechanisms of the brain.
Food for thought.