New study suggests virtual reality could help brain research

The human brain is one of the greatest mysteries in life. Neuroscientists have worked for years to decode the way it deals with complex emotions: where exactly do the sparks shoot? And for how long ?

Researchers made limited progress, but often struggled to reproduce real, visceral human emotions under controlled laboratory conditions, which were necessary to normalize a number of variables. But then they ventured into the world of virtual reality, and it was a game changer.

That’s according to a team from the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany. He conducted a study to monitor neural activity when humans are emotionally charged and tested a cutting-edge technique to achieve this: using the immersive power of virtual reality. Participants were given virtual reality glasses that transported them in the cars of a roller coaster ride, where they then embarked on an exhilarating journey of ups and downs – first, a steady roll through a picturesque mountainous landscape; then, a desperate race through the flames of a raging fire; and finally, after a tense moment of wobbling on the edge, a steep dive into the depths of the abyss.

The whole experience evoked much more natural emotions, according to the team, than conventional methods, which typically involve researchers showing participants static photographs of emotional scenes, such as an injured puppy or a spooky graveyard at night. . According to researchers, the situation of being shown a photo is a far cry from the emotional experiences we would normally have. This is because in real life, emotions are continually evoked through a combination of past memories and various environmental factors that we interact with in the present. Simply put, to understand how the brain works on a day-to-day basis, it is essential to observe brain activity in situations that seem as real as possible, not as fabricated case studies.

Using data from virtual reality participants, the team was able to confirm patterns of rhythmic brain waves related to emotional arousal, known as alpha oscillations (the weaker the strength of the oscillations, the greater the degree of excitement is high). They were also able to predict the strength of these emotions by identifying the lobes and cranial regions most involved. These findings could have a myriad of applications in the future, according to the team, noting that VR glasses are already being used in psychological therapy. If, for example, doctors could track neurophysiological activity and correlate it to emotional states in real time, then they could collect data on patients’ emotional response to a given treatment without interrupting the moment by asking the patient to self-report.

The study was published in the scientific journal eLife in October.

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